In the history of architecture and urban planning, CIAM – International Congress of Modern Architecture – is one of the movements that had the most impact on the environment we live in today. Their view on the creation of the city was formalized in 1933 as a “Functional City”. Designating zones within the city, for work, sleep, shopping, and so forth, became standard practice in the 20th century. It led to a fragmented city and fragmented living, where no localized social interaction is possible.

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Atlas of the Functionalist City ©

“The influences which cities exert upon the social life of man are greater than the ratio of the urban population would indicate, for the city (…) is the initiating and controlling center of economic, political, and cultural life that has drawn the most remote parts of the world into its orbit and woven diverse areas, peoples, and activities into a cosmos.”1

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LeCorbusier Ville Radieuse ©
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LeCorbusier Ville Radieuse ©

For social interactions to be possible, you need a variety of people in the same space performing different tasks and activities. Greetings, conversations, and all kinds of passive contact rely on daily tasks being performed in an inviting space where there is a high congregation of people. Incorporating concepts inspired by Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse destroyed streets and squares, where those contacts usually occur. The fields of grass that surround the housing towers could not attract a density of people needed for any kind of human interaction. On the contrary, the lack of visual connections made them dangerous and unwelcoming. Moreover, spaces designated only to live, mean no stimulation to go out, to live your life.

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Map showing many of Robert Moses projects for New York ©

Many historic, messy, and bustling city streets were destroyed in the 20th century and replaced with a new modernist concept of Functionalist City. New York is a perfect example where hundreds of urban settlements were demolished according to the masterplans developed by Robert Moses – Baron Haussmann of the 20th century, with even more devastating consequences. Favoritism of highways instead of public transport, disconnected tower blocks for living, and a conviction that his top-down strategy of imposing his ideals onto the population could work, completely changed the image of New York and resulted in the eviction of 500,000 people.

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Manhattan Expressway ©
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Manhattan Expressway ©

The most famous fight for the preservation of the existing fabric of the city was between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs over the Lower Manhattan Expressway. In the early 1960s a plan to create a new highway that would require demolishing many buildings in SoHo, Little Italy, and result in the destruction of the Washington Square Park, was underway. Jane Jacobs became a chairman of the Joint Committee to stop the project. The protests were successful, the project was abandoned, but most importantly the new understanding of the city was created. “Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs. Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.”2 And for the streets to be interesting, there needs to be a diversity of people and a variety of functions, activities that would make it alive.

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Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St Louis ©

New Urbanism is an urban movement that started in the 1980s, as an attempt to rectify the suburban development created after the II World War in the spirit of the Functionalist City such as the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St Louis. Its goal was to create a diverse urban environment with a variety of localized functions. In 1993 a Congress of the New Urbanism (CNU) was established. It tried to put back together destroyed neighborhoods and supported regional planning with a focus on a context-related architecture.

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City of London Skyline ©

When a district is overwhelmed by one specific function it becomes detached from a normal process of life. The city of London is a business district that is alive only during working hours. On the weekend, however, it becomes a ghost city. Most of the cafes and shops are closed, the streets are empty. Almost nobody is living there, so there are no people to occupy this enormous space created to support thousands of employees. Once they go home, there is nobody left to keep this part of the city alive.

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Medieval Siena, Italy ©

On the contrary, most medieval cities weren’t designed with any grand, over-encompassing, geometric concept in mind. This unregulated, complex assembly of private and public buildings was created slowly and allowed for a continuous balance between the functions within the city and the physical space. The city was polycentric and reflected tensions and balance between religious, political, and commercial powers. Even today, streets and squares within the old, medieval city centers present a vibrant living environment and are the focal points of the city. They encourage outdoor living, by creating a space bustling with activities that people love to watch or be a part of. “They are small settings in the global scope, centers of diverse and competing economic and cultural worlds; and they are testimony to the possibility of reducing the world to a domestic scale.”3

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Panorama Wilanow Warsaw Poland ©
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Panorama Croydon London ©
La Defense Paris ©

The zoning strategies that determine separate functions to different parts of the city act on the premise of ‘cleaning up’ and ‘ordering’ the city. But a healthy city is not one where everything is placed in the correct box, categorized and divided. It is a space that is messy, complex, and alive. Nevertheless, even today, even worse mistakes are still being made. Large housing schemes, such as in Wilanów district in Poland and Croydon borough in London are designed without a proper social analysis of the life people will lead outside of the four walls of their apartment and new business districts, such as La Défense in Paris and Lujiazui in Shanghai, are created that encourage designating space only for work. There are, however, voices within the city that try to develop the neighborhoods while listening to their needs, and instead of drastic changes according to one masterplan, they create many small, necessary alterations that bring back life to the city.


  1. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jul. 1938), pp. 1-24 (24 pages) Published by The University of Chicago Press, July 1938 Volume XLIV – Urbanism as a way of life by Louis Wirth – page 2
  2. Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities (p. 37). Random House. Kindle Edition.
  3. The European City – Leonardo Benevolo; Blackwell Publishers, 1993, page 24

A graduate from the Architectural Association with an interest in urban studies and public spaces that actively change and influence the neighbourhood. Her area of research focuses on the development of European metropolises and the way the architectural theory impacts their design.

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