Nuance vs. reductionism in the planning approach

In the 17th century, philosophical ideas began to crystallize regarding the nature of reality and our ability to understand it. The work of such intellectual titans as Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton marked the beginning of the belief in rational thought – that the universe could be described in individual pieces and could therefore be organized in order to achieve a predictable outcome. The subsequent formulation of the modern scientific method and rapid advances in the natural sciences solidified the validity of this approach in the minds of both observers and practitioners. The onset of the industrial revolution, due in large part to advances enable by the scientific method, shifted cultural and social norms. Rapid urbanization brought scores of people to from rural areas to the cities. It didn’t seem unreasonable to thinkers of the day to apply the same techniques that worked with the natural sciences to the social sciences. In particular, the emerging theory and practice of town planning was subjected to a predominantly rational, mechanistic approach.

It was out of these conditions that the work of Ebenezer Howard emerged. Although he is remembered as one of the most prominent figures in the history of town planning, Peter Hall describes him as a ‘social visionary’ rather than a ‘physical planner’ (p. 91). Howard’s central thought can be best summed up in his well-known diagram of the three magnets: the town, the country, and the town-country. Observing both the abysmal living conditions for many in London and the lack of social and economic opportunities in the country, Howard, in a very mechanistic, Newtonian fashion, reduced the problem to two elements: a paucity of space in the city and reduced prospects in the country. He would solve both of these by combining the benefits of city and countryside into his third magnet – the town-country.

Howard imagined that, through careful rational and logical deduction, he could understand the components of a successful city and society. The first chapter of his seminal book, Garden Cities of Tomorrow, describes his design for the new cities he envisions. The hallmarks of his Garden City include strict zoning and separation of work, housing, recreation, and public affairs. Ample open space and wide boulevards ensured inhabitants were never far from essential services. That first chapter, it seems, is both what he is remembered for and where many of his critics stop reading. The drawings and layouts that Howard shows do not represent a detailed, formal design. Howard was more intentional about what appears after his generalized description of the city. He examines the financial and social structure of the proposed cities in prose that reads as an advertisement to a potential investor. The specifics are often left considerable margin, but the point is well illustrated. Howard isn’t trying to simply build a new city, he is trying to reorganize society in the way he knows how: by reducing the problem to separate components, analyzing the components, and reassembling them into a better whole. Scientists of the time would have been proud.

Shortly after the publishing of Howard’s work, a young physicist began developing and publishing ideas that would uncover weaknesses in the Newtonian conception of gravity. By extension, deficiencies in the mechanistic approach to understanding reality that had pervaded popular thought began to be acknowledged. If there was now a layer of subtlety to consider in a science as fundamental as physics, the nuance inherent in society must be especially pronounced. Though his Garden Cities were never extensively constructed, many of Howard’s underlying assumptions permeated planning thought in the following decades. As the natural sciences were exploring new mental methods for probing the world, Howard’s successors fixated on his ideas of centralized planning, reducing any problem they saw into individual components and manipulating them from this simplistic perspective. Subtleties of interaction, perspective, and scale were not conceded in a developed manner.

Approximately 60 years after Garden Cities of Tomorrow was published, Jane Jacobs, an urban critic residing in New York, published The Death and Life of Great American Cities. From the first page she makes no apologies for her writing, describing it as ‘an attack on current city planning and rebuilding’ (Jacobs 3). She centers this attack on the philosophy of Howard and those he influenced, calling his ideas ‘city-destroying’ (pp 18) and describing his approach to town planning as that of a ‘19th century physical scientist’. Jacobs contends that Howard’s understanding of the problem is far too simplistic – life does not proceed in mechanistic order. Cities are not evil; they simply need a proper diagnosis. She rails against his separation of concerns. For Jacobs, a well-functioning urban area emerges not out of design, but out of the variety of human actions that take place there. The key to these areas is diversity. This diversity does not refer to a mixture of ethnicities and cultures, but the absence of a dominant mode of living and the vast regions of monotony she saw in the plans of Howard.

She identifies four necessary conditions for city diversity, explaining her rationale for each based on observation. The first cornerstone is the need for the district and its internal parts to have as many uses as possible. The cities we love are filled with people that use them and interact throughout the day. Buildings that encourage an ever-changing mix of commercial and residential use ensure the continuous presence of people, creating and maintaining the vibrancy and safety so desired by planners and citizens. Long stretches of inactivity lessen the life of the area, rendering them stiff, stagnant, and unwelcoming. A mixed-use development will have residents present in the mornings and evening, people shopping and working throughout the day, and the presence of a restaurant or pub will keep them into the night. Their very presence enlivens a place, making it desirable and attracting more of the same.

The second condition is that city blocks should be kept small, encouraging residents to turn corners, take alternate routes, and explore their neighborhood. The smaller the blocks, the greater the amount of streets, and the greater the sense of connectivity. Diversity is encouraged as businesses are not confined to particular meeting places of the long blocks, but can populate along the shorter blocks and frequent roads as foot traffic is spread throughout the community.

Jacobs provides an intriguing financial argument coupled with her third condition – the necessity of older buildings. Newer development, though it may appear pretty, is expensive. The only businesses that could afford the rent are those that are already established or have significant backing. Large chains and box stores are the common customers, enterprises that Jacobs unsurprisingly decries. Restoration and maintenance of older buildings allows smaller, interesting ventures to survive and contribute to the character and diversity of the urban area.

Finally, Jacobs recommends that urban areas be as concentrated as possible, but is careful to distinguish between concentration and overcrowding. Suburban sprawl, promising an idealized bucolic setting, leads to homogeneity and dullness, the enemies of a vital urban neighborhood. Public amenities and transportation may be seen as unnecessary. Concentrated residential and commercial life house distinct needs, encouraging diverse enterprises to support residents. Although overcrowding is a damages a city, density is critical to maintain diversity and community health.

Jacobs four necessary conditions stand in contrast to Howard’s ideals of the Garden City. Where he praised the virtue of open space, she demonstrated the necessity of density. Her ideal city was one populated by regions of mixed use, where Howard kept a strict separation of activities. The Garden City was to be connected by long, broad boulevards, with simple and regular routes of travel. Jacobs indicates the benefits of shorter blocks, intricate neighborhoods, and myriad paths to the same destination. Finally, the advantages of older buildings explained by Jacobs stand in contrast to Howard’s ideal of a new, uniform architecture that would define the city built on a new site. Their difference of opinion on the built form leads to their great, underlying assumptions: Howard sees the city as a place of suffering that can only be fixed by beginning anew, and Jacobs sees the city as a place of potential good that can be healed.

Although their opinions on the design of cities differ, Howard and Jacobs have one critical trait in common: they are both of their time. By taking the Newtonian/Cartesian reductionist approach, Howard addressed the planning of a city in the way that made most rational sense. He looked at the problem from an outsider’s perspective, reduced it to basic parts, and constructed a solution based on those observations and a belief in the benefits of centralized planning. Jacobs employed careful observation of the city as a resident and the benefit of 60 years’ hindsight to construct her argument that this traditional approach wasn’t working. Her writing bears resemblance to the attitudes that had begun to permeate scientific philosophy since Einstein’s ideas – a sophisticated understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that the relationships between entities are as important as the entities.

It is clear that these two books are expressions of important, opposing ideologies and their subsequent influence cannot be overstated. Addressing one of the central tenets of planning – that it is better to plan, and that experts should be responsible – both Jacobs and Howard mimic social and scientific premises of their time. It is of interest, however, that we are now nearing 60 years since the publication of Jacobs’ classic, and perhaps we are due for a similar shake up of our understanding.


Hall, Peter. 2014. Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design since 1880 (4). Somerset, GB: Wiley-Blackwell.

Howard, Ebenezer. 1902. Garden Cities of Tomorrow. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co.

Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.