Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review: Makeshift Metropolis

Makeshift Metropolis, by University of Pennsylvania Professor of Urbanism Witold Rybczynski, is a concise well-written book which charts the progress of urban development over the past hundred years. Rybczynski offers a summary of major movements such as the City Beautiful, the Garden City, Wright's Broadacre, and Le Corbusier's Radiant City, interspersed with a large dose of freely available statistics and studies over the years. He follows on from these turn of the century movements to more recent advances in urbanism, such as the work of Jane Jacobs and New Urbanism, concluding with his own observations of the path urbanism is taking and what kind of cities are likely to be built in the years to come.

One point I must disagree with Rybczynski on is his infallible belief in the people. Numerous times throughout the book he suggests that urbanism has evolved in the way it has due mainly to the desires of the population, thus explaining the rise of suburbia. This viewpoint is meant to suggest freedom of choice in the United States, in the strength of individualism in American culture. Suburbia, if anything, has shown the American people liable to mass decision making, as evidenced by the homogeneity found in most suburbs. Furthermore, suburban growth did not occur for the simple reason of choice. It was a very complex migration due to a number of reasons, not least of which massive financial support from the government, which to this day supports policies favouring single family homes in the form of zoning, tax cuts, and road construction. All points Rybczynski fails to mention. I've yet to find a study showing how many people wouldn't rather live in the city over suburbs, if not for the inflated prices of real estate in urban areas, but I'm willing to bet it's substantial. 

I wish this book was longer, more fleshed out. I think Rybczynski has a lot more to tell given his extensive experience and knowledge on urbanism. The last chapter in particular, in which he describes the likely scenarios for the cities of the future, seems a bit rushed, focusing on the usual subjects of rising oil costs and increased population densities. Certain recent projects are mentioned, such as The Yards in Washington DC, and Modi'in in Israel, which I'll have to look in to.

Admittedly the book is shorter than I had expected it to be, really more along the lines of a long essay in a general interest journal. Perhaps this is not surprising given Rybczynski's former writing, often aimed at a general audience rather than well-informed professionals. Much of what is in the book is information anyone with a basic knowledge of urbanism will already know, such as the summaries of the major movements. I had also been aware of much of the statistics contained in the book, some of which I cited in my dissertation earlier this year. At one point I almost had a déjà vu moment, realizing I must have read the exact passage in one of Rybczynski's columns for Slate. Those columns, I should add, are what introduced me to his writing. I had hoped the book would be a substantial addition to his earlier writing, but unfortunately that is not the case. Still, I recommend it to those with even a passing interest in urbanism.