Question at the beginning of urban planning: “beautiful people or beautiful cities”?

Here is part of an overview of the “birth of urban planning” and how the field began with a “focus on place at the expense of people”:

Before then, there were three types of people thinking about how a city should look and function — architects, public health officials, and social workers. Each group approached the question of city building very differently.

The architects were focused on the city as a built environment, implementing ideas like L’Enfant’s grand vision for Washington, D.C., and the New York City grid (set out by the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811). The public health professionals, on the other hand, were consumed with infrastructure. They knew there was a connection between certain diseases and social conditions, even if they didn’t know precisely what it was. Planning how a water system would work, or where waste should go, or how to get garbage out of a city, was the most effective way to stop diseases from spreading (see, for example, John Snow, who figured out in the 1850s that a single water pump on Broad Street in London had infected hundreds of people with cholera). And lastly the social workers wanted to use the city to improve the lives of the people living there. They wanted cleaner tenements, spaces for immigrant children to play, and more light and fresh air for residents.

These thinkers were brought together by the pressure cooker that was the Industrial Revolution. “At that moment, we began to look for technological ways to expand the city,” says Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “All of a sudden here’s a pressure to comprehensively plan. You can’t just put a privy wherever you want.”…

At that conference, and in the years that followed, any one of these early urban planning strains could have taken over as the intellectual giant in the field. Though the social workers and the public health officials continued to play a role, urban planning’s intellectual history ended up grounded in architecture.

That outcome is thanks in a large part to the creation of the country’s first urban planning school, at Harvard. The University founded a school of landscape architecture in 1898. It was, effectively, a vanity project, slavishly devoted to Frederick Law Olmstead (in fact, it was started by Olmstead’s son). At the same time, It was a place to start. Soon after, they began offering classes in city planning, a first for higher education in America.

This could be an intriguing intellectual “what if”: what if urban planning had initially followed a public health or social work path? How might our cities be different and how would that have changed our culture?

This reminds me of the roots of sociology. Like urban planning, sociology became a more formal academic discipline around the turn of the 20th century. While some people had been practicing sociology and urban planning, it took time for this to become institutionalized and formalized. Similarly, American sociology had its roots in a few influential departments, particularly Chicago, which shaped the early years of the field. Indeed, I suspect a number of the social sciences were formalized in this period as the cultural turn toward science and rationality combined with expanding college campuses.

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