1942 Time Magazine’s ‘Biology of Cities’

In 1942, Time Magazine had a brief piece entitled Biology of Cities, about the organic nature of cities. Cities, like organisms, can grow and die, and the architect Jose Luis Sert felt that the continuing life of a city is by no means a given. But he does not give up all hope:

But Mr. Sert and his colleagues do not propose to leave the city to its apparently inevitable fate. Instead of dispersing the city or making it smaller, they would quicken its blood stream by means of express highways; give it air to breathe by surrounding each business and industrial district with a green belt; make it self-contained by providing facilities for recreation and fuller living within the city itself.

The key to their plan is more intelligent use of a city’s third dimension—height. The Sert group propose to house the city’s people in skyscrapers, surrounded by wide open spaces, and by doing so to provide a single solution for a modern city’s two greatest dangers, congestion and bombing.

Looking at this article over sixty years in the future, it is interesting to see what it gets right and what it doesn’t. The inclusion of greater expressways and space for cars has not been the panacea for cities’ ills, and has often caused the loss of community in urban environments (see my previous post entitled New York and Lack of Urban Innovation). However, better transportation (generally public transportation) does help large cities to grow and function.

The design of cities to minimize damage from overhead bombing almost seems laughable nowadays. Nonetheless, cities do still have security in mind.

Lastly, people are also recognizing the need for vertical use of space and self-contained urban environments, since high-density cities are much more energy efficient.

Jose Luis Sert died in 1983. After this article, Sert went on to become the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and designed many buildings, including the Harvard Science Center. It would be nice to see what other kinds of predictions people have made about the future of cities. Please feel free to link to any you know of in the comments below.