City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World is a useful text for a wide audience. The first chapter, titled "Why Aren’t Our Cities Like That?" refers to American versus European cities. The rambling, but interesting answer details the origins of city planning and its use by Spanish, French, and British colonists. Rybcznski also briefly discusses the towns and settlements of indigenous peoples, by region. The cliff cities at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon are cited as examples of organic building within the landscape. Organic planning is contrasted with rational (usually grid-based) layouts--examples of the former being medieval towns/cities and some New England towns.
Rybczynski gives a detailed account of the original planning and layout of several colonial towns. For those of us continually frustrated with North Americans’ general insistence on low density housing--freestanding houses in the middle of large lots rather than condos and apartment buildings--he offers an intriguing sociological explanation: the cult of the house. Apparently, in England and the Netherlands there evolved a romanticized ideal of the house as hearth, at the same time that they were colonizing America. This contrasts with the Catholic nations such as Italy and France, where extended families lived together in higher-density buildings within cities. The Anglo-Dutch model had more influence in the New World. However, this is not presented as the only, or most important, factor in the shape of the new cities.
Rybczynski’s description of Chicago as a new kind of city is instructive. Chicago in the late1800’s was the fastest growing city in the world, due to immigration. It captured the imaginations of writers and poets who either admired its energy (Walt Whitman), or used it as a setting for the degradations of unfettered capitalism (Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). Rybczynski reminds us that Chicago was the home of the first steel-frame skyscaraper, as well as the stockyard/slaughterhouse terminal for cattle in the growing industrialization of beef. Extensive discussions of the city’s failed attempts to "civilize" itself after the fact, as it were, highlight problems perennially faced by planners confronted with the bottom line: money. Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 did, Rybcyznski explains, open the eyes of the general public to Classicism in civic architecture, and essentially launched the popular City Beautiful movement.
Two other design ideals formed a kind of dialectic: Le Corbusier’s futuristic imaginings and Frank Lloyd Wright’s naturalistic approach. Rybczynski describes the opposition of the two and the effects of their respective visions. His introduction of Corbusier is memorable: "He was about as prepared to be a town planner as, say, Andy Warhol." This leads to an excellent discussion of the causes of the drastic failures of urban renewal projects following World War II.
Rybcyznski ends with some discussions of the rise of shopping centers and malls, and the new neighborhoods which defy definition as either downtown or suburban. He suggests that these terms are so charged with connotation as to be useless. Mobility is the defining characteristic of the new centers: "The urban future can be glimpsed in new, fast-growing cities like San Diego, Dallas, and Jacksonville, which are developing a dynamic kind of home-grown urbanism based on movement and accessiblity, decentralization, and a complete reliance on private cars rather than on public mass transportation." Multiplexes, superstores, little pockets of boutiques...it leaves some of us complaining that dense and varied city streetscapes are becoming too rare.