Ken Greenberg (2011) talks about early urban planning in Chicago

I became interested in Chicago when I read a chapter about city planning in Chicago in The wrath of capital (2013).

Adrian Parr’s comments about Chicago as a green city prompted me to read about Erving Goffman’s years as a graduate student in Chicago.

I next turned to Walking home (2011), in which Ken Greenberg describes the conceptual process leading to the building of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s North Side. In this book he talks about the history of urban planning in Chicago and elsewhere.

Rise of ‘modern movement’ in architecture

I learned of Walking home (2011) when I attended Ken Greenberg’s talk on February 11, 2012 at John English Junior Middle School in Mimico, a community not far from Long Branch (in Toronto not New Jersey) where I live.

Greenberg notes that in the aftermath of the European Industrial Revolution, which gave rise to deplorable living conditions in industrial cities, a “modern movement” in architecture emerged.

He characterizes the movement (p. 22) as “an intellectual time bomb with a very long fuse” fueled by good intentions.

The modern movement in architecture was motivated by what Greenberg calls (p. 22) “a sincere humanist urge” to address the substandard housing, overcrowding, pollution, noise, soot, disease, and other features of industrial cities that emerged after the Industrial Revolution.

The modern movement was based on the premise that the methodical logic that had successfully applied inventive engineering to industry could also be applied to how people lived their lives.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Mark Mazower notes, people also discussed and imagined new ways in which to govern the world.

Another book that comes to mind, with regard to topics that Ken Greenberg addresses with regard to the the history of urban design, is Seeing Like a State (1998) by James C. Scott.

City as machine

Early modernism gave rise, notes Greenberg, to the efforts of “serious and well-intentioned people (primarily architects)” to apply science, engineering, and rational thinking to the design of cities.

In effect, the city would be would be treated like an enormous machine. The early modernists believed that the primary roles of a city could be identified, in the same way as the mechanical operations of industrial processes can be identified.

The belief was that after the roles would be identified, they could then be simplified, separated, and made to work more efficiently. I would add, as an aside, that the pursuit of efficiency in postindustrial society has a long history.

The Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Modern (known as CIAM; and known in English as the International Congress of Modern Architecture), active from 1928 to 1956, worked to formulate principles related to the city as machine.

In CIAM’s proposed scenario, people would be housed in “towers in the park” – high, widely spaced apartment blocks, with lots of green space surrounding individual buildings. Work would be performed in modern factories and offices. Recreation would take place in sports complexes. Cars would move people between zones. Greenbelts would separate the zones.

The CIAM’s Athens Charter published in 1934 called for the refashioning of cities into independent zones, each separately dedicated to dwelling, work, recreation, and transportation. In the interest of minimizing “friction” and maximizing “efficiency” in CIAM’s formula for what it called the Functional City, there was to be no mixing of zones or of functions.

The application of these principles gave rise to large numbers of postwar “urban renewal” projects based on slum clearance and redevelopment.

Confounded by the public street

The CIAM theorists were confounded, according to Greenberg (p. 25), by the “public street, an ancient urban construct and one of the most remarkable multidimensional human inventions.” The public street did many things but none perfectly.

“It was exasperating,” notes Greenberg, “to those analytic thinkers that the street weaved together so many roles – a means of access and mobility for pedestrians and people using many types of vehicles, a tool for surveying and defining the boundaries of individual properties, a way to deliver basic services and utilities, a place for commercial activities and the provision of public space for social and political life.

“Why not divide these functions up and accommodate each separately and more efficiently? thought the modernists. Viewing the various roles of the traditional street as an unwholesome and confusing muddle, CIAM promoted specialized ‘roadways,’ intended primarily for vehicles, and separate circulation paths and gathering spaces for pedestrians. The modernist vision untangled the complex web of overlapping activities that would be identified, later in the century, as the very essence of city life.”

Urban design

CIAM gave rise to urban planning as a profession, as I understand from a visit to the Toronto Public Library website. As a blurb regarding Defining urban design: CIAM architects and the formation of a discipline, 1937-69, explains:

“The members of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM), such as Josep Lluis Sert, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and their American associates, developed the discipline now called ‘urban design,’ which has had a significant influence on both university departments and building projects around the world.”

Le Corbusier, Broadacre City, and Garden City

Greenberg notes that Le Corbusier, a driving force behind the movement, in a plan published in 1925 proposed to demolish most of the city heart of Paris to be replaced by a field of apartment towers. Streets were to be replaced by a hierarchy of arteries. In 1935 Le Corbusier published a more universal version entitled the Radiant City. Such visions influenced public authorities and private developers in postwar Europe and eventually elsewhere.

In America, architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1932 proposed Broadacre City. In what Greenberg (p. 26) terms an “extreme, idealized expression of the newly emerging suburbia,” Wright pictured a four-square-mile community spread thinly across the land. Each family “would have a one-acre plot within a sprawling pattern, linked by an extensive network of sinuous sci-fi highways and landing pads for personal helicopters.”

A British planning vision, the Garden City movement, emerged in 1898 in response to the unhealthy conditions of British industrial cities. Less bombastic [characterized by pompous or extravagant language], according to Greenberg, in its ambitions than CIAM’s or Wright’s, the British version proposed self-contained communities in previously undeveloped areas surrounded by greenbelts.

Early urban planning in Chicago

Many postwar North American cities adopted CIAM’s vision for “towers in the park,” which could be mass-produced in large-scale public housing projects under the label of urban renewal.

“This meant,” comments Greenberg (pp. 27-28), “bulldozing older neighbourhoods to create CIAM-inspired complexes of tall apartment slabs (spaced far apart in ambiguous green spaces) and tearing up the existing streets to create immense ‘super blocks.’ The result was projects like the infamous Cabrini-Green, built beginning in 1942 by the Chicago Housing Authority on Chicago’s North side.”

I would add as an aside that Regent Park in Toronto began as a chapter in the worldwide urban renewal narrative, and that efforts to replace “the Projects” in Chicago and elsewhere have in turn become topics of contention.

Unbranded early twentieth-century North American vision of the city

Greenberg notes that the European concept of the functional city also found application in private ventures based on its conceptual simplicity and commercial potential – but without its principles of social equity, “which positioned adequate housing as a basic human right and not as a commodity” (p. 28).

“The logic of modernist planning was also applied,” according to Greenberg, “to the creation of new, single-purpose centres for government, recreation and entertainment.” Planners also picked up Wright’s urban sprawl idiom, “building vast tract housing around virtually every American and Canadian city, even if they miniaturized and diluted the original vision.”

Ultimately, notes Greenberg, European modernist town planning and the Garden City and Wrightian model “hijacked an unheralded and unbranded indigenous vision of the city that had been gestating independently in North America. In the early twentieth century, urban areas had been growing denser and more interesting, vital and mixed.”

Dismantling of streetcar networks

As a result of the latter process, which occurred in an incremental and natural way, adds Greenberg (pp. 28-29) “robust urban environments were beginning to thrive not only in Manhattan but also in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and many other cities.

“We catch glimpses of these settings in the backdrops to the black-and-white movies of the prewar and war-time decades. The buildings in these increasingly sophisticated, urban locales – with great individual structures like New York’s Penn Station or Empire State Building – were exuberantly and unselfconsciously incorporating complex and mixed programs.

“Their sidewalks were lively, and they were oriented to intercity rail and street railways (that is, until General Motors, Firestone and Standard Oil began to purchase and dismantle the streetcar networks).”

Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

After I posted the above-noted text, I received the following email, which I’m pleased to share:

“Reading your most recent post on Chicago reminded me of this great book that I read.

“I liked it so much I bought it.”

A blurb at the Toronto Public Library about Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991) remarks:

“In this groundbreaking work, a Yale University professor of history gives an environmental perspective on the history of 19th-century America. ‘No one has written about Chicago with more power, clarity, and intelligence than [William] Cronon. Indeed, no one has ever written a better book about a city’. – Boston Globe. Photographs and maps.”

With regard to the general topic of environmental history, The river returns: an environmental history of the Bow (2009) is a book I’ve particularly enjoyed reading.

A recent book about Chicago, highlighted in an April 18, 2013 New York Times book review, is The third coast: When Chicago built the American dream (2013).

New York Times articles: Chicago’s South Side and green and walkable Right Bank in Paris

A Jan. 7, 2013 New York Times article, regarding the middle-class enclave of Chatham, on the South Side of Chicago, offers an overview of current issues in Chicago.

The article refers to Great American city: Chicago and the enduring neighborhood effect (2011).

It also refers to Pockets of crime (2007).

As well, a Jan. 11, 2013 New York Times article notes that the Right Bank in Paris has moved in the direction of green and walkable:

“Seine-side strolling, minus the traffic

“Paris is hardly an emerging destination, but it has a new allure: a green and walkable Right Bank. Where once there was just a busy road, there are now alder trees, native Seine grasses and wide walking and cycle paths, all due to a 35-million-euro beautification project led by Mayor Bertrand Delanoë. Wooden furniture to stretch out in has been installed along the banks, where visitors can relax while taking in the view of Notre Dame Cathedral, and five adjoining islands in the river are being turned into “floating gardens.” Across the river, ambitious steps are being taken to transform a nearly 1.5-mile stretch of the Left Bank free of cars by this spring, with 11 acres of new green space between the Musée d’Orsay and Pont de l’Alma.  – Rachel B. Doyle”


This American Life: Documentary about Chicago high school

This American Life features a radio documentary based on five months of interviews at Harper High School in Chicago where in 2012, 29 current and recent students were shot.

This is a documentary that provides an in-depth perspective about a relevant and compelling topic. It shows what can be done in radio when sufficient resources – in this case involving five months of interviews – are available. I learned of the documentary when it was mentioned on Feb. 20, 2013 on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.


A short history of the highrise, an October 2013 New York Times interactive documentary feature, provides an overview of topics highlighted at this post. You may need to do some work to get past the opening panel, dealing with a Travel piece. Once you’re past that, an impressive documentary – with effective use of voice over, sound effects, visual effects, animation, and music – unfolds. As well, I’ve also written more recent post about Ken Greenberg.

A Sept. 16, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Could bad buildings damage your mental health? Research has shown city dwellers are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression – but could individual buildings have a negative impact on wellbeing?”

The article notes:

“Layla McCay, director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, says these debates are complex and dependent on a number of nuanced factors. The think tank was set up to encourage more rigorous evaluation on the way we design our cities, and what impact it can have on mental wellbeing. She isolates several elements that she believes have a positive influence: access to nature or green spaces, the design of public spaces that facilitate physical activity and encourage social interaction, and living and working in spaces that feel safe.”

It also notes:

“Though Ballard’s doom-laden vision of high-rise living may seem compelling – especially considering the anti-social reputation of such estates – more recent research suggests that the buildings are not as intrinsically flawed as we might first imagine. Rather, the social ills found in such environments may be more closely related to poor maintenance than anything innate. Reports have found that “risky” facilities such as broken lights and windows, litter, graffiti and non-functioning CCTV may have more to do with increased crime rates – and anxiety-inducing fear of crime – than the physical environment itself. So mental ill-health may increase once the physical environment has deteriorated.”

A third excerpt reads:

“Shopping centres also appear to refute the physical determinism of much environmental psychology. Often considered to be vast, unhealthy behemoths designed to disorient and dazzle us into spending money we don’t have, shopping malls could, in fact, be beneficial to individual and societal wellbeing. One team of researchers argues shopping centres may possess “mentally restorative qualities” that could rival even natural settings. Again it suggests that healthy factors – greenery, a focus on safety, good maintenance, a sense of openness – could significantly reduce stress, no matter how buildings themselves are designed or interpreted.”


A July 10, 2014 New Yorker article is entitled: De Blasio’s violent-crime challenges.”

A May 31, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Spike Lee Comes to Film ‘Chiraq,’ Unsettling Some Chicagoans.”

A July 30, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans? How a rich entrepreneur persuaded the city to let him create his own high-tech police force.”

An Aug. 17, 2017 New York Review of Books article is entitled: “Tenants Under Siege: Inside New York City’s Housing Crisis.”

The article notes:

“One of the largest private security forces in the nation today is the University of Chicago Police, which has full jurisdiction over 65,000 residents, only 15,000 of whom are students.”

2018 study regarding eugenics and architecture

A 2018 study available at the Toronto Public Library is entitled: Eugenics in the Garden: Transatlantic Architecture and the Crafting of Modernity (2018); a blurb reads:

“As Latin American elites strove to modernize their cities at the turn of the twentieth century, they eagerly adopted the eugenic theory that improvements to the physical environment would lead to improvements in the human race. Based on Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of the “inheritance of acquired characteristics,” this strain of eugenics empowered a utopian project that made race, gender, class, and the built environment the critical instruments of modernity and progress.

“Through a transnational and interdisciplinary lens, Eugenics in the Garden reveals how eugenics, fueled by a fear of social degeneration in France, spread from the realms of medical science to architecture and urban planning, becoming a critical instrument in the crafting of modernity in the new Latin world. Journeying back and forth between France, Brazil, and Argentina, Fabiola López-Durán uncovers the complicity of physicians and architects on both sides of the Atlantic, who participated in a global strategy of social engineering, legitimized by the authority of science. In doing so, she reveals the ideological trajectory of one of the most celebrated architects of the twentieth century, Le Corbusier, who deployed architecture in what he saw as the perfecting and whitening of man. The first in-depth interrogation of eugenics’ influence on the construction of the modern built environment, Eugenics in the Garden convincingly demonstrates that race was the main tool in the geopolitics of space, and that racism was, and remains, an ideology of progress.”

3 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    In the updates (at the top of the post) I’ve noted that a Sept. 16, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Could bad buildings damage your mental health? Research has shown city dwellers are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression – but could individual buildings have a negative impact on wellbeing?”

    The evidence that is discussed in the article is of much interest to me. During the 1982-83 academic year at the University of Toronto Faculty of Education, instead of taking a regular course in Educational Psychology, I embarked upon an Independent Research Project. What I learned in the project has stayed in mind for me, in all the years that have followed.

    The topic of my project was the relationship between the environment of school buildings and what happens, by way of learning, inside the buildings. In those pre-internet days, I went to just about every library on campus, and took out every book that I could find that dealt with the topic. It was among the most productive university courses encountered during my early years.

    The above-noted Set. 16, 2016 Guardian article adds to my knowledge of recent research about the relationship between buildings (the inside and outside environments associated with them) and the related social interactions. I am pleased I came across the article.

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A July 7, 2021 New York Times article is entitled: “The climate crisis haunts Chicago’s future: A Battle Between a Great City and a Great Lake.”

    You can access the article if you have a Toronto Public Library membership.

    An excerpt reads:

    Chicago has a weakness at its very foundations. The towering skyscrapers and temples of commerce were built upon a swamp.

    An additional excerpt reads:

    “There are buildings just teetering on the edge of the lake. A few years ago, they had a beach. Now the water is lapping at their foundations,” Josh Ellis, a former vice president of Chicago’s 87-year-old, nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council, said this year. “This is an existential problem for those neighborhoods and, ultimately, for the city.”

  3. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    The reference at this post to changes in urban design in response to the Industrial Revolution brings to mind a May 23, 2021 CBC article entitled: “The pandemic could change the way we design our homes and offices, say experts: After 1918 flu pandemic, easy-to-clean tile in kitchens and bathrooms became popular.”

    Modern movement of architecture as response to 1918 pandemic

    The above-noted article foregrounds the role that the 1918 pandemic played in fostering a new approach to interior design in residential buildings.

    An excerpt reads:

    Looking back a century to the effect that the influenza pandemic of 1918, also known as the Spanish flu, had on architecture and design can offer some clues as to what might change with future post-pandemic design.

    After that pandemic, tile was installed in the washrooms and kitchens of modern households to ensure people could maintain cleanliness. Oversized radiators were also added to bedrooms so people could sleep with windows open, circulating more fresh air.

    The need to keep everything clean after the pandemic also paved the way for minimalism, moving Canadians away from Victorian houses which were usually tightly packed with knickknacks, shelves and upholstered furniture.

    “The whole modern movement of architecture really came out of a concern for cleanliness, light, air and openness and the same thing is going to happen again,” Alter said.

    Modern movement as response to Industrial Revolution

    It may be noted that in Ken Greenberg’s framing (see post above) of the modern movement in architecture, the movement is viewed as a reaction, not in response to the 1918 pandemic, but in response to the Industrial Revolution:

    Greenberg notes that in the aftermath of the European Industrial Revolution, which gave rise to deplorable living conditions in industrial cities, a “modern movement” in architecture emerged.

    He characterizes the movement (p. 22) as “an intellectual time bomb with a very long fuse” fueled by good intentions.

    The modern movement in architecture was motivated by what Greenberg calls (p. 22) “a sincere humanist urge” to address the substandard housing, overcrowding, pollution, noise, soot, disease, and other features of industrial cities that emerged after the Industrial Revolution.

    The modern movement was based on the premise that the methodical logic that had successfully applied inventive engineering to industry could also be applied to how people lived their lives.


    The rise of the modern movement in architecture, that is to say, can be framed in a number of ways. We can add that in general terms, framing plays a key role in our accounts of what has happened in the past, and in our reading of the present moment.


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