A blog post comparing the Athens Charter, written by modernist architects in the 1930s, to traditional urbanism and modern sprawl.
When I read about the historical roots of suburban sprawl, I occasionally see a reference to CIAM (the International Congress of Modern Architecture), a group of modern architects prominent in the early and mid-20th century. I recently read a translation of the CIAM's 1933 Athens Charter; their views certainly tended to promote sprawl, but much of American sprawl would be alien to CIAM's 1930s activists.
CIAM certainly shared the density-phobia that motivated many 20th century policymakers. Paragraphs 9 and 10 of the charter assert that urban density is "too great" and "unhealthy due to insufficient space within the dwelling, absence of usable green spaces and neglected maintenance of the buildings" as well as "the presence of a population with a very low standard of living." It seems to me that CIAM erred in confusing the latter with the former: buildings are poorly maintained not because they are dense or crowded, but because their inhabitants are poor. The absence of "usable green spaces" is not a result of density; in fact, the most dense places (such as Manhattan) often have the most parks and playgrounds. CIAM noted that urban places often had 400-600 inhabitants per acre (para. 9); it is not clear, however, what densities CIAM would have considered healthy.
In addition, CIAM was pro-road. The Athens Charter complains that "inappropriate street dimensions prevent the effective use of mechanized vehicles" (para. 53) and "Street widths are insufficient" (para. 55). But rather than completely ignoring pedestrian needs as did midcentury American policymakers, they did propose to accommodate pedestrians with separate routes (para. 62)—although they failed to explain how these pedestrian routes would be connected to commercial areas. This part of the CIAM agenda does seem to have been implemented in a few places, such as in Radburn, New Jersey (where separate pedestrian pathways complement the street system on some residential blocks)—but even in Radburn, a pedestrian would normally use traditional streets to reach stores.
Unlike pro-sprawl commentators such as Frank Lloyd Wright, CIAM is not obsessed with the large-lot single-family home: indeed, the CIAM Charter barely even mentions the concept. Instead, CIAM focuses on high-rises, asserting that they should be "placed at wide distances apart [to] liberate ground for large open spaces" (para. 29). The Charter's interest in high-rises suggests that they took widespread high-rise construction for granted. However, we now know that CIAM's "Towers In A Park" urbanism does not contribute to walkability, but instead creates vast, sterile open spaces. To see the CIAM Dream in its least atrocious form, one should visit not the typical American suburb but Detroit's Lafayette Park, a neighborhood near downtown with high-rises, garden apartments, and lots of park space in between.
The Athens Charter does mention suburbs, but only in passing, noting that suburbs "have developed without plans" (para. 20) and often lack funds for necessary services (para. 22). I suspect that the notion of suburbs as the dominant form of development would have been alien to the Charter’s drafters.
Like both today’s sprawl lobby and today's new urbanists, CIAM was obsessed with congestion and commuting. They wrote that "[t]he time spent in journeying to work has reached a critical situation" (para. 43) and urged that "Distances between work places and dwelling places should be reduced to a minimum" (para. 46).
But unlike pro-sprawl activists, CIAM did not feign interest in the free market. They complained that "In the absence of planning programs, the uncontrolled growth of cities …caused industry to settle haphazardly" (para. 44). Similarly, they complain about "The irresponsibility of private enterprise" (para. 72) and conclude that "Private interests should be subordinated to the interests of the community" (Para. 94).
In sum, the CIAM Charter supports some of the ingredients of modern sprawl (such as wide roads and lowered densities)—but other parts of sprawl (such as the dominance of suburbia) seem alien to its agenda.
European Cities Act on Density
The sprawling mass of suburbia has been a disaster for the environment. But now smaller, denser cities herald a renaissance in city living.
The Top Urban Planning Books of 2022
An annual list of the must-read books related to urban planning and its intersecting fields.
Nashville Sets Downtown Parking Maximums
Nashville is the latest city to enact a substantive change to the parking requirements set by the city’s zoning code—doing away with parking minimums and setting parking maximums in the city’s Urban Zoning Overlay.
Detailing the Boring Company’s Poor Track Record
Elon Musk’s promised solution for congestion—the Boring Co.—has proven most successful at disappearing on the governments that trusted them.
As Remote Work Persists, Ohio Cities Brace for Tax Revenue Losses
Cities like Dayton expect to see a reduction in income tax revenue as more remote workers begin paying taxes to their home jurisdictions.
Colorado Springs Updates Transportation Plan
The city made the first revisions to its transportation plan in twenty years, acknowledging the changing transportation needs of the region’s growing population.
Chaddick Institute at DePaul University
HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research
Missoula Redevelopment Agency
City of Joliet
City of Crystal River
This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.