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.