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Best-laid plans

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The Evolution of American Urban Design: A Chronological Anthology By David Gosling (with Maria Cristina Gosling).Wiley, 2002. 280pp. £45

City planning in America started off so well, with a constitution that specified how cities should be laid out. Then all the predictions of the first fathers went wrong.

America they thought, like Marx, would be an agrarian society, in which the smallest possible cities existed solely for exchange.

They would be mere tenants at the will of each state, which itself might wither. The growth of cities during the 19th century was unpredicted and unwanted. Courts decided that the right of one man to speculate in land and property overcame the communal rights of men to control their own cities.

By the time this was clearly pointed out to Americans by visiting Europeans, the urban damage had already filled bank coffers. City planning had a long way to go to equal the achievements of more authoritarian Europe.

America never caught up, and with the growth of Los Angeles and Houston it became clear that not all Americans relished cities like Sitte's. Indeed, combined with their advanced taste in food, dress and TV shows, it could be argued that dumbingdown was invented there.

During the last century, American cities expanded beyond their tax bases into farmland newly accessible through the interstate highway system. At this point, 1950, David Gosling picks up the story, which he tells in five decade-long chapters. Before going there, Gosling needs to be remembered for the massive contribution he made to education, for his ability to select talented staff and his role as general good guy in the councils of the RIBA. His main literary contribution was to the history and theory of urban design, first with Barry Maitland and now here in this posthumously published book, with one of his daughters listed as co-author.

Quasi-autobiographical as it is, Gosling's passions for Kevin Lynch's ideas and the authority that was MIT; for Gordon Cullen, whose special drawing talent attracted as many as it repulsed in the 1950s and '60s;

and for America, North and South, are as robust as the man. Liberal, humane, nostalgic for civic pride, and dubious about the car, his is a hard position to pursue now, after the period of theoretical destruction ushered in during the 1980s when there ceased to be security about anything.

Early on, Gosling recognises this in his definition of urban design - an integral part of the process of city and regional planning - as primarily three-dimensional but needing to deal with non-visual aspects of the environment such as noise, water, air-pollution and traffic safety. The one aspect he misses is politics, whose vagaries have now spawned an entire vocabulary designed to conceal the creative through the apparently measurable (or, like the post, deliverable).

Gosling thus writes about planning as if the new managerialism did not exist, and is very good at three things. Firstly, tracing history through publications (hence the 'anthology' subtitle); secondly, showing a fascination with a wide range of material from shopping malls to Peter Eisenman; and thirdly, warming the cockles, or embers, of that nice old British liberal imagination that believed New Towns were a triumph. Yet he is aware that form alone will not feed the starving, and conversely that eradicating poverty need not happen before art enters.

He does not want the city to die but fears a dark future. Cyberspace, the Internet, the 'burbs and the mall, all turn downtown into a song not a place, but it is still there, inhabited by the familiar gang of displaced people who cannot find a regular home in the outer rings - ie intellectuals (freaks).

So why should this old-time city, which some cannot live without, and most cannot live within, be anything other than one option among many? Intellectual life can occur within the smell of cow dung - Oxford and Cambridge, for example - but not everyone prefers it. In their case, fast train lines and motorways change the smell in the nostrils. Cities, what urban design is concerned with, are perhaps so different that just because the noun 'city' can be put into the plural does not mean, ipso facto, that a single agenda can be applied to all.

This is perhaps the most surprising omission from Gosling's book. Dominated by East Coast writers, and by examples drawn from his adopted Cincinnati, he is less than generous with examples from the South (New Orleans, Miami, Houston) or the West (Seattle, Portland, San Francisco or LA).

Canada is mentioned only a few times.

And still the battle against the forces of darkness is not joined. They are not named.

Planning enters the ring in the US tainted with the fear of socialism and pitted against the giant capitalism, whose forms are not just those companies who can go bust while paying their leaders a king's ransom, but also the government in its various forms - city, state, federal and increasingly the judiciary.

Gosling cannot help but believe in the rational overcoming the irrational. However, he did not live long into the era of Bush Jnr.

David Dunster is professor at the University of Liverpool

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