The Greatest Hits in Urban Theory

A couple years back, the somewhat opinionated website Planetizen asked its readers to nominate “top urban thinkers” and compiled the resulting list of votes from Jane Jacobs at Number 1 (no surprise here) to Henry Ford at Number 100 (his “thought,” presumably, being to sell Model-T’s cheaply).

There’s nothing scientific about the poll. It was subject to the peculiar tastes of the respondents and, possibly, to vote packing like the old system for choosing the baseball All-Star team. In retrospect, were fans paying attention in 1955 when they picked Don Mueller and Del Ennis to start in the outfield ahead of Willie Mays and Henry Aaron (I’m fine with Duke Snider in center)?

There are plenty of curious omissions to complain about—Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Christopher Wren, Jean Gottmann, Catherine Bauer, Jane Addams, and Saul Alinsky to name a few. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. got votes but not his brother John Charles Olmsted. For my own taste as a historian, the list is excessively present-minded. There are too many transportation planners and urban morphologists and not enough activists of the Addams or Alinsky sort, almost no historians of cities, and curious omissions from the social sciences such as Louis Wirth.

It is also tempting to rant about the rankings. Should Clifford Alexander’s neo-Platonic ideas about idealized and abstracted design principles really outpoint the practical wisdom of Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham, with their rich experience of actually making urban spaces? Should polemicist James Howard Kunstler, who is stronger on sound bites than analysis, or parking specialist Donald Shoup, whose excellent ideas have yet to be implemented, come in above the hugely influential Ebenezer Howard?

It’s more instructive, however, and much more fun, to use the juxtapositions in the list as thought experiments.

My own Congressman Earl Blumenauer, an effective advocate for rail transit and compact cities, comes in one notch above Thomas Jefferson. I personally prefer Earl’s pro-urban ideas to Tom’s anti-urban bias, but the ex-president has surely been the more influential over the centuries—there is not yet a Mount Blumenauer or Blumenauer County in Oregon or a Blumenauer High School in Portland. Maybe we need to run Earl for President so he can catch up.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant comes in just above George-Eugene Haussmann. Well, they were both French, and both helped to shape national capitals, but we have to admit that Haussmann got more done and almost certainly influenced more city planning and reconstruction than L’Enfant. If Haussmann, moreover, perhaps the list also needs Albert Speer.

I see some battles shaping up if we were to think of the list as a queue of experts waiting to get into an urbanology convention. The patrician top-down designer Edmund Bacon would find himself standing next to radical rabble-rouser and critic Mike Davis. It would be fun to listen in on their argument. Equity planner Norman Krumholz would be sandwiched between global theoretician Saskia Sassen and Frank Lloyd Wright. Could Norm’s arguments for equity penetrate Wright’s enormous armor of ego?

And what about numbers 58 through 63. Think about gathering Walter Benjamin, Walt Disney, Buckminster Fuller, James Rouse, Henry George, and Wendell Berry (how is he an urban thinker???) around the same table. Would Disney and Fuller strike up an alliance of the technocratic utopians? Jim Rouse and Henry George both shared the goal of social justice, but what would the real estate developer have to say about a single tax on land? And wouldn’t it be fun to hear what Benjamin might have to say about Euro Disney. S.C.A. and the possibilities for the flaneur at Disneyland Paris?

We haven’t exhausted the possibilities. In fact, I’m thinking about a new way to organize my class on the “History and Theory of Urban Studies” around the debates implicit in the next-door neighbors on the list: Jacob Riis versus Prince Charles, Henri Lefebvre versus Richard Florida, Paolo Soleri versus Anthony Downs, Robert Moses versus Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio versus Ernest Burgess. Let them have at it, in English or in Latin.

Edward Glaeser channels George Tucker

In his new book The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, the crackerjack economist Edward Glaeser makes an eloquent case for cities as the keys to creativity. They are the intersection points where the intensity of communication unlocks innovation. “Cities enable the collaboration that makes humanity shine most brightly,” he writes. Because humans learn so much from other humans, we learn more when there are more people around us. . . . Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.”

Glaeser is an extremely successful academic, who’s University of Chicago Ph.D. has led him to a job at Harvard and plenty of side projects. The Triumph of the City draws on hundreds of recent of scholarly books and articles that have probed cities as economic and social systems. It is a new synthesis, but it also channels the work of another academic superstar who wrote nearly seventeen decades earlier.

That scholar was George Tucker, who penned a very Glaeseresque phrase in 1843, writing that “The growth of cities commonly marks the progress of intelligence and the arts.”

A Virginia politician and intellectual who appreciated cities as engines of progress, Tucker was one of those public intellectuals who act as a commentator and synthesizer for a generation, well known in their lifetimes but rapidly fading from memory as issues change and their contributions look broad rather than deep. If he were working in the twenty-first century, he’d be an op-ed columnist and blogger. In his own time, he was an essayist and pamphleteer.

He spent his career in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the two states that were the center of gravity of the early republic. Born in Bermuda, educated at William and Mary, and resident of Richmond and Lynchburg, Tucker served three undistinguished terms in Congress and then had a stroke of fortune when Thomas Jefferson asked him to be professor of moral philosophy at the brand new University of Virginia. He lectured there from 1825 to 1845 and ended his career in Philadelphia, writing and publishing a four volume history of the United States.

Before and after Charlottesville, Tucker kept his pen busy with ten books plus scads of articles and pamphlets. The Valley of Shenandoah (1824) unsuccessfully imitated the novels of Walter Scott. A Voyage to the Moon (1827) used the premise of a fantastic voyage to satirize contemporary society (calling it science fiction is too big a stretch). The rest of his output was nonfiction—philosophical essays, political and economic commentary, history, a laudatory biography of Jefferson, and, relevant for this book, Progress of the United States in Population and Wealth for Fifty Years, as Exhibited by the Decennial Census (1843).

As his title indicated, Tucker believed in progress, as scientific discovery fueled economic development and allowed the fuller development of human capacities. The United States, with its natural resources and open politics, was more progressive than Europe, as shown by its extraordinary growth since the adoption of federal government. His 1822 essay “On Density of Population” argues that people in concentrated numbers, not isolated Jeffersonian farmers, are necessary to generate progress in science, literature, and the arts and stimulate the economy through competition. Two decades later he expanded his analysis, acknowledging urban problems but celebrating urban potential.

If these congregations of men diminish some of the comforts of life, they augment others; if they are less favourable to health than the country, they also provide better defenses against disease, and better means of cure. . . . . [t]hey are more prone to innovation, whether for good or evil. . . ..Whatever may be the good or evil tendencies of populous cities, they are the result to which all countries, that are at once fertile, free and intelligent tend.

Ed Glaeser, as far as I know, has yet to try his hand at science fiction or to author another Ivanhoe, but his agreement with George Tucker in the realm of moral philosophy is deep and lasting. Cities, they both understand, are where ideas happen.