Monday, August 11, 2014

Peter Hall: Life and Lessons

If you're a professional urbanist, there's a good chance this book sits upon your shelf.  The title is a bit misleading in that it's not necessarily about future cities, but the history of city planning.  And of course, embedded in the idea of planning is the fourth dimension of time, the dynamic of ever changing places and the tantalizing possibility of something better.  Unfortunately, city planners throughout history have a history of misunderstanding where the magic and vitality comes from.  Too often leaning towards the overly prescriptive, restrictive, and controlling rather than focusing on the framework for life to evolve by and for those that live it.

It's a lesson Hall learned during his career as his obituary from the Economist spells out.

At first, Mr Hall was an enthusiastic supporter of that top-down, rational approach. One of his early books, “London 2000”, published in 1963, argued that London and the south-east should be comprehensively rebuilt, with vast areas of the inner cities bulldozed and replaced by blocks of flats, winding streets by a rectilinear system of motorways and on-ramps, and pedestrians segregated from traffic by walkways in the sky. Detroit, the spiritual home of the motor car, was his guiding light. The planners, in their patrician wisdom, would determine where the people would live, where they would work, and how they would spend their leisure time. 
He soon changed his mind. Wherever that approach was tried—in Birmingham, or Glasgow, or around the elevated Westway in north-west London—it caused exactly the sort of ugliness and alienation he had hoped to banish. In the 1970s he began arguing that one way to deal with urban decay might be a bonfire of regulations; the idea, he said, was to “recreate the Hong Kong of the 1950s and 1960s inside inner Liverpool or inner Glasgow”. That sort of fertile chaos, he came to believe, was exactly what made cities so important, and such exciting places to live. He was an early advocate of the view—these days the received wisdom—that by allowing people to form connections with like-minded colleagues, cities are the engines of a country’s economic, cultural and artistic life.
Those sentences.  Re-read them.  It's an important lesson that what he witnessed was far different from the theoretical visions of the leading urbanists of his day, of which he was one.  The empiricist is always a better urbanist than the theorist.  Today, we've ceded this authority and top-down control to the traffic engineers in pursuit of the theory that if we just build a few more travel lanes, congestion will be cured.  Thine eyes on the street say differently.