Tuesday, September 15

Planetizen readers' top urban thinkers

I'm a sucker for top whatever lists, so I immediately gravitated toward Planetizen's recently unveiled "Top 100 Urban Thinkers." Beyond being an interesting parlor game, I do think it's a worthwhile exercise to evaluate the canon every once in a while to see what kinds of ideas and personalities may be taken as examples for the future. Enough objectivity, let the griping begin ...

Jane Jacobs is, of course, number one. She deserves it. Her legacy has been in the spotlight lately, since Anthony Flint released a book about her epic battles with Robert Moses (#23). Edward Glaeser, himself deservedly ranked #51, wrote in the New Republic that a hybrid between Moses' get-er-done attitude and Jacobs' insight into human nature would be the ideal. Ryan Avent, Glaeser's critic-in-chief, sought to push the balance back in Jacobs' favor. Jane Holtz Kay, who maybe should have made the list herself, wrote a nice panegyric to her last week: "I believe we can now call Jane Jacobs a heroine of history."

Bringing up Robert Moses raises an interesting question about the list. Does "top" refer to sheer influence or does it imply that the influence was good. One can certainly admire Moses' ability to cut through red tape, but surely New York would be better off today if he were a little less capable of a power broker. Le Corbusier (#26) may have been quite avant garde and visionary, but did his visions lead to good places for humans to inhabit? The same can be said for mall developer James Rouse (#38) [I didn't realize he did some cool developments later in life] or residential developer William Levitt (#92). To clarify, these aren't necessarily evil people. It's just hard to see how their legacy has had a positive impact on cities. Thomas Jefferson somehow made the list (#48) even though he saw cities only as a source of corruption, pestilence, and immorality. And I love Wendell Berry (#63) but ...

Then there are some real travesties. Raymond Unwin is ranked #76 when he really should be in the top ten. Not only was he the one to actually design some of Howard's Garden Cities, his Town Planning is Practice provided much of the original substance behind the Traditional Neighborhood Design we know today. There's always a bias toward the contemporary in these lists, but that's a little too far. On that note, Alberti and Palladio from the Italian Renaissance probably deserve a mention.

Peter Hall is a historian who rightfully made the list at #37, but where is Kenneth Jackson or Witold Rybczynski? Then there were those who contributed to the "decade of participation" in the 1960's, which changed urban planning from something that was, for the most part, done to the public, especially the poor, to something that the public could guide themselves. Paul Davidoff is a measly #75 and Sherry Arnstein didn't make the cut. More recently, John Powell and David Rusk deserve more credit for their work on disparities between suburbs and central cities.

As far as architects go, there are some interesting antagonisms here: Leon Krier (#8) and Rem Koolhaus (#65); Prince Charles (#71) and Richard Rogers (#81). Fred Kent (#46) made it but Frank Gehry didn't. Without personally wandering in to the ceaseless debate between modernists and traditionalists, I'll just note that the traditionalists are the clear favorite of Planetizen readers (then again, the modernists have always known the masses lacked a developed sense of taste). Andres Duany is notably in the #2 spot.

There are lots of people on this list I've never heard of and some particularly arcane philosophers I had to read in college whom I may as well have never heard of. So I can't comment on everything, but all in all, this is a pretty good list. I'm surprised I don't have more to complain about.


Trevor said...

I agree, there are some real mistakes there.

I think on Jefferson though there is another reading other than the anti-city bias you seem to take from him. Valuing agrarian society while questioning city life is not necessarily pro-suburbia.

Daniel Nairn said...

On Jefferson, he was great, no doubt about it. His agrarian ideals fit well for a particular context, and there were certainly good reasons to be critical of the cities in the early American colonies. I just have a hard time getting over classifying him as an "urban thinker."

On the other hand, there are some good lessons from his design for the academical village at UVA, certainly mixed-use, built to facilitate dialogue and shared life between professors and students. It has a pastoral feel to it, but I personally believe it functions really well as a walkable and vibrant environment. I'm not sure I agree with his decision to put it a mile away from Charlottesville, but it is a god site. And certainly the town has more than encompassed the campus since then.

Benjamin Hemric said...

Daniel, as you indicate, there are two ways to go about a top 100 (or top 10, or man of the year, etc.) list: 1) include those who are influential in either a good or bad way and 2) include only those who are influential in a positive way.

While a top 100 list can be done either way, it seems to me that the more useful list is one that includes only those who are influential in a positive way. "Positive," of course, will depend upon the world view (or ideology) of the list maker, and it seems to me that this is one of the benefits of making such a list, as it helps define what the world view or ideology of the list maker is.

If this list is to be restricted to those who've basically made a positive contribution, in my opinion (according to my worldview), I don't think there are enough people to fill out even a top five list! In my opionion, there is basically Jane Jacobs and that's about it. Jane Jacobs is sui generis (sp) -- very few other urban thinkers (e.g., Duany, etc.), despite some superficial similarities, seem to me to actually agree with what Jacobs wrote. And it seems to me that the differences between their thinking and Jacobs's thinking (as expounded in her seven books) are negative "contributions" rather than "positive" ones.

- - - - - -

Since you've mentioned the Anthony Flint book and Edward Glaeser's review of it in the New Republic, I like to add that I've written a long "mini-reivew" of Glaesner's essay, which is posted on the "City Comforts" website / blog.

I hope people who are interested in this topic will visit that thread, which is dated September 5, 2009 and entitled, "Edward Glaesner on Jacobs and Moses." Although I generally admire Glaesner, I believe this essay of his contains a number of very substantial errors.

Here's a link:


(I believe the Anthony Flint books also contains a great number of errors (some minor, but some substantial), and I hope to discuss them in a review of the book that I am currently writing.)

Thurs., 9/17/09 -- 4:05 p.m.

Benjamin Hemric said...

1) Although I was exagerating a bit when I said that in my opinion there aren't enough "good" urban thinkers for a top five list, I do think my ultimate list would be a lot shorter than 100.

2) I would put John Norquist and Allan Jacobs on my list.

3) I'm surprised that Oscar Newman (e.g., "Defensible Space," and "Communities of Interests" wasn't mentioned.

4) In my opinion (given my worldview) a lot of the people on the Planetizen list are actually anti-urban thinkers (which might also be said, to a degree, about Oscar Newman -- although I think his work on "defensible space" was very beneficial).