[This post is adapted with permission from “The Space Was Ours Before We Were the Place’s,” an essay in the anthology Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister.]

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Thus spoke Winston Churchill during the Second World War, during the debate over whether Britain should rebuild the bombed House of Commons just as it had been before. Churchill favored the complete restoration of the initial design, but for reasons that were as much functional as traditional — albeit a kind of mystical functionalism. He believed that the institutions of British parliamentary self-government had been made possible in crucial ways, ways that defied enumeration, by the specific physical structures within which Parliament grew and matured into its present role — even down to the shape and size and seating arrangements of chambers. The space is ours to shape initially, but once we have filled and shaped it, it begins to take on a life of its own, as a place that molds us in turn. One tinkers with such places only at one’s great peril, particularly when the shaping has been done by many hands over many years. Not only does it rattle the bones of the dead, but it may undermine the prospects of those yet unborn, and weaken us by burying memories that deserve to live.

Churchill’s example, and his interpretation of the vital but unplanned role of architecture in the evolution of parliamentary democracy, bring us to an important paradox. Planning and spontaneity seem, on the face of it, to be opposites. But they are not necessarily so, particularly not in the American tradition. As historian Robert Fishman has argued, the American approach to planning has often succeeded by failing; or as Fishman puts it, the best effects of planning have generally been those that emerge out of an “urban conversation,” a wide-ranging, wide-open, and sometimes messy and unruly collision between and among various factions, often entirely self-interested in their motivations, operating sometimes inside the political process, and sometimes outside of it, in which the voice of government and its planning authority is either absent altogether, or comparatively weak and rarely dispositive. In this view, planners must take a back seat; or, as the familiar saying goes, experts should be on tap but not on top. Alexis de Tocqueville captured the virtues of this approach exceedingly well:

Under [democracy’s] empire, what is great is above all not what public administration executes but what is executed without it and outside it. Democracy does not give the most skillful government to the people, but it does what the most skillful government is often powerless to create; it spreads a restive activity through the whole social body, a superabundant force, an energy that never exists without it, and which, however little circumstances may be favorable, can bring forth marvels. Those are its true advantages.

Or as Fishman dryly but aptly summarizes the matter, “the absence of a controlling central power invites collective action outside a bureaucratic hierarchy.” The area of greatest strength in the American planning tradition, he argued, was “coalition-building at the local and regional levels.” And those are precisely the areas in which the revitalization of the American tradition of civic engagement is most vitally needed today.

The visionaries of the Progressive movement in America had something very different in mind. Contemplating the disorder of an industrializing, urbanizing, stratifying, and increasingly polyglot country, they had no faith in spontaneity, and little use for the political process, with its corruptions and inefficiencies. Instead they embraced the “science” of administration, which for them meant the application of “social intelligence” generated by accredited experts in research universities, and administered by civil servants accountable only to the “public interest,” which government alone had the capacity to discover, express, embody, and advance. Although the Progressive movement drew heavily on the nation’s deep reservoirs of Protestant moral passion, it sought to blend such passions with an essentially technocratic ideal. The application of disinterested social research generated by scholars trained in the sciences of government and administration, and applied by disinterested and uncorrupted public officials — including “city managers” who would be appointed rather than elected, and therefore rendered immune to political pressures — would lead to ever-improving governance.

Such a view had obvious applications in the regulation of giant corporations, one of the chief objects of Progressive concern. But it also applied on state and municipal levels. No place was this ideal more fully realized than in Wisconsin, where the state university was consciously envisioned as an embodiment of the social intelligence of the state; its president in 1905, Charles Van Hise, stated that he would “never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state.” One also sees the same idea reflected in the growing influence of “scientific management” as exemplified by the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor.

In the wake of the Second World War, the so-called “liberal consensus” seemed to be a triumphant iteration of the same idea, although in a more self-consciously value-neutral key, drained of any taint of Progressive moralism. It was in a sense a purer realization of the ideal, offering a dispassionate, pragmatic, experimental, flexible, and non-ideological approach to governance, envisioning the American society and economy as a system of countervailing forces that could be kept in balance by intelligent, problem-solving experts. Daniel Bell limned the scene in 1960 with a not-entirely-approving description of the “end of ideology” and “exhaustion of political ideas.” A similar view was laid out in a more upbeat way by President John F. Kennedy in his 1962 Yale commencement speech, where he declared:

What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need is not labels and clichés but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.

Kennedy concluded not with the usual inspirational uplift, but by advising the graduates to take their part “in the solution of the problems that pour upon us, requiring the most sophisticated and technical judgment.” He was coolly ushering them into the ranks of the governing experts.

Small wonder that the large-scale urban-renewal efforts of those same years reflected a similar deference to experts and technicians. Robert Fishman, like Jane Jacobs in her classic work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is severely critical of this move in the world of planning, chiefly because it required that “the urban conversation” be pushed aside in favor of “the technical discourse of the academy and the bureaucracy,” a mode of discourse that “abandoned the strategy of public persuasion for a delusive centralization that sought to bypass the need for public support.” Such an approach has now brought us to a dead end and left us operating in a theoretical vacuum, without a new orthodoxy to replace the discredited one. But Fishman speculates that this theoretical impasse may not be such a bad thing, since it is precisely under such circumstances that a vigorous “urban conversation” would be most likely to return, and flourish.

So, what might it mean to pursue the goal of creating sturdy basic structures that respect, and enable, the free and spontaneous exercise of our human endowment? One highly successful example to offer is the familiar American urban grid, the geometrically regular crosshatching pattern of streets epitomized by Manhattan above 14th Street, and found in the downtowns of most major American cities. There is nothing romantic about a grid; indeed it is, considered by itself, the least evocative form imaginable. But when a grid is laid down as the foundation and template for urban development, it becomes an instrument of freedom. It opens the way to a highly vibrant street life, with maximum permeability and ease of energy flow and navigation, the optimal efficiency in the utilization of space, a cornucopia of architectural variety and diversity of uses — in short, a combination of orderliness and energy exceptionally conducive to human creativity, including such achievements as the New York skyline, a more or less spontaneously arrived-at beauty built up by the largely uncoordinated but near-symphonic collocation of great buildings on a great urban grid….

I am not arguing that there is something sacrosanct about the grid form. Far from it. The point here is a more general one, that the best kind of planning does not seek to rule all things, dictate all details, or spell out all phases of activity, or seek to prescribe or proscribe, as the case demands. It merely seeks to establish the rules within which diverse creative energies can flourish. The grid is only one example of that, providing a simple organizing structure within which individual initiative and choice can be encouraged and made meaningful and effective. There are other, less comprehensive and more organic ways of arriving at the same thing. As the distinguished architectural critic Lewis Mumford put it, in his treatment of the medieval city,

Organic planning does not begin with a preconceived goal: it moves from need to need, from opportunity to opportunity, in a series of adaptations that themselves become increasingly coherent and purposeful, so that they generate a complex, final design, hardly less unified than a pre-formed geometric pattern. Towns like Siena illustrate this process to perfection. Though the last stage in such a process is not clearly present at the beginning, as it is in a more rational, non-historic order, this does not mean that rational considerations and deliberate forethought have not governed every feature of the plan, or that a deliberately unified and integrated design may not result.

This approach is something like the opposite of that of the grid, but it is precisely the openness of the structure to subsequent generations’ free movement from opportunity to opportunity that marks it as exemplary. Once again, we are talking about a plan that enables spontaneity and growth rather than micromanaged details.

A key factor in this openness is the recognition that the making of place must have a participatory dimension if it is to be genuine and enduring. Place is not something that can be manufactured by others or handed over intact from generation to generation. On the contrary, each generation faces the task anew. One thinks of Goethe’s famous adage, placed in the mouth of Faust: Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen (“What you have inherited from your fathers, you must earn or appropriate for yourself, and only then will it be yours”). It is made ours in the very way that John Locke described the act of taking possession of land or some other thing in his SecondTreatise: a thing becomes our property, fully possessed by us, when that thing has been “mixed” with our labor and experiences.

Subsequent generations must be given this opportunity too, a need that may require a special kind of imagination, one that deliberately leaves avenues to be explored, tasks for others to do, heritages to be appropriated freshly, and sufficiently low-hanging fruit to encourage the young to try their own energies on the world. The imperative requirement to respect such future needs is yet another reason to resist the megaproject syndrome, with its conviction that all change must be systemic and revolutionizing, so that in order to change one thing you must change all things at once. How much better to learn to begin where you are, and learn to cherish what you already have. And while historic preservation can easily degenerate into a form of fetishism, treating the past as something to be exhibited rather than something to be lived in, the experience of the century just past should have taught us the importance of not tearing things down unless we absolutely have to. You never know what the future will find to be of use in the past. Consider the examples of Greenwich Village and the New Orleans French Quarter, both areas that were once consigned to the backwaters of urban life, little more than slums, and now are prized (perhaps even overprized) neighborhoods.

But the most important element in fostering a sense of place is to teach ourselves, or let ourselves be taught, to see with fresh eyes the place where we find ourselves. This is the task that the citizens of every city that yearns for an invigorated sense of itself as a place are facing. It is a great and worthy effort, and few objectives could be more conducive to the common good. Let a thousand planning flowers bloom, and let every reasonable expedient be tried. But we should be mindful that there is likely to be a large admixture of the spontaneous and the unexpected in our successes.

Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, and Director of the Center for the History of Liberty, at the University of Oklahoma. The complete and fully referenced version of this essay can be read in Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, published in 2014 by New Atlantis Books/Encounter.

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  1. You seem to be aware that you are conflating the salubrious effects of the grid plan with proper social and urban planning. The Grid, whether it be Salt Lake City, San Francisco or Manhattan is a fine form of legible urban landscape but when we acknowledge terrain in the built environment, we achieve some remarkable effects that provide distinctive spaces. Italian hill towns are a classic example as is the larger city of Piazza Del Campo in Sienna as well as the Acropolis in Greece and the Steps descending to the Black Sea in Odessa. New York was once a city of diverse topography much like its cousin to the north, Westchester County and I wonder how much better a place it might have been if the topography might have been better preserved.

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