Human societies, like other elements of nature, are prone to the continuous cycle of downfall, decay, and then eventual regeneration. Since the 19th century, urban morphology, being a tangible aspect of this cycle, has reflected the efforts towards establishing a bridge between the perceived and actual nature of growth. Industrialization broke the feudal structure of European cities and gave birth to congested urban centres overflowing with diseases and disorder. In the USA, cities mushroomed on commercial initiative and lacked any sort of government regulation of their urban infrastructure. This called for mitigation of the urban decay via reforms to increase the quality of life in the cities. Urban development became a legit career choice.
City Beautiful movement was an attempt to manage the post-industrial chaos from an elite point of view. Baron Haussmann’s planning of Paris to establish a balance between the aesthetic of the medieval city and a growing economy propelled the USA’s vision to do something to improve their cities’ austere and cluttered landscape. Daniel Burnham’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893 gave birth to the City Beautiful Movement. The movement focused on the image and visual identity of the city to boost public morale by constructing wide boulevards, neo-classical public buildings, recreational waterways, and such.
However, there were no attempts to gauge the psychological impact of this beautification on the common citizens or even the need for the same. There was an oversight in assessing the complex demographic situation of the 20th century produced to large scale migration to urban centres. The large scale clearing of slums widened the economic divide and disrupted a complex social order where citizens were interdependent. The movement was referred to as “an architectural cult” by Jane Jacobs and said it focused on aesthetics at expense of social reforms. Another similar attempt at utopian vision was the Garden City Movement, which was realized in many new urban centres all over the world.
The second wave of urban renewal came in late the 1950s and 1960s under the widespread movement of High Modernism. Technological advancement made man confident enough to visualize a complete control over the natural and social order and his ability to transform them. High Modernism had an impact in various fields, architecture is one of the most prominent of them. The practitioners had a vision of clean, sterile cities with grid planning which was legible enough for scientific management of the society by an authoritarian state. The new blocks often deprived people of a sense of place and the livelihood that a mixed neighbourhood could provide.
The result was fast-paced development in urban centres and people resorting to suburbs in search of community life. The city sprung out roads like tentacles connecting it to dormitory towns. Urban centres were often a mixture of central business districts, luxury housing, and shady downtowns. This breakdown of social machinery was concerning and received a backlash. Jane Jacobs was one such journalist who criticized the power of the state to change the cities without understanding the nature and functioning of the society. Away from the academic humdrum of urban planning, her knowledge came from observations, direct experience, and she presented sharp insights on how the orchestra of the city life takes place. She was sympathetic towards the social order and values of humanity.
Environmentalism further made man aware of his fragility in the ecological context and broke the delusional approach of High Modernism. The Brundtland Report and viewing ‘the pale blue dot’ from the space completely changed the cognitive setup of how man viewed himself in relation to his surroundings. Environmentalism, combined with understanding the nuanced working of social machinery, has given way to a gap in void in discourse in terms of policy making. ‘Sustainable Development’ has come forward as the latest anthropogenic ideal. Equity and sustainability demand for a more participatory approach where all actors can put forward their point of view and concerns and move forward.
The new wave of urban renewal focuses on regeneration and rehabilitation instead of razing significant public spaces or natural resources and starting with a blank slate. It is research and resource-intensive but acknowledges the prevalent hierarchy of the social life of citizens and natural order. The aim now is to create spaces that increase the material quality of life while maintaining the human aspects like community, safety, a sense of belonging, and the ecological balance.
This path is indeed a tightrope to walk, but the sheer lack of an end-goal or utopian vision gives rise to a dynamism where many outlooks towards the future come forward. Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that the postmodern society is a society of simulations where you can experience the world from the comfort of your home. Most of the economic activities are service-oriented. The pandemic has made us question the appropriateness of social spaces. The discourse has opened up further on how the cities of the future might look, post-pandemic. This incoherent, pluralistic society with the majority of people living away from families in isolation demands more from planners and policymakers than just understanding the working of public places. We are at a crucial point regarding how the discourse and policies will further develop. The Post-modern civilization just got interesting and the way we view the cities might undergo a tectonic shift soon.