Up For Discussion

Revenge of the (Urban) Nerds

Which Intellectual Had the Greatest Impact on Our Cities?


When we think of people who shape cities, we often talk of politicians and financiers. But thinking–the work of scholars–can have an outsized impact on the places in which we live. In advance of “James Q. Wilson, Broken Windows and Los Angeles”, a Zócalo event that considers the legacy of the late James Q. Wilson in his native Southern California, we asked four people who think about urban life this question: What scholar or intellectual of the last 50 years has had the greatest impact on the cities we live in today?

Kevin Lynch. Who?

Kevin Lynch was an urban planner and MIT professor who wrote the landmark book, Image of the City, which was published in 1960. The book influenced a generation of urban planners, urban designers and other design professionals. Lynch published the book as a critique of the poorly planned post-war cities (with their urban renewal and urban highways) that tried to compete with the rapidly suburbanizing American landscape. In so doing, he offered a new way of thinking about the psychology of cities. Lynch’s lectures and writings explained how people used mental maps to perceive and navigate through places like cities.

Lynch’s “mental maps” were based on five core elements: paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. You can see those elements in today’s comprehensive plans, master plans and redevelopment plans. Rather than having cities mimic the development patterns of the suburbs, Lynch established a new identity for cities called “imageability”; the term refers to the fact that well-formed objects–and urban elements–leave a strong visual imprint on us. They have imageability. Lynch saw cities as authentic and organic, and argued that they relied more on the pedestrian experience than the driving experience.

Since the 1990s, cities have been making a comeback. Lynch influenced a generation of planners and designers at a time when cities were not fashionable or the preferred places to live. While some may not disagree, I believe New Urbanism, contemporary master planning and placemaking were shaped in part by Lynch. He elevated the role of urban design, city planning and introduced a new consciousness about “sense of place.” Twenty-first century cities owe Kevin Lynch a debt of gratitude for the resurgence of placemaking and good urban design–a resurgence that has been 50 years in the making.

Mitchell Silver is president of the American Planning Association (APA) and Chief Planning & Development Officer for Raleigh, NC.


Le Corbusier, Wright, and Moses

Answering this question challenges my natural inclination to veer toward optimism. So many of our nation’s cities have been injured by insensitive policies and projects implemented over the past 50 years. Today, communities are mostly built in patterns that lead to stress on families, weak local economies, and an almost unbridgeable divide between the “haves and have-nots.” We as a nation have a problem when working families are spending, on average, 52 cents of every dollar just on housing and transportation; when the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reports that people who commute by car more than 15 miles per day are likely to be obese; and when cities are going bankrupt because they can’t afford to maintain the infrastructure they’ve already built or provide services to sprawling areas.

Theories promoted in the past 50 years have been instrumental in shaping both the built landscape and our quality of life. Think of Le Corbusier’s vision of the White City neatly defining separate places for working and living. Or Frank Lloyd Wright’s fantastical drawings of freeways swooping above the ground and reinforcing the notion of individuality over community. Or Robert Moses’ catalogue executing Eisenhower’s National Defense System (a.k.a. the Interstate Freeway System) encircling virtually every downtown in America. All three were instrumental in reversing what had been centuries of wisdom about the design and development of communities. These 20th century theories, meant to stimulate new ideas, were embraced with such gusto that we now have a phenomenally effective system of policies, codes and financing systems that make it all but impossible for communities to provide other options and adopt alternatives.

Through its Sustainable Communities Initiative, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is seeking to change the way the federal government engages with communities, and to support alternatives to the visions of Le Corbusier, Wright and Moses. We believe that people in communities should drive the vision for their future. And, with data, tools and support, the people will make practical decisions about moving forward into the 21st Century.

Shelley Poticha is director for the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


Jacobs? Or Wilson?

I would like to say that it would be that well-known proponent of density and diversity, Jane Jacobs, but it would be more factually accurate to say James Q. Wilson. Since the publication of his landmark article on the “broken windows” theory almost three decades ago, his work has found its way into the daily operations of dozens, yea hundreds, of police departments around the United States. Police officers, like teachers and other civil servants, have a tremendous influence on the character and tenor of urban communities. And Wilson’s work has given local law enforcement agencies the intellectual rigor and scholarly backing to engage in a carte blanche type of selective enforcement of certain violations, often leading to a continued marginalization of inner-city communities, most frequently those containing people of color.

If you are a city booster, place promoter, or public official, Wilson’s policy prescriptions provide the type of gold standard for those seeking to gain acceptance for these ideas. Everyone wants to be “tough on crime”, and this has been a major talking point in just about every municipal and national election over the past thirty years. But looking beyond this mantra of street-level policing, there is much else that has been ignored in the debates about how to solve the ills of urban America. We are only now starting to think about how urban agriculture, community art projects, and so on might weave back the frayed and often completely tattered threads of our urban neighborhoods. It’s about time.

Max Grinnell teaches urban studies at Boston University and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. His writings on cities can be found at and you can follow him on Twitter @theurbanologist.


Le Corbusier, And Not For the Good

Over the course of his 20th-century career, the Swiss-French architect and designer, Le Corbusier, may have influenced the form and composition of contemporary urbanism more than any other singular person. Unfortunately, I would argue that while his intellect and professional work were marked by sincerely humanistic aspirations and inspiring brilliance, his legacy has guided humanity toward destructive policies and projects that threaten our ability to live productively as an urban species.

Le Corbusier is widely regarded as one of the foremost pioneers of the modernist movement in architecture, and his writings and built projects paved the way for huge leaps in creative and technical thought about how humans construct and inhabit space. However, his vision was marred by a misguided love for automobiles, dehumanizing building scales, and top-down planning.

He worked to build revolutionary modern cities all over the world, like the “Radiant City” of Chandigarh in India and the housing blocks of Marseilles, and indeed these prototype projects served as the model for the massive social housing blocks erected to house the poor in cities all across the U.S., Europe and South America. Within one or two generations, these monolithic “slabs” almost always turned into vertical ghettos, disconnecting their inhabitants from vibrant urban street life and discouraging the formation of strong community ties.

The truth is that since the heyday of modernism in the 50’s and 60’s, urbanists have learned that cities are infinitely more complex than designers like Corbusier thought. Top-down, highly formal design of urban space does not allow for the interconnectedness, in both material and social terms, that healthy cities exhibit.

As a student of modernism and a great believer in many of the aesthetic and ethical contributions Corbusier made, it has been tragic to see how he failed so dramatically with his urban theories of tabula rasa and in favor of the car. But it is only with recognition of his mixed legacy that we can do what he so desperately sought to accomplish, which is to create better environments in which we can live, work and play.

Alfredo Brillembourg is co-principal of the international design and architecture firm, Urban-Think Tank. He also teaches and conducts research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich).

*Top photo courtesy of ernest figueras. Photo of Max Grinnell by Lynne Fallo.