Over the past few years, Witold Rybczynski has penned some of the more fascinating pieces that I have read online. He writes about a range of urban planning, architectural, and landscape design topics with an acute sense of how these fields are intrinsically connected to social and environmental issues. Rybczynski publishes many of his pieces in Slate. They often come in the form of well-crafted “slide-show essays” that use photographs to expertly illustrate the themes and ideas that he chooses for discussion.
Several of my favorites have included his essays on “Central Park South: New York Selects a Design for Governor’s Island” and “The Spire of Dublin: A Modern Monument That Points Up What’s Wrong With the World Trade Center Memorial.” Unlike his other pieces, his latest slide-show essay, “If You Build It: Two Visions of the Ideal City Rise in the Persian Gulf,” was his first that left me disappointed.
I first became familiar with Rybczynski’s writing when I worked as a park ranger at Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts. Olmsted and the landscape design firm he headed in Brookline are credited with designing thousands of parks, among them most notably Central Park in New York City. Rybczynski wrote the definitive biography of Olmsted’s life. In A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century, he details Olmsted’s stubborn love of pastoral parks with vivid color, as well as Olmsted’s belief that urban parks held an important role in promoting public health. Olmsted thought that urban parks provided a soothing break from the noises and hustle of city life, and I think he was right. After publication in 1999, A Clearing in the Distance became a bestseller, and to my understanding springshot Rybczynski to a higher level of visibility.
Just as Olmsted and his sons were not only concerned with parks, Rybczynski likewise seems fascinated with the art of urban planning. His writing often references the Olmsteds’ ideas, and I mention all of this because I have a deep respect for Rybczynski and what he promotes. Urban planning is a subject that I also find fascinating. Although as I mentioned, I was disappointed by Rybczynski’s most recent piece.
The article is about how several developers in the Persian Gulf region are “building cities from scratch.” Interestingly, the two cities are being constructed with counter-opposing design ideas. One of the cities will be known as Waterfront City and will feature skyscrapers, residence space for approximately 1.5 million people, and what to me looks like an Epcot-like sphere. The other city will be known as Masdar, and will be powered by alternative energy, have low buildings, and also will include a modern transport system, a pedestrian-only city center, and a population of about 30,000. It will essentially reflect the values of the types of ecocities that have been written about on sister-site Ecoworldly in recent weeks (see links below).
This dream of building the “ideal city” is what is uncomfortable and bothers me. The thought that first came to my mind after reading Rybczynski’s essay was a remembrance of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. It is an overlooked work of Hawthorne’s that in my opinion is quite good and falls into the category of “is it fiction, or was it describing something that really happened to Hawthorne?” The story concerns a man who joins a utopian, egalitarian farm. Not before long, the wheels on the wagon fall off and the dream and ideals of the community all go to hell in a handbasket. No good deed goes unpunished, right?
Well, the heart of the matter for me is why are we trying to build “ideal cities?” Why don’t we instead focus on improving the ones we have so that they are more environmentally responsible, socially just, and pleasant to live in? Perhaps I’m just letting my inner grinch take away from others’ imaginative possibilities for our future, but must we really start “from scratch?” In fairness to Rybczynski, my guess is that he would agree that we should also improve the cities and communities we already have in addition to building new cities based on ideals. Finally, readers, would any of you want to live in Waterfront City, with its skyscrapers and giant sphere? Just asking.
Related in the GO Network:
What Makes an EcoCity? by Gavin Hudson
It’s Irrational that We Don’t Build Ecocities by The Dave Room
The Hacienda, Kenya’s First Eco-City by Sam Aola Ooko
First EcoCity in China Less Than Two Years Away by Gavin Hudson
Auroville: A Universal City in the Making by Govind Singh
Ecocity World Summit 2008 by Keith Rockmael
Green Communities, Part 1: New Urbanism by Philip Proefrock