Civitas by Design: Building Better Communities, from the Garden City to the New Urbanism

Civitas by Design: Building Better Communities, from the Garden City to the New Urbanism

Civitas by Design: Building Better Communities, from the Garden City to the New Urbanism

Civitas by Design: Building Better Communities, from the Garden City to the New Urbanism

Synopsis

Since the end of the nineteenth century, city planners have aspired not only to improve the physical living conditions of urban residents but also to strengthen civic ties through better design of built environments. From Ebenezer Howard and his vision for garden cities to today's New Urbanists, these visionaries have sought to deepen civitas, or the shared community of citizens.

In Civitas by Design, historian Howard Gillette, Jr., takes a critical look at this planning tradition, examining a wide range of environmental interventions and their consequences over the course of the twentieth century. As American reform efforts moved from progressive idealism through the era of government urban renewal programs to the rise of faith in markets, planners attempted to cultivate community in places such as Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, New York; Celebration, Florida; and the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. Key figures--including critics Lewis Mumford and Oscar Newman, entrepreneur James Rouse, and housing reformer Catherine Bauer--introduced concepts such as neighborhood units, pedestrian shopping malls, and planned communities that were implemented on a national scale. Many of the buildings, landscapes, and infrastructures that planners envisioned still remain, but frequently these physical designs have proven insufficient to sustain the ideals they represented. Will contemporary urbanists' efforts to join social justice with environmentalism generate better results? Gillette places the work of reformers and designers in the context of their times, providing a careful analysis of the major ideas and trends in urban planning for current and future policy makers.

Excerpt

Americans have perpetually harbored complex and often uncomfortable feelings about urban life. Recognizing early in their national history that cities performed critical economic functions, they nonetheless worried about the effects of concentrated settlement, not just on individual behavior but on citizenship itself. Thomas Jefferson was not alone in the belief, which he stated in Notes on Virginia, that “the mobs of great cities add just as much to the support of government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Stating his strong preference for agrarian republicanism over social conditions generated in European cities, Jefferson, like others after him, nonetheless ultimately embraced the forces of modernization. For critics who followed, the challenge lay not in avoiding urban development but making it work according to republican principles. Over time, solutions differed, but one strain remained remarkably consistent: the belief that in improving the physical environment lay the key to civic as well as social regeneration. Countless reforms, of course, were incremental. Among the most lasting and influential efforts, however, were those intended to uplift whole communities. Distressed by the ways urban density fostered anonymity and social differences at the cost of solidarity, reformers sought new means to bring together the “people” in whom the nation’s founders had endowed so many powers. Through interventions in public spaces as well as private living conditions, they sought to enhance both sociability and knowledge among strangers. Their goal was not simply better people. Ultimately, they sought to shape civitas—the community of citizens— through design.

These efforts first emerged in concentrated form in the early twentieth century, as critics of unbridled capitalism on both sides of the Atlantic sought alternative ways of assuring more responsive and humane uses of investment. In England, Ebenezer Howard’s vision for a whole network of . . .

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