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Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Review: Urban Design Since 1945

Urban Design Since 1945: A Global Perspective by David Grahame Shane
Wiley, 2011
Paperback, 360 pages

In David Grahame Shane's previous book, Recombinant Urbanism, the reader learns about the three constituent elements of urban design: enclaves, armatures, and heterotopias. To put it basically, in a city enclaves are buildings (or groups of buildings, in the case of places like Rockefeller Center), armatures are streets, and heterotopias are places of difference that change the city over time. These three elements are also found in Shane's more expansive follow-up, a history of urban design since World War II that looks towards the future and how urban designers today can tackle the ever-expanding urban realm. Yet while these elements rose to the top of the Recombinant Urbanism, here it is Shane's four models of the city in the last 60 years that prevail: the Metropolis, the Megalopolis, the Fractured Metropolis, and the Megacity/Metacity.

The book starts with the introduction of the three urban elements that Shane detailed at length in the previous book; here they are treated rather cursorily as he traces their evolution since 1945. I must admit I was not optimistic during that chapter about the rest of the book, even with the multitude of illustrations of the various enclaves, armatures, and heterotopias; the evolution seemed incomplete. Yet what follows steadily improves, culminating in the Asian megacities that are but one example of the "global perspective" that Shane presents. Each urban model is treated with two chapters: the first defines the characteristics of the model and the circumstances for its evolution; the second presents numerous case studies with plenty of accompanying photos, drawings, and diagrams. While a rough chronology can be drawn from the metropolis in the early 20th century (and even earlier) to the megalopolis today, they are not models that displace the others; some or all co-exist depending on the time, place, and circumstances.

Needless to say, energy sources have and continue to shape the urban environment, and Shane does an excellent job of explaining the power and politics around mainly oil that have helped (for lack of a better word) create the situation we face today. Climate change, rising waters, and other problems arising from a dependence on a nonrenewable resource that is at or past its peak reserves, they are the crises that urban designers face. These problems seem insurmountable, especially when seen in relation to the global urban population and the percentage living in informal settlements with substandard conditions, but nevertheless they are a major part of the 21st century canvas. Things are not futile; think that each generation faces problems that seem worse then what came before, but here it is rooted in a problem of our own making. Shane offers some direction on moving forward, in the context of each model, grounded in built or in-progress examples. It's a view that is optimistic, a quality every urban designer tackling these challenges should have.

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