Throughout modern history, the “enlightened” few have sought to define the ideal city. Whether the brainchild of a visionary architect or a commission of prominent residents, the various means of comprehensive urban planning lead to the same end – the chosen few dictating how you live, where you work, what you see, and how you experience your city. 

This dictatorship of the aesthetic elite burdens all within a city’s limits with an arbitrary, artistic interpretation of the city. Individuals, neighborhoods, and corporations are forced into a utopian vision of perfection. Ironically, “Utopia” means “no place” – which is precisely where comprehensive city planning leads us: nowhere.

The reality is, cities are complex. They are the product of innumerable interactions that shape a community to satisfy its residents’ needs and wants. Local governments today are consumed with meeting those needs and wants in the most efficient way possible. The modern approach is one of deliberate design – the art of city. Unfortunately, the artistry of central design is ultimately ineffective.   

As a young undergraduate student attending a university design school majoring in architecture, I was ready to change the world – by design. In the early weeks of the program, as I perused the design portfolios and philosophical works of famous architects and planners, I stumbled across a well-known quote attributed Le Corbusier, a renowned architect and planner:

You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: This is beautiful. That is Architecture. Art enters in.

It is a profound sentiment – to create beauty and happiness through art and design. However, in practice, and especially when applied at the city scale, creating happiness and goodness through art is incredibly difficult, especially in light of one crucial truth: art is subjective.

Interestingly, art tends to take on a dual identity with a secondary life. One life that exists in the creator’s mind, brought into existence through the manipulation of the chosen media. And then there is the second life born in the experience of art by others. The greater the number of people interacting with a work of art, the greater will be the breadth of subjective experiences with that art. And, with increased subjectivity, the less likely a consensus can be reached on whether it is good or beautiful. Identifying the ultimate good is further complicated by the fact that tastes and preferences change over time.

City planning is very much art with movements as varied as the fine arts. New Urbanism, Ecological Urbanism, Smart City Urbanism, and Social Urbanism are just a few. With its unique design foci, each movement is met with the same praise or scorn of admirers and critics as would a work of art hanging on the wall of a museum. The previously cited Le Corbusier exemplifies the subjectivity of the art of city. His Radiant City, which he described with the loftiest prose, has been praised and vilified by laymen and experts alike. Additionally, what compounds the difficulty of the art of city is the extent of its “second life.” Even more than the fine arts, the aesthetics of a city are experienced daily by thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of individuals with unique, evolving tastes.

Further complications arise because the art of city must embrace more than an aesthetic – it must function. Those hundreds of thousands of individuals must be able to engage with one another economically, intellectually, and socially – often in drastically different ways. The wants and needs of a family with school-age children are different from those of a single college student. Their needs are different still from young professionals whose needs differ from recent retirees. To create a city that accommodates diverse functional needs and aesthetic preferences of individuals city-wide would be a miraculous work of art indeed.

With all the knowledge and data of current and future circumstances required, one would have to be an omniscient architect to design such a piece of art. Furthermore, the conceit necessary for an artist to think that his ideal is so superior that it should be imposed on millions indefinitely into the future is astounding. To elevate the ideal of one designer over another’s is unavoidably biased. Imposing that biased ideal on the masses inevitably leads to discrimination either in function, beauty, or both. Yet, this is the work that municipal zoners and planners are engaged in. This work is an artistic interpretation of a healthy, moral, safe, thriving spaces – an intricate mosaic of land uses within which every individual use must be carefully placed to realize the artist’s vision.

The uses of land are many. With the modern tendency toward mixed-use zoning, it is overwhelming for any one individual or board to know where each piece in the mosaic should be placed. For example, in Oklahoma City, the Code of Ordinances contemplates various uses by identifying numerous zoning districts. There are agricultural and residential districts, office and commercial districts, industrial districts, special purpose districts, and overlay districts for a total of more than 40 controlled land use zones. To incorrectly order the uses could have dire impacts on people, businesses, and the economy.

The free use of land democratizes the role of the artist/creator. Without centralized control, the city becomes a contributory work of art. It becomes community art in which the government facilitates the process by providing the canvas on which the city grows and evolves organically. This art is created by those who will also experience it daily where they live, where they work, and where they shop. It is art driven by complex, daily interactions we all experience in a market economy. Businesses locate where they can thrive. People pay for what they value. A person might wish to remodel an abandoned warehouse in a reclaimed industrial zone as a private residence. A small, independent bookstore and coffee shop might cater to a crowd of young professionals living in loft apartments above their shop. With such an open approach, multiple uses arise where mutual benefit can be maximized. There is room in this city for the much-maligned strip malls and suburban tract homes as well as a dense, walkable urban core. As it turns out, when left to their own devices, people do “mixed-use” all on their own, no central planning required.

The art of city with the greatest appeal, achieving the greatest good, is the product of community interactions within a free market economy. It is produced by those with a vested interest in obtaining the most significant value therefrom. It settles on a natural equilibrium of uses that can be found only in an uncontrolled market in which individuals declare what is good by pursuing what they subjectively value.

It is not the art of a central plan, but the collective art of an invisible hand. 

Brad Galbraith is Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.