Anthony Flint makes the case that the rapidly growing cities of the developing world can learn a great deal by studying the 19th century plan for Manhattan’s grid.
Planet of Cities is now available in the e-book format. This post is a modified version of Chapter 15 — Urban Land Cover Projections, 2000 – 2050
The city council of Barcelona, Spain, organized a competition in 1859 for a plan to expand the city and selected the visionary plan submitted by Ildefons Cerdá as the winning entry (Soria y Puig 1999). Like the three commissioners who approved the iconic grid plan for New York City in 1811, Cerdá envisioned a massive, ninefold expansion of the area of the existing city that then had a population of 150,000. Like the commissioners, Cerdá also focused on a practical vision and was intimately involved in devising the legal, administrative, and financial instruments necessary to execute the plan and follow it through to its implementation. Being a realist, he was very critical of utopian dreams.
In our times we have seen some dazzlingly brilliant utopias appear, and they really have shown and dazzled, but simply in the manner of a fleeting bolt of lightening, and they have left no trace behind. Some hard and rather costly lessons brought skepticism to seep into the hearts of our societies, and now only patent proofs of non-remote possibilities can sweep away the doubts, distrust, and lack of confidence. (Soria y Puig 1999, 375)
Cerdá’s plan for Barcelona, the New York City Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, the Topographical Bureau’s 1900 plan for New York, and the 1904 plan for Buenos Aires were not utopian dreams. They were pragmatic plans that were implemented quickly, and all three cities soon outgrew them. These cities show that there is nothing new in making generous plans for urban expansion, yet it is difficult to identify one urban plan that has allowed for such generous expansion of a metropolitan area in recent decades. The need exists, however, since the 30 cities in our global representative sample expanded sixteenfold in a matter of 70 years, on average, during the twentieth century. We can subscribe the absence of such plans to a failure of imagination or a failure of nerve. But it is exactly this kind of imagination and nerve that must be rekindled to realistically project the expansion of many cities in the rapidly urbanizing countries of the developing world in the coming decades.