Can Our Cities Survive Redux

Posted · Add Comment

A message by Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, CSU President

Third Edition of CSU NEWS

In 1942 José Luis Sert, the Catalan architect who helped found C.I.A.M., the International Congresses for Modern Architecture, authored the book based on the proposals formulated by C.I.A.M. entitled “Can Our Cities Survive: an ABC of urban problems, their analysis, their solutions”. Imagine, in the midst of World War II the architectural profession and the planning and design professions, were pursuing remedies to what was thought to be the frightful conditions of ever-industrializing cities around the world. It was a creditable and comprehensive approach to the design of cities and its influence still resonates today.

Sert’s book was complimented by C.I.A.M.’s Athens Charter and the writings of the celebrated Swiss architect Le Corbusier. There is deep history here. The C.I.A.M. group was active since the 1920s and held numerous conferences in different cities, mostly in Europe, to discuss ways to improve the lives of people in cities around the globe. The approach was rich and profound and looked at the totality and the components of urban civilization. These books, these treatises, still deserve review. The issues identified are extensive and, in many cases, well researched and still relevant. In addition to Sert’s book, and Le Corbusier’s writings we can add the Ekistics institute of Constantine Doxiades, another heroic venture into understanding our urbanizing globe, not to mention Buckminster Fuller’s astute contributions.

Europe, war-torn from two world wars, was appropriately obsessed with its post-war reconstruction and the opportunity to build a better industrialized society. The war damage was extensive, the issues were serious, the opportunities were vast, the spirit was aspirational. If the problems caused to cities by industrialization and the advantage taken of the working class could be addressed; if improved housing could be provided for all; if mobility could be managed and pedestrians and automobile traffic separated; if green space, healthy space, could be incorporated; if land use could be rectified and functional conflicts eliminated. How better the world could be!

Sustainability and resilience were hardly on the horizon in the post-war era. Population growth, given the 1950 population of 2.6 billion, was not nearly the global challenge it is today. The phrases “climate change” and “global warming” were years away from being coined. The world was not yet primarily urbanized. Informal communities had yet to dramatically materialize. Yet here we are today, fully facing a range of new issues, challenges, and opportunities only recently, in millennial terms, recognized.

The UN and the Sustainable Development Goals, and the New Urban Agenda, may be the closest we have to the goals of C.I.A.M. and the Ekistics Institute. In many ways their proposal categories still resonate but must be radically altered and adapted to meet our current needs and, learning from the C.I.A.M. experience, we must do better to model all the consequences, including the unintended ones, of our proposals and actions. Our advanced technology, access to integrated civil, smart, and power infrastructure, big data, and AI advances discussed by Sarbuland Khan and Professor Amjad Umar in their accompanying column chart such a path.  And now not only do we want our cities to survive, we want them to prosper, to receive our still burgeoning population, and to support our aspirations to “leave no one behind”. Equity, diversity, and affordability must be part of the path forward. Our urban regeneration and innovation actions, our “15 minute city”, must be sustainable, resilient, agile, and inclusive. That is what the CSU remains committed to, through design!

The CSU has had a rich year. We held a very successful in-person conference on public space and technology at UN headquarters in New York. We published Aliye P. Celik’s new book “Sustainable Urbanization at the UN for Architects and other Design Professionals”. And we undertook three successful events in October 2020 translated by our extraordinary team from in-person to virtual events including the New York World Habitat Day celebration in partnership with UN-Habitat, our 2020 CSU awards Gala, and the inaugural TAG lecture by honoree Claire Weisz. All three programs are discussed in articles in this edition of the CSU NEWS and will be archived and available on our website.Please visit! And just this past October 30th we co-sponsored and participated in the “UN75 Dialogue in observance of World Cities Day Better City, Better Life: Valuing our Communities & Cities”.

I began writing in advance of the Presidential election in the United States. Many of the issues being debated by the candidates were particular to the United States but many others, including the challenges of climate change, global warming, and the pandemic are universal. The U.S. elections are now over and is most likely the U.S. will, thankfully, rejoin the 2016 Paris accord and once again join the global initiatives in pursuit of a more resilient and sustainable future. I have also since screened Sir David Attenborough’s “A Life on Our Planet” and urge everyone to watch his lifetime statement of witness, profound reflection, and testament and then share it as broadly as possible.

While we continue to strive towards the new normal discussed in our spring edition, let us look for hopeful signs and silver linings that help us find our way to happiness through these perilous times. So, Can Our Cities Survive? Our cities face unparalleled challenges however, despite some predictions to the contrary, the answer is, and must be, emphatically, yes!