Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A cautionary tale

One of the few remains, in the sea of asphalt

Charles River Park at 35 by Robert Campbell was published over fifteen years ago.  But little has changed.  I have spent a couple of frustrating afternoons attempting to find my way into the remains of the West End.  Now I know why I was unsuccessful.

The subject of the article, Boston's West End, is one of the sites upon which mid-century urban planning visited mass destruction and tragedy.  However, the article deals primarily with the aftermath: what became of the land once it had been razed to the ground.  After the bulldozers, the main antagonist is one Victor Gruen.  An Austrian immigrant and architect hired by the city to redevelop the former "slum."

Gruen decided American downtowns were being destroyed by the automobile. He argued, in such writings as "The Cellular Metropolis of Tomorrow," that the solution was to carve them up into auto-free zones. Each such zone or cell would be a pedestrian precinct, free of cars, filled with happy people on their feet. All the traffic, public and private, would circulate on arterial roads around and between the cells, without entering them. Gruen identified shopping malls, college campuses and Disneyland as good prototypes for such cells.
Self-inflicted wound, not a bomb (source)
Noble sounding goals, yet as he retired to live out his last couple years near Vienna, he must have been bitter, broken, and largely forgotten.  Nevertheless, his legacy does live on, in shopping malls, college campuses, and Disneyland even. Enclosed worlds where pedestrians are free to roam; but surrounded by a sea of parking lots and highways. The very definition of suburban hell.  Where did he go wrong?

Perhaps he overlooked the fact that cities grow and thrive on connections? His design was about forming islands inside cities, where people would feel safe, instead of promoting interconnections between people from all over. This is the suburban mentality, and applying it to the city only resulted in a mismatched failure.

Victor's goal was to eliminate automobiles from cities.  The way he went about it resulted in terrible traffic, and even worse neighborhoods.  His life forms a cautionary tale for would-be urban planners on the dangers of idealistic visions and unintended consequences.

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