Urban Design Library

People and Plans - Essays on Urban Problems and Solutions

Urban Design Library #40
Herbert J Gans

This book came out when I was studying town planning at the Architectural Association and it became one of the main texts on the course where all of us were architects ‘converting’ to planning. It was an attack by a sociologist-turned-planner on architectplanners who then dominated the profession. His criticism was addressed at what he called environmental or physical fallacies: ‘that the physical environment was a major determinant of society and culture; and that only an environment based on professional planning principles could deliver the good life’. The debate around these two claims continues to this day.

The book is not just about this polemic; it includes 29 essays, most of which had already appeared over 20 years in various publications covering a wide range of planning issues. They generally concerned the American situation at the time but with universal relevance, including racial segregation, urban poverty and the failure of urban renewal to eliminate them, suburban life, inner cities, and even the relationship between outdoor recreation and mental health. Not all of Gans’ arguments have stood the test of time, but they are striking in their range and the way that they can stimulate debate even today.

Like his contemporary Jane Jacobs, many of his findings went against the grain, and although the two agreed on what was wrong with city planning, Gans disagreed fundamentally with her suggestions, which he considered narrow and middle class. A whole essay in the book is dedicated to arguing with her: ‘Her blanket indictment of planners detracts from the persuasiveness of the other proposals and antagonizes people who might agree with her on many points’. Their disagreement seemed to have focused on whether neighbourhoods should be diverse or homogeneous in order to promote sociability. Reading this today, with Jacobs something of an untouchable saint, it is fairly refreshing!

Gans’ approach to planning was based on sociology, his first discipline. His influence on my generation was far-reaching and it had the effect of distancing planning from architecture. The establishment of the Urban Design Group was a reaction to this and an attempt, only partly successfully, to reconcile the two professions. The world has moved on: the situation that Gans was facing - poor housing, poverty, social inequality, racism - is still the same, but environmental issues were not on the agenda at the time and now dominate it. Also at the time, white middle class Americans were fleeing the city, whilst today (or at least pre-COVID) they are returning to it. Therefore, some of the issues are different and require newer approaches, but many of the Gans’ observations are still valid.

This book and others by the author (Levittown for example, probably his best know) face the problems of their day and try to offer alternative solutions that are not based on received formulae or on the assumption that physical form will affect behaviour. He sees the role of research as a means of understanding what people wish for their area and considers planning as a way ‘to maximise the choices people can make in all spheres of life’. Gans is convinced that poverty and racism are American society’s fundamental problems and he does not believe that planning can solve them. The essays in Part 2 of this book suggest that planning should be ‘goal oriented’, explaining that it is the people’s goals that need to be identified in a process that is far from simple or evident. Developing this theme, he discusses the relationship between outdoor recreation and mental health arguing that it is more complex than policy-makers assume; he wonders for instance whether public open space responds to people’s needs any better than a small back yard. Post-pandemic, this is a text worth revisiting.

Several essays in parts 3 and 4 deal with suburbs and urban renewal, the two key planning issues at the time. Overall, Gans defends the suburbs against the attacks of the planning profession: he sees them as responding well to most middle class Americans’ wishes, and reflects that their social homogeneity makes for more successful communities. He doesn’t see suburbs as problem-free however, and one essay suggests how to improve residents’ lives. Turning to the ‘urban crisis’ caused by poverty and segregation in inner cities, he attacks urban renewal programmes that end up displacing existing residents and not benefitting them. Amongst his many recommendations,he suggests that ‘redevelopment should be pursued primarily for the benefit of the community as a whole and the people who live in the slum area’. Plus ça change… Re-reading my old and well-worn copy of this book, I am amazed by the number of bits that I underlined. Many of the statements marked seem a bit obvious today but were quasi-revolutionary at the time; many are still challenging. Even if some of Gans’ arguments have become common knowledge and he sounds a bit old-fashioned, he is still very relevant and on occasions surprisingly perceptive and fresh. The book is definitely part of the urban design canon.

Urban designers will no doubt find the lack of illustrations in the book very disappointing and it certainly is. But I was reminded of my tutor at the AA; as we discussed the text, she said with great satisfaction: ‘that shows that you are no longer an architect’. It was meant as a compliment and we took it as such!

URBAN DESIGN 161 Winter 2022 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 161 Winter 2022

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Read On

Jane Jacobs (1961) | The Death and Life of Great American Cities | Random House
Louis Wirth | ‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’ in A.M. Rose, ed. (1962) Human Behaviour and Social Processes | Houghton Mifflin
Robert Goodman (1972) | After the Planners | Penguin Books
Peter Hall (2014) | Good Cities, Better Lives, How Europe Discovered the Lost Art of Urbanism | Routledge
Manuel Castells (2000) | The Rise of the Network Society (Second Edition) | Blackwell Publishing

People and Plans - Essays on Urban  Problems and Solutions Publication Urban Design Group
Basic Books Inc
Reviewed By
Sebastian Loew