Written by journalist and professor, Witold Rybczynski, Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas about Cities offers a brief history of modern urban planning and its evolution over the past century. I hadn’t heard of the book until I came across it at the library, but I was pleasantly surprised by its readability and organization. Makeshift Metropolis is a quick read (I started and finished it this weekend), yet it covers a lot of ground. I would particularly recommend it for someone who is looking for a crash course in urban planning, but has little background knowledge. It spans from the age of Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier—whose ideas about cities created familiar entities like suburbs and high-rise public housing—to Jane Jacobs—the mother of mixed-use, dense city living—to concluding chapters on “The Kind of Cities We Want” and “The Kind of Cities We Need” today.
Rybczynski’s analysis focuses largely on density. Who benefits from it? Who utilizes it? Where is it achievable? He discusses whether cities and developers ought to build dense, mixed-use locales and then wait for people to come (something he exemplifies with a section on failed attempts to develop the Penn’s Landing area in Philadelphia); or whether density should arise naturally. This also brings up the topic of public versus private funding and how it works best.
Being moderately familiar with the history of contemporary urban planning, I tended to skim some of the details I already knew. However, the overall value of the book is in its concise, organized delivery of the topic. As I read the stories of different planners accompanied by myriad examples from past and present cities, I developed a clearer picture of the trajectory of urban development. When I reached the final chapters, I was ready for Rybczynski’s forward-looking summary of potential directions for America’s cities in light of their past.
Overall, the author asserts that cities matter. They are important hubs for idea-sharing, employment revolution, and livelihood—and 27% of the US population lives in a city (a percentage that has doubled in the last hundred years). Based on recent trends Rybczynski also offers that current preferences appear to be for small-scale cities with moderate climates like Santa Fe, New Mexico and Corvallis, Oregon. He suggests that many of the important figures in urban planning history are still making their mark today— albeit in revised fashions—and that in general, we should strive for demand-centered cities with options for density and high-quality transit. If you want to familiarize yourself with the history of urban planning and its effect on our cities, take a look at Makeshift Metropolis.