Illustration by David McLimans


“There is a pendulum swing in society, efficient but cruel. You can’t let things get too bad—or social instability will result,” says Jonathan Barnett, Practice Professor of City and Regional Planning and editor of Planning for a New Century, a provocative new handbook on urban sprawl and its consequences, published by Island Press earlier this year. Social inequity is one by-product of sprawl, as inner cities are depleted of people and resources, and needless duplication of services elsewhere is another. “It’s wasteful to start over,” says Barnett, who also contributed a chapter to the book.
As an architecture student at Yale, Barnett wanted to design better cities, but in real life, he says, he found that many architects “help rich people buy shower curtains.” After architectural school, he plunged into the hard-knocks school of city government, working in the campaign and then the administration of New York mayor John Lindsay. He helped create an urban-designer category within New York City’s civil-service ranks, then went on to set up a graduate department of city planning at the City College of New York. Today he heads his own Washington-based urban-planning and design firm, working with city governments nationwide.
Barnett is no ivory-tower thinker. His pragmatism is evident in Planning for a New Century, his third book, which he says is intended for legislators and their aides—people who can effect change—but can be read by anyone interested in broad social issues at the most personal level: where and how we live, pay taxes, and educate our children.
Barnett credits Dr. Eugenie Birch, department chair and professor of city and regional planning, for the idea that led to the book—that he teach a graduate course, in which a series of talks by different scholar/experts could form the basis for book chapters. Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66, Penn’s president, provided an afterword stressing Penn’s special role in Philadelphia and how universities and other institutions are “emerging as the venues around which strong, functioning modern communities form.”
The experts, mostly Penn faculty, cover subjects such as housing, core cities, regionalization, taxation, crime, and education. The book is a crash course on the laws and regulations that have shaped our society for over a century—often in unintended ways—and the contributors make real-world recommendations for action. But Barnett, a realist, sees “overwhelming problems in the social inequities engendered by urban sprawl.” Change will take at least a generation, he says.
Many aspects of the book fall into the future-shock category. To mention the most familiar example, federal laws and policies have long encouraged home ownership, but federal funds were more available for white, middle-class citizens. The result was a public policy that exacerbated racial and economic inequities. Federal programs for highway construction and pollution control had similarly unforeseen consequences. In both cases, well-meant legislation encouraged sprawl, by making it possible to develop previously inaccessible areas, abetting the depletion of core cities.



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