Forty Cities

The Forty Cities prompt examines urbanization example in the United States over the last 400 years. The first two images in this introduction represent the existential threat politicians and scientists have just begun to describe. The Nolli map is a well-known reverse ground image of the city. The way cities form from the cave to Giambattista Nolli, and more recently in search of a design to end the chaos of survival in Nature to a design for order.


The building mass is black, and the open space is white, as seen from above in scale. The image altered the perception of the Roman people, the city became a symbol when Giambattista Nolli created it in 1748. Imagine it as an experience similar to people seeing a photo of the Earth from outer space when it appeared in newspapers and shown to the world for the first time on the Whole Earth Catalogue.

Views change the world. Technical approaches as plain as Nolli’s reverse ground map or as complex as taking a photo from the surface of the Moon represent an expanding number of diagrammatic sensing devices. These resources will alter design systems now aimed at sustainable urbanism hoping to change the way we build and repair cities.1 The main task is to narrow the margin for error and broaden the scope and role of multiple technologies and participants in design.

Each “hub” in Howard’s original population (32K) could be tripled today. Seven urban centers provide transit within a vast open space. Circles represent the principle of keeping limits on the city.

Unlike Howard’s circles, the grid represents infinity. Still, like Howard, Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” proposed a way to “fix the city” by combining density with open space.

The Black Rock City Festival designers chose a similar solution for its temporary desert “urbanization location for similar reasons of organization and control, however, the Matter out of place (MOOP) map is the main survivor of the main utility of the design. It was used to identify the processes needed to implement the camp’s LNT (leave no trace) initiative.

The Radiant City (1933)

Le Corbusier’s Radiant City

Le Corbusier was trying to fix the same urban pollution and overcrowding problems. Still, unlike Howard, he envisioned building up, not out. So his “Towers in the Park” plan proposed precisely that: numerous high-rise buildings surrounded by green space.

Each building was set on what planners refer to as “superblocks,” and space was clearly delineated between different uses (in the above diagram, this includes “housing,” the “business center,” “factories,” and “warehouses”).

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives

Broadacre City

Thomas Jefferson’s Jeffersonian grid. (1785 Land Ordinance) was a plan for western expansion. America’s 1785 Land Ordinance divided most of the country’s unsettled interior west of the Ohio River into a neat grid of townships 6 square miles in size (each containing 36 square-mile parcels of land for the kind of agrarian, land-owning society.

The density offered n all of these plans would be either error or a solution. Quite rightly Wright expected a wide variety of vehicles would serve specific social centers. The grid idea brings the community to “central squares” – an agora principle held by town planners such as Raymond Unwin, Daniel Burnham, and Ebenezer Howard.

Today as you drive across – or fly over – the Midwest, its effects of the infinite grid still linger in all those perfectly perpendicular roads and square farms. Frank Lloyd Wright took the geometry of this rural grid to offer each family an acre of its own. Wright looked at how place-making linked “open space” directly to the individual household for Broadacre City It revealed a sense of the infinite by providing every family with one acre to build a land-owning, multi-mobile society.

Shortly after World War II, rapid auto-suburban development separated itself from the limits of urban growth imagined by such planers. Jean Gottamn’s 1961 book “Megalopolis” is today’s 2050 mega-region. The economic inefficiencies of rapid growth would unquestionably cause damage. Yet, strangely the solution was to grow out of it.

Urban Planners

Lots of Land for Fast Easy Growth

Providing parcels by “platting” provides for profitable transfers of land based on the guarantee of a publicly controlled right of way. The Commissioner’s Plan for Manhattan encouraged all cities to proceed with confidence. Even San Francisco laid down a grid to represent its supremacy with astonishing topography.

The 20th century had a clear trajectory of “an acre for everyone.” It was driven almost solely by the considerable capacity for mobility. As the century ended, a fixed set of decaying/rebuilding urban centers became attractive.

One other 20th-century lesson regarding the grid/circle paradox is essential. A new vocabulary emerged, such as resilience, conservation, and sustainability in the “transect” of urban development.  The lesson was to make centuries of well-established land-to-wealth systems more accountable to human dignity.


Kevin Lynch, “The Image of the City” (1960)

“Situationist” artists and architects from the 1950s sought to capture the city as experienced by people. At the time, they were revolting against modernist urban renewal plans. Their approach helped give way to a new emphasis on bottom-up citizen experience and input. For example, the 1961 map from MIT’s Kevin Lynch resulted from a project asking people to map the city of Boston from memory, revealing the most “memorable” parts of the city. Maps today stem from this same tradition but build on location-aware services or bike-share usage and the vast array of the Internet of things.

The drive to survive in nature remains, but for the first time in human history, the threats of nature are of our own making and global in effect. These are not extinction-level threats, but they are catastrophes

Michael Mann, Al Gore, and many others point to the spike in Northern Hemisphere temperatures since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.  The climate impact connection to patterns of settlement has just begun to reframe the narrative from controlling nature to controlling the city and perhaps the nature of wealth itself.

The 21st century confronts the urban problems with science, politics, and environmental movements. All change draws on the power of social responsibility and community design for added by Jane Jacobs, The Death and Live of Great American Cities (1961), Kevin Lynch “The Image of the City” (1960), and to a similar extent by the humanity of Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language (1977).

The 100th year of New York zoning law will arise for a celebration using the 1916 ordinance as a benchmark.  Since then land-use regulations in older urban centers have resolved density problems with zoning and building codes to assure standards such as access to sunlight and natural circulation. One century has made it a mature blend of science, art, and business aimed at the public good.

The Dense Beautiful City

Walter Gropius published The Scope of Total Architecture six times between 1943 and 1962. One observation is that eighty percent of the buildings were built without architects. He noted this condition was supported by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) resolution in 1949.AIA rules at that time enforced the separation of architecture from contracting.

The pace of post-WWII housing and urban development continued exponentially. By 1957, the editors of Fortune Magazine published a set of essays entitled “The Exploding Metropolis” subtitled – a study of the assault on urbanism and how our cities can resist it.”  The position taken was straightforward — something had gone out of control.

The introduction and essay on sprawl by William Whyte and the observations of Jane Jacobs offered extraordinary insight. Here is what Whyte had to say just a few years after Gropius outlined the weaknesses of establishing a “total architecture.” 

“There are four clear lessons. (1) Getting something done is primarily a matter of leadership rather than research. (2) Bold vision, tied to some concrete benefit, can get popular support quickly.  (3) The most effective policy is to get the land first and rationalize the acquisition later. (4) Action itself is the best of all research tools to find what works and what does not.

Jacobs’ focus remained, as always, on the priority of sustaining the ability of people to enjoy the quality of an economically secure and prosperous social life.  Her essay “Downtown is for People” reviewed the plans for “downtown renewal” across the country at the time and came to this conclusion. “They will have the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery.” Then, without hesitation, as a person untrained in architecture, she put forth a tutorial on how beautiful a city could be if the design process believed in the dignity of people instead of a building’s “importance.”

Metropolis 1985 Moves Past Diagnosis

Metropolis 1986 Harvard University Press (1960}

Raymond Vernon, the Regional Planning Association’s Director of the New York Metropolitan Region Study, turned to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Public Administration to interpret and publish “findings” for a broad audience in 1960. Its publication not only marked the emergence of the “mega-region” it denoted the arrival of “big data” – a vast supply of social and economic information that would lend vital insight into the 22 counties and three states of the New York Metropolitan Region.

RPA was founded in 1922. On the map (left), the idea of a “core” is often assumed to be the five boroughs of New York City. It is not. It comprises four New York counties and one in New Jersey (Hudson).  For the next half-century, the value of “a dense core” lost resilience and capacity to adapt. During this period, it got high marks by reinventing itself at every level of human interaction. Its institutions confronted complex questions of fairness and created positive social justice and economic and environmental equity results.

Density also comes with values about living together that encourage reduced sensitivity to racial/ethnic demographics. It has responded well to design and construction innovation demands, energy conservation, and environmental quality with the promise to waste nothing if not the capacity to do so. The idea to be more responsible brings the urban question full circle – if it is not possible to realize the promises of fairness and justice in the autocratic structures of a democratic society, then why is it found and so strongly recognized as it emerges of its own accord when re-establishing the value of city life.

Julie Campoli, a landscape architect, and urban designer narrows the challenge of “finding” to 5 “d” ingredients. These are the diversity of land use, density, design, and distance to transit, with destination accessibility and places for all kinds of personal urban mobility vehicles. In Made for Walking: Density and Neighborhood Form (Lincoln Institute, 2012), she compares 12 neighborhoods of approximately 125 acres each just to keep apples with apples: The project builds on Visualizing Density coauthored with aerial photographer Alex S. MacLean. (Lincoln Institute, 2007) Please find a few randomly selected hyperlinks to take a quick wiki peak into her selections.

  1. LoDo and the Central Platte Valley, Denver, CO A place where many significant buildings may thrive.
  2. Short North, Columbus, OH – marketed for new trendy spots and “we are here” graphic and urban design. 
  3. Kitsilano, Vancouver, BC  A peninsula surrounded by the deep blue Strait of Georgia
  4. Flamingo Park, Miami Beach, FL  Towers on a barrier beach – what could go wrong or be better?
  5. Little Portugal, Toronto, Ontario  Personally, I like Ironbound in Newark, NJ
  6. Eisenhower East, Alexandria, VA The link is to the planning and zoning agency’s promotion of dense, walkable districts (here) plan pdf (here). Just inside the beltway.
  7. The Pearl District, Portland, OR  Vibrant districts of towers and townhouses along the Willamette River
  8. Downtown and Raynolds Addition, Albuquerque, NM Old Albuquerque along Central Avenue SW retain the grid here and thus holds some promise.
  9. Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY  A combination of wood-frame row houses built to walk to the working waterfront neighborhood. 
  10. Little Italy, San Diego, CA  Another southern California neighborhood setting itself apart amidst the mass.
  11. Cambridgeport, Cambridge, MA You really can’t go wrong just west of the Harvard Quad.
  12. Old Pasadena, Pasadena, CA Known as “the real downtown” – the place I wish everybody knew somehow.

An excellent counter example was published in 2014 by Steve Conn’s placement of Greenhills, MA, in urban history. Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century.2

Each location is in an urban expansion context and requires respondents for reportage. What remains open to question is whether these examples contribute to growing a compact city or stand as exceptions.


  1. An exhibition entitled Grand Reductions illustrated the success and failure of design by demigod in 2012.  Ten diagrams by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) stimulate this review.
  2. Oxford University Press, 379 pages