Cities out of nowhere
© Unsplash
July 2018

Cities out of nowhere

The term planned city describes the phenomenon of building a city from scratch: initially celebrated and subsequently criticized. Eight examples illustrate why planned cities entail risks and why we need them anyway.
Washington D.C.
Mosquitos yesterday, world politics today

The place where world politics are conducted today was merely a swampy delta of two rivers more than two hundred years ago. Here, in the mosquito-infested middle of nowhere, far away from New York’s and Philadelphia’s lobbyists, the new capital of the United States, planned by Pierre Charles L’Enfant in 1791, was built from scratch.

Unlike a city that has gradually grown, a planned city has a designed layout and often a uniform appearance and specific purpose. Ancient Cologne, for instance, was built on the basis of a standard layout that applied to all new Roman settlements. Another example is Neuf-Brisach commissioned as a new fortress-city by Louis XIV to secure the French border on the Rhine. In most cases, planned cities are an expression of an ideology – such as Karlsruhe that was built with a ruler’s claim to absolute power or Halle-Neustadt, a city planned much later according to socialist ideals. The planned city represents the desire to create a perfect setting for a perfect society.

Cities out of nowhere
Washington’s splendid National Mall photographed from the roof of the Capitol© Getty

L’Enfant, as well, planned Washington D.C. with plenty of prestige and impressive effects in mind: a grid street plan with splendid squares and parks, and traversed by long boulevards starting from the center of power, the Capitol. 800,000 people were planned to live here. When Congress moved into the United States Capitol in 1800 the city only had a population of 8,000 whose homes appeared lost in the fields below the Capitol Building. Those setting foot outside the Capitol Building better wore boots as protection against the mud. The National Mall with numerous museums as a defining element of the cityscape was only added to Washington D.C. in the 20th century. In 1950, the city finally achieved the number of inhabitants it was planned for. In the core city, below Capitol Hill, the originally planned city has been preserved and, thanks to the wide streets, remained functional as well. However, the days of peace and quiet for government are over: Washington, today, not only has many lobbyists, but also major social issues, poverty and violence.

The Brazilian dream

Another planned city is Brasília, built in a tropical wasteland in the geographic center of Brazil according to the plans of Lúcio Costas and Oscar Niemeyer. The new capital, the construction of which began in 1951, stood for a different type of life, far away from the corruption, inequality, poverty and crime of the coastal cities. In Brasília, half a million people were planned to live together in conditions of fairness, dignity and peace. The project was mind-boggling: The construction area was an undeveloped piece of land. Thousands of workers cut passages over a hundred kilometers (62 miles) long through the overgrown wilderness for streets and roads. Truck convoys transported tons of sand and gravel to the site. Within a short period of time, workers built a fascinating concrete city of elegant arches, boldly curved roofs and discs rising high into the sky with large main streets and vast green spaces in between. Brasília is an architectural manifestation of a social utopia. Today, it’s on the world cultural heritage list, but socially it failed: The core city is too costly for the working class and too bleak for the affluent. While the workers live in the growing slums of the suburbs the wealthy fly to Rio or São Paolo on the weekend. As industry has not been showing any interest in Brasília either unemployment and crimes rates are among the highest in the country.

Cities out of nowhere
View of Brasília’s government district© Getty
Cities out of nowhere
Paris and the Eiffel Tower, its tallest landmark© Celvin Purnama/Unsplash
Beautified living

In most cases, a planned city is simply necessary, for instance when the old one has become dysfunctional – as in the case of Paris, which had densified to nearly a million inhabitants by the middle of the 19th century. The city was cramped, dark and smelly. It had no drinking water supply, no sewer system, but a high infant mortality rate and was repeatedly struck by epidemics. In 1853, Georges-Eugène Baron Haussmann, the prefect of Paris, ordered some 19,000 buildings to be torn down as a last resort. In their stead wide tree-lined boulevards, squares, tall residential buildings and numerous monuments were built, resulting in the classicistic Paris. The construction sites produced noise and dust for more than twenty years. Haussmann’s plan was regarded as a success and benchmark for all subsequent urban planning. But the conversion revealed the downside of any clean-sweep project: As neighbors and familiar streets disappear so does the identity of the old city and the feeling of being at home. And when rents increase, as they did in Haussmann’s Paris, long-established and poor residents are displaced to the outskirts.

Cities out of nowhere© Par SiefkinDR/Wikipedia
3 million inhabitants

were to be accommodated by “Voisin,” the car-friendly city designed by the architect Le Corbusier in 1925. Eighteen cross-shaped, sixty-story high-rise buildings towering above large roadways were to replace the old downtown area of Paris. It remained a utopian vision.

Catalan grid plan

Same problem, different city: Like Paris, Medieval Barcelona became too cramped, but instead of tearing it down urban planner Ildefons Cerdà enlarged the metropolis by about eight times its previous size. For the “Eixample,” he planned five-story residential buildings on a grid system, with green patios and small parks. Tree-lined boulevards crisscross the grid in the form of rays toward the splendid Plaza de las Glòries. However, real estate speculation drove up the price of the properties. Instead of light, air, green and patios a kilometer-long mass of houses grew. The prestigious Plaza de las Glòries became a two-level street circle. Today, the Eixample is one of the most densely populated residential districts in Europe. Even so, it’s very popular. The city government is planning to triple the number of trees, rid the Plaza de las Glòries of cars and to transform it into an urban park by 2020. Thus, Barcelona is following the new vision of our times: the green planned city.

Cities out of nowhere
Attractive grid pattern: Barcelona’s hip Eixample district with the famous La Sagrada Familia cathedral© Getty
Tianjin Eco City
China’s green wave

The world is in a state of rapid urbanization. In China alone, one billion people are planned to be living in cities by 2030, so new solutions for environmentally compatible urban mobility, energy and industry are needed. Tianjin Eco City, a 30-square kilometer (11.6-square mile) green utopia, 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Beijing, is supposed to set standards. Started in 2007, the city is being built on a section of the coast that used to be contaminated by gray water. The environmental aims of the project planners are ambitious: With futuristic high-rise residential buildings and green belts the size of 588 football pitches the city is intended to enable a sustainable lifestyle. Electricity is planned to be supplied from renewable sources, the buildings are supposed to be energy-saving and planted with greenery across the surfaces. People are intended to live in socially mixed neighborhoods and able to go to work and do their shopping in close proximity to their homes on foot, by bicycle or by bus and train. By 2020, 350,000 people are planned to be living here. At the moment, the population figures are still below expectations and the houses built so far do not present a really eco-futuristic appearance. But the spaces for the parks are available and anything is still possible because the Chinese construction industry is changing its visions, standards and regulations at an amazing pace. It launches construction projects with a euphoria about the future that would be rather unusual among Europeans, abandoning without hesitation the past, obsolete project ideas, historic city districts or old buildings. In China’s cities there’s nothing that lasts for a long time.

Cities out of nowhere
Futuristic high-rise buildings embedded in landscapes of water and parks© Tianjin Eco City
Foster’s Fata Morgana

The inhabitants of Masdar City are still in a state of hope as well. The project was launched in 2008 as the world’s first planned eco city, in the desert near Abu Dhabi. The British architect Sir Norman Foster planned Masdar in a compartmentalized form based on the example of old Arab cities, with shaded alleys and small squares. Both traditional and new forms of construction serve to shade and cool the buildings in the desert heat. In fact, the architecture built so far is as exciting as it was in the initial plans. In Masdar, outstanding technologies can be found such as self-driving electric taxis to replace privately owned cars, modern wind towers for cooling buildings and a 22-hectare (54.3-acre) photovoltaics system. Only the construction progress decelerated enormously: The city was planned to be finished by 2016, have 47,000 residents and be totally self-sufficient in terms of energy and sustainably functional. By 2017, only 13 buildings, five percent of the city, had been completed. The small number of residents are now hoping that their city will finally be finished by 2030.

Cities out of nowhere
Instead of by 2016 Masdar will only be completed by 2030 at the earliest© Masdar City
Dataflow in Songdo

There’s another current vision for planned cities: the digital, the smart city. For a city of this type, construction of the South Korean coastal city of Songdo IBD, a six-square kilometer (2.3-square mile) planned city for some 70,000 people, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Seoul, was started in 2005. Here, as well, everything that a functional city requires has been planned: mixed-use areas for living, working, education and the arts, large bodies of water and parks that occupy about a third of the total area, plus traffic connections via electric water taxis, a subway and buses. The connection of all user data – of residents, visitors and service providers – via the internet, facility engineering, a city-wide camera system and multifunctional chip cards is what makes Songdo IBD a smart city. Residents use the chip cards as transportation tickets, keys to their homes and as cards for health insurance and banking purposes – one card for all needs. An IT system collects all the data and controls the infrastructure, such as facility engineering and local transit systems, as needed. The objective is to optimally control resources like electricity and water and to achieve savings of up to 30 %. Many Koreans view what sounds like an Orwellian nightmare as something that makes everyday life easier and protects the climate. After all, about half of Songdo IBD is already inhabited. Many companies have already moved there, the parks have been created and most of the skyscrapers built.

Cities out of nowhere
Songdo proves that even a connected city can be green
Cities out of nowhere
Today, the place where for 500 billion dollars Neom is planned to be built from scratch is Red Sea, desert and mountains© Neom

While Songdo has already become reality, the House of Saud is planning to top all previous planned cities. On the Red Sea in the Saudi Arabian middle of nowhere, in an area larger than the Paris metropolitan area, the city of Neom is planned to be built. While the city at the moment is still desert rock it’s also more than that: Neom is a utopia of superlatives with a 500-billion dollar budget. Here people are supposed to live together in more relaxed, varied, modern, smarter and happier ways. They’re supposed to explore new technologies and establish new business sectors, and to advance culture, the arts and education, an automated infrastructure as well as climate and environmental protection. In the words of the investors: a place of “an extent never seen before for a new, inspiring era of human civilization.”

Rosa Grewe
Author Rosa Grewe
Rosa Grewe is a freelance journalist specializing in architecture, structural engineering and urban planning. The rhythm of the city entered her bloodstream during a year spent in Mexico. That’s why she studied architecture majoring in urban planning. That’s why she subsequently went to Barcelona. That’s why she moved to Rhine-Main after that. That’s why today she lives in the heart of the city and writes about the city – and about the people that bring it to life.