Historian Harold L. Platt traces the development and application of what he calls the “Organic City” concept during the twentieth century. Platt sees an overt effort by urban planners to appropriate scientifically, environmentally minded language to promote urban and architectural modernism. Coupled with empirical methodologies, the Organic City concept allowed planners to distill cities into mere systems that required rational management and balanced inputs. This approach depended on top-down implementation and gross oversimplification, leading practitioners to lose sight of the social relationships integral to the production of space (p. 24). In the pursuit of a more controlled and productive urban center, conflict arose between planners, policymakers, and the grassroots (local residents). The monograph is divided into three main periods. For each Platt offers a chapter examining intellectual currents in the planning profession, followed by a chapter using seven case studies showing the application of those ideas. After a brief discussion of modern urban planning’s origins, Platt explores the first period (1945–60) when planning became institutionalized in the wake of World War II. The early Cold War “modernization race” led policymakers to embrace planners’ expertise because urban reconstruction and renewal could show the West’s superiority (pp. 54–55). Major figures such as Le Corbusier and Patrick Geddes advocated high rises, slum clearance, and highway construction for renewing city centers, all which would erase the broken past and usher in a new age of order and progress. However, the scientific, rationalist language only served to obscure the biases and the true lived experience of these cities. For example, using property values to determine areas to be cleared led policymakers to target black neighborhoods in Chicago, thereby marginalizing this community further. Similar issues emerged in the London Green Belt and Paris’s les grand ensembles. As citizens felt the impact of these decisions, they began to reject the planners. Grassroots activism against these imposed urban visions emerged during the second period under consideration (1960–68). While buildings might be tall and sleek and highways steadily extending their spidery networks to outlying suburbs, the Organic City had done little to improve livability and opportunities for all urban residents. Civil unrest in Chicago, Paris, and Mexico City highlighted the need to see a community rather than a commodity. The third period (1968–80) follows efforts to respond to these criticisms while the field fractured and urban spaces became even more contested. Certain planners reflected on the shortcomings (notably David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre), but the eventual triumph of the New Right meant the profession largely adopted neoliberal practices. Privatization of services and spaces weakened state structures and led planners to depend on businesses to complete projects. At the same time, Platt sees a mixed blessing in grassroots efforts to become more active in shaping planning policies. This engagement led to race riots literally tearing the city apart (Los Angeles) and the wealthy forming fortified enclaves safe from poor ghettos (São Paulo). Platt’s greatest strength in this study is his discussion of US cases. He persuasively develops Chicago, Los Angeles, and related examples through a solid variety of sources. His cases of London, Paris, and Rotterdam are equal to the task as well. However, the literature used for Mexico City and São Paulo is thin, and their discussion as presented suggests an unfamiliarity with those national histories and the rich scholarship available in Spanish and Portuguese. This weakness raises questions of how transnational the Organic City concept was and exactly how it came to be disseminated and adopted outside of the United States and Europe. Building the Urban Environment will be of interest to graduate students and scholars focusing on urban development. Those who study cities will recognize the Organic City language that spoke of urban centers as “organisms,” referred to citizens as “cells,” and equated parks to “lungs.” Also, just as many environmental historians write of oversimplification of biological systems and nature with their accompanying questionable results, Platt sees a similar process unfolding in the built environment. The author’s interpretation dialogues with other studies of modernism and state planning that bemoan overdependence on “runaway technologies” and fissures resulting from their shortsighted use. Despite the utopian promises of the planners, modern cities still struggled with isolating and discriminatory divisions. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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