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Planning History: Utopian Planners Essay

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Updated: Dec 26th, 2019


Urban planning has evolved into different forms throughout the history of cities and city planning. Urban planning aims at improving a city to cater for the future social and economic needs of its inhabitants. It seeks to link the existing knowledge with the appropriate forms of action (Sager 1992, P. 67). Planning, therefore, has to be visionary with an appropriate idea about the future design of a city and the implementation of that design.

Modern urban planning entails two different approaches; visionary city planning that involves radical changes in the design of the city with substantial social and economic changes, and the institutionalized city planning, which proposes changes to the existing city structures and is affected by the prevailing economic and political forces within the city.

Historically, urban city planning began in the nineteenth century with the sole purpose to regulate the new urban growth brought about by industrialization and improvement of transport and communication following the invention of the railway (Sitte 1965, P. 43). Military strategies to control territories and aesthetics of expression of cities significantly influenced visionary urban planning in the nineteenth century.

Although visionary city planning made many achievements in city building, many of which are still monumental and beautiful today, it remained insensitive to the wider needs of the society and would have been disastrous if implemented on a large scale. The poor living conditions of the urban poor, forced most middle class urban dwellers towards the end of the nineteenth century to begin agitating for reforms in city planning, which culminated into utopian planning (Cherry 1970, P. 87).

Central to this movement was Ebenezer Howard, who conceptualized the ‘garden city’ to be the ideal alternative to the city planning of the nineteenth century. The garden city was an attempt to connect the vision for a new social order to the spatial expression of the city (Fisherman 1977, P. 23).

Le Corbusier conceptualized the “Contemporary City for Three Million People” in 1922 and the “Radiant City” in 1935 both of which proposed a centralized city with high population and many facilities including skyscraper buildings and residential apartments (Cherry 1970, p. 89). Frank Lloyd Wright on the other hand, envisioned the Broadacre City plan in 1935, which was a decentralized city with low population and suburban residential homes (Mumford 1946, p. 42).

Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City

The garden city was a brilliant idea conceived by Ebenezer Howard in response to the environmental and social changes that were results of industrial revolution in Britain. Industrial revolution encouraged migration into urban areas and consequently led to poor and unhealthy living conditions in cities.

In a bid to curb overpopulation in cities and the associated deterioration of social facilities, Howard envisioned an organized planned dispersal, whereby people could set up industries in towns to provide the services and various occupations to the people of a particular culture within the town (Gossel & Leuthauser 1991, p.94). He also envisioned that the population size in the towns be reduced to about 30,000 inhabitants so that the inhabitants could live and work within walking distance.

In this way, the garden cities could provide social facilities near the residential places and avoid overpopulation in cities. The garden cities also comprised of a spacious layout to for occupation by residential suburban houses, parking space for the residents and enough space for schools and other social amenities. The garden city envisioned the larger urban system as a network of interlinked communities.

It proposed a close link between the town and the countryside with a clear definition of the country, which the design would reserve for agriculture. It also provided for easy access by the urban residents to the countryside (Hall & Ward 1998, p.71). It also envisioned the creation of common developmental and social facilities that would lead to neighborhoods and estates within cities.

To control the city development, Howard envisioned a unified land ownership, whereby the trust ownership controlled the agricultural zone. He also envisioned a cooperative municipal enterprise, which would regulate trade and industry in the cities without affecting the individual freedom with regard to trade and industry.

The main major purpose of the garden cities was to promote dispersal of the people from major cities using the three magnets concept. The garden city provided a channel for an organized relocation of the city dwellers to other towns to relieve the pressure on social facilities and the impacts of overpopulation in the major cities in the nineteenth century (Hall & Ward 1998, p.81).

However, dispersal could have happened in any case because of majority of the urban dwellers avoiding the problems of overpopulation could have sought a better environment either in the suburbs or in smaller towns away from the cities (Fishman1977, p.153). Still, the garden city was an ideal alternative to reducing congestion in the cities. The cities of the nineteenth century experienced traffic congestion and provided little room for expansion.

In contrast, the planned new towns provided an opportunity to avoid problems of overpopulation by providing the right infrastructure to match the expanding population growth in the major cities. Despite Howard’s garden city concept providing an opportunity to reduce urban congestion by promoting decentralization of industries and facilities, its implementation could have been disastrous.

According to Howard, the social city concept entailed one garden city giving rise to another garden city after attaining a population threshold of 30,000 inhabitants (Howard 1902, p.14). However, this would have produced a cluster of interdependent towns that would be expensive to administer. Verma (1996) points out that despite the noble nature of the garden city concept, the many new regional centres would have been economically expensive to administer as opposed to a small number of large centres (p.43).

Fundamental to the concept of the garden city was the neighbourhood idea, where the people would live within walking distance to their workplaces, shops, primary schools and public spaces. The idea behind this concept was the need to establish some kind of balance between work and homes. However, Howard based this concept on the belief that the population growth would match industrial expansion to cut down the level of commuting back and forth the workplaces.

The concept would not have worked; firstly, given that industrial growth leads to population increase due to attraction of immigrant workers into cities, establishment of smaller towns would not have encouraged outward labour mobility since many people worked in the industrialized cities (Cherry 1970, p.61). Secondly, the workers in the new towns would have been still dependent on the employers in the major cities and thus would continue working in the major cities.

Under the garden city concept, people from all social classes were to move to the smaller towns including the employers. This would be possible through provision of various incentives to employers, thereby attracting them to invest in the small towns. Such incentives included already built factories on lease among others (Fishman 1977, p.154).

However, given that, the cost of operating a new franchise is high few employers could have relocated their businesses to the smaller towns. In addition, relocation of large factories would have exerted unprecedented pressure on infrastructural facilities further affecting transport and communication.

Howard envisioned that the establishment of the garden city would encourage people to move into the city and as a result, the population would steadily rise to maximum of 30,000 inhabitants, after which another city would arise (Fishman1977, p.321). In addition, Howard envisioned that the establishment of the garden city would result into a rise in land value, which would generate enough money to pay off the investors and finance schools, parks, museums and other public places.

However, Howard failed to note that for the land value to rise, productivity in the garden city had also to be high (Sager 1992, p.73). Obviously, rise in land values alone would not achieve productivity of the garden city; it also required increase in productivity of the enterprises and factories established in the garden cities. In this regard, investors could only benefit if there was a rise in productivity of their enterprises rather than on rise in land value.

Surplus productivity in the garden city would encourage capital and labour flows into the garden city, which would create more congestion in the garden city than anywhere else would. The physical realization of Howard’s garden city was in the construction of the city of Letchworth guided by architects, Raymond Urwin and Barry Parker.

The design of the residential homes of this garden city was attractive but it took longer than Howard had anticipated for the city to attract people (Glasscock 1996, p.24). After 35 years of Letchworth’s establishment, it had only 15,000 inhabitants compared to the population of 30,000 anticipated. In addition, most workers could not afford houses in the garden city with some opting to commute from other towns while others opted for cheap informal settlements set up by speculators. The envisioned idea of the garden city did not match the Letchworth city in terms of architecture and social life.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s and the Broadacre City

Broadacre City was Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept for the ideal multi-cantered, low density, suburbs. The utopian planner introduced this scheme with an aim of decongesting cities in 1932 in his book, The Disappearing City. In terms of population density, Broadacre city, catered for a low population with a density of five people per acre. The scheme aimed at reducing congestion in cities to avoid development of informal settlement.

In contrast to Ebenezer’s garden city, which involved turning the city into a suburban countryside, the Broadacre city converted the countryside into a city (Rybczynski 2005, p. 17). The spread of the Broadacre city would constitute an urban where each family had access to small farms and recreational sites with industrial and other urban facilities placed a few miles from the residential places.

The Broadacre city plan embodied economic reforms based on Wright’s model of democracy, which he described as Usonia. The Usonia was against Marxist’s socialism ideology and Wright derived it from the ideas of the nineteenth century utopians like Edward Bellamy and Thorstein Veblen. The Wright’s plan allowed the families to own homes and relieved them from property owners.

Wright assumed that the land use would be the responsibility of the owners (Rybczynski 2005, p.132). Under Wright’s plan, the land would be public and then redistributed to the private owners including families, who would use the land productively. Therefore, the Usonia concept opposed cooperation but encouraged individualism whereby it encouraged private ownership of land.

The Broadacre city offered an opportunity to ordinary people to live in countryside lifestyle while enjoying the economic opportunities and recreations associated with urban centres. Wright’s plan envisioned that the residential houses adopt any design the owners preferred with no two houses built the same so long as the structures, the construction method and the materials used in the construction were integral and natural.

A central civil authority would have the responsibility of determining what is natural and integral to the place. The plan envisioned an “a sprawling, open, individualistic structure” where families would live in suburbs surrounding urban centres (Duany, Zyberk, & Speck 1992, p. 54). Wright realized that in his plan physically separate the communities.

The plan brought communities of interest together through communication and transportation and the process would replace the physical communities of a place. However, Mumford criticised the plan’s suggestion of establishing an individualistic structure by referring to it as being antisocial that would affect the decongestion of the cities.

It is evident that Wright’s plan would have turned out to be disastrous if implemented. The suburbia would not match Broadacre City’s low densities, which Wright envisioned would become suburbs. Under the Broadacre plan, the buildings were concentrated in the city centre, where offices and industries were located.

This would have contributed to congestion within the city, as more activities were concentrated there (Duany, Zyberk, & Speck 1992, p.231). Wright’s Broadacre city intended to reduce congestion from the city centre; however, concentration and dispersal are a common occurrence in cities. In addition, Wright assumed that the rise in land value would promote economic development and improvement in the standards of living.

However, land alone cannot contribute to economic prosperity particularly in cities (Rybczynski 2005, p. 42). Economic prosperity in cities allows more people to own land and homes hence his assumption that increase in land value would lead to dispersal could have turned out to be incorrect as more people could afford land leading to concentration.

Wright never envisioned the suburban homes to be sites of wealth production in the future. Nowadays, suburban homesteads can be used to generate income through crop farming and livestock rearing, which can support families living within city suburbs. Broadacre plan was not fully implemented as Wright had envisioned. Nowadays, the city suburbs do not match what Wright had envisioned in his Broadacre city plan (Hall, & Ward 1998, p. 75).

This indicates an appropriate judgment considering that the rationale behind Broadacre City was Wright’s program of social reform. In essence, the substance of Broadacre City was aesthetic and to curb the problems occasioned by overpopulation (Ritzdorf 1996, p. 212). Wright envisioned a system of governance in Broadacre city that promoted architecture and aesthetics with regard to particular culture rather than on physical city construction laws.

Wright did not seek to protect nature but rather he proposed the establishment of homes in the countryside (Muschamp 2001, p. 67). This would have affected nature and wildlife. Wright defended his plan by suggesting that establishment of the city within the country side would not affect nature but would contribute to improved quality of the building and the city. However, establishment of human settlements in countryside forests would have adversely affected the wildlife.

In addition, the Broadacre city plan cannot be a conventional architectural design for all cities because of its emphasis on aesthetics but rather a plan designed to redeem a particular city from the challenges of high population by promoting dispersal. Nevertheless, Wright’s plan would have found a role in the modern urban planning, which increased demand for aesthetics as its central aspect characterizes (Duany, Zyberk, & Speck 1992, p. 27).

Most people demand public action to prevent acquisition of public places as part of aesthetics. In this regard, people feel that aesthetics, as enshrined in Wright’s plan, are both a public and private affair and building homes away from the city center is a common phenomenon nowadays.

LeCorbusier and the Radiant city

LeCorbusier’s Radiant city concept arose out of a new concept of expanding the individual freedoms and establishing a capitalist economy. The plan involved clearance of the existing prehistoric cities followed by the rebuilding of a modern city using modern architectural designs (Le Corbusier 1967, p. 41). Under this plan, quality housing, les unites, would be available to everyone based on the size of each family.

He envisioned a city with buildings five meters above the ground and therefore ensuring allocation of more land to nature. Within the les unites, would be pedestrian streets linking buildings together (Richards 2003, p.114). Le Corbusier suggests that the center of the radiant city would mainly composed of commercial buildings mainly skyscrapers (about 5%) while the surrounding area (95%) would be occupied by trees and parks.

Residential buildings taking a zigzag shape would surround the city center. The residential buildings would house catering and accommodation services. In essence, Le Corbusier based his plan on the belief that modern age architecture should be suitable and expressive of modernism. In the Radiant city design, he employed architectural skills and picture designs to develop his idea of the city as opposed to a rational basis (Etlin 1994, p. 72).

Le Corbusier, unlike Howard, did not belief in the natural economic order but believed that leadership within the society was important (Serenyi 1975, 82). In his plan of the radiant city, Le Corbusier envisioned a pyramid of hierarchies with the workers occupying the bottom position so that the order would prevail in the society (Fisherman 1977, p. 211).

The leadership would occupy the top position in his plan of the radiant city for easy administrative control of the workers. Le Corbusier envisioned social lifestyle of the citizens of the radiant city. He saw that division of labor within the society would promote unity and cooperation, which is necessary to promote economic growth (Fisherman 1977, p. 65).

Unlike his first design of the Contemporary city of three million people, where he designed the residential buildings according to economic classes arranged around the business center of the city, he designed the Radiant city for all people with less regard to the economic classes (Le Corbusier1967, p. 87). The les unites accommodated every member of the society regardless of his/her economic status and promoted cooperation and equality (Fisherman1977, p. 41).

Additionally, Le Corbusier integrated nature into the residential areas by allocating less land to residential housing and the rest to nature. Despite Le Corbusier design of the Radiant city providing a way of promoting equality and individual freedoms, the plan raised many concerns. Kennedy (1998, p. 53) believed that Le Corbusier individual freedom that were promoted by the Radiant city design were not personal liberties since Le Corbusier did not consult the citizens for whom he was planning for (Curtis1986, p. 112).

His design of the facilities, services, and rules were more favorable to him rather than to the other citizens reducing the citizens into mere performers with no say in issues affecting their social life (Verma 1996, p. 72). Moreover, under the Radiant city plan, individuals had no say in the administration or governance issues affecting their lives and the plan expected them to act rationally all the time with antisocial behavior not conceived in his plan (Kennedy 1998, p.54).

In this respect, the plan did not cater for social problems such as crime in the society. In addition, the plan did not address the needs of minority members of the society but rather considered that all citizens were equal. However, it was highly unlikely that all the people would behave rationally with no criminal or social problems taking place within the radiant city. In this regard, Le Corbusier assumption that humans would behave rationally with no crime or any social problems occurring was rather naïve than real (Kennedy 1998, p. 63).

In the radiant city, Le Corbusier notion of authority was rather bureaucratic and patriarchal than administrative (Sennett 1980, p. 74). The plan, less grand unities, reserved for the administration the top part of the residential houses consisting of multi-storey buildings and skyscrapers, which represented a paternalistic authority (Kennedy, 1998).

In addition, Hawkins (1997) while supporting the radiant city design concept as a way of providing housing for the masses in the wake of unprecedented population growth occasioned by industrial revolution argues that the design would have ultimately led to congestion in future (, p. 82).


The theories of Howard, Wright, and Le Corbusier were remarkable providing an alternative to the architectural designs of the nineteenth century urban planning. In addition, they offered solutions to the social problems experienced in the nineteenth century cities and promoted quality of living for the citizens.

However, the plans failed to address all the social aspects affecting the nineteenth century cities and consequently their implementation would have produced disastrous results. Despite the plans having a visionary view of connecting humans with nature, they failed to address issues related to human history and the future population growth needs.

Reference List

Cherry, G., 1970. Town Planning in the Social Context. London: Leonard Hill

Curtis, W., 1986. Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.

Duany, A., Zyberk, E., & Speck, J., 1992. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: Routledge

Etlin, R., 1994. Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier: The Romantic Legacy. New York: Manchester University Press

Fishman, R., 1977. Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press. Glasscock, R., 1996. Ebenezer Howard: 1850-1928 and the Garden City. Advanced journal in Policy Studies: Sustainable Urban Design, 15(7). pp. 126-142.

Gossel, P., &Leuthauser, G., 1991. Architecture in the Twentieth Century, Berlin: Benedikt Taschen

Hall, P., & Ward, C., 1998. Sociable Cities: The Legacy of Ebenezer Howard John. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Howard, E., 1902. Garden Cities of To-morrow. London: Routledge.

Kennedy, R., 1998. Le Corbusier and the Radiant City Contra: True Urbanity and the Earth. Advanced journal in Policy Studies: Sustainable Urban Design, 15(7), pp. 221-223

Le Corbusier., 1967. The Radiant City. New York: The Orion Press Mumford, L., 1946. Green-Belt Cities: The British Contribution. London: Faber and Faber

Muschamp, H., 2001. File Under Architecture. New York: MIT Press

Richards, S., 2003. Le Corbusier and the Concept of Self & New Haven London: Yale University Press.

Ritzdorf, M., 1996. Feminist Thoughts on the Theory and Practice of Planning. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell

Rybczynski, W., 2005. City Life. New York. Blackwell publishers

Sager, T., 1992. Why Plan? A Multi-Rationality Foundation for Planning. Scandinavian Housing & Planning Research, 9, pp. 129-147

Sennett, R., 1980. Authority. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. Hall Publishers.

Serenyi, P., 1975. Le Corbusier in Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Publishers.

Sitte, C., 1965. City Planning According to its Artistic Principles. New York: Random House

Verma, N., 1996. Pragmatic Rationality and Planning Theory. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 16 (1), pp. 5-14

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