Howard Gillette, Jr.


On his book Civitas by Design: Building Better Communities, from the Garden City to the New Urbanism

Cover Interview of July 11, 2010

The wide angle

This book represents the evolution of my thinking as a writer over the past 40 years, extending back to my graduate education at Yale.

While the university offered no formal training in urban history or planning, New Haven at the time was being treated as an advanced laboratory for urban policy.  Mayor Richard C. Lee was highly successful in securing federal funding for “urban renewal”—at a cost, however, of growing protests from victims of displacement and ultimately from critics who discerned the class and race bias of prevailing policies.

Lee attempted to repair the damage by securing funding from the Ford Foundation to address the social problems of the city’s poorer residents. That effort attracted considerable interest and presaged to some degree Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, but it did not prevent riots which roiled the city in 1967.

Since that time, I have been absorbed with the detrimental effects of separating social from physical design considerations in urban planning and allied fields.  Inspired in part by an exposure and exchange with Lewis Mumford (incorporated in this book in the essay on the 1939 film “The City”), I found additional guidance for addressing this divide in the work of the University of Pittsburgh’s Roy Lubove.

It is Lubove’s concept of environmental intervention that led me to review efforts to use physical design to promote civic well-being.  This process had precedents in Frederic Law Olmsted’s nineteenth century designs for parks and suburbs.  But it really took hold in reactions to the excesses of unbridled urban industrialism on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 20th century.

Ebenezer Howard’s utopian vision for garden cities that would combine the best elements of urban with country life did not immediately take hold in America.  It was Mumford and his colleagues who embraced the concept and applied it to community building efforts in the Northeast after World War I.  Mumford’s associate Catherine Bauer extended the effort in support of the nation’s earliest public housing programs, which included prime examples of living environments that enhanced social interaction and even solidarity among residents.

My explorations took me further into unlikely territory, including plans for the earliest regional shopping malls. Here, architect Victor Gruen and developer James Rouse claimed, new centers for sociability would be created to anchor the civic life of otherwise anonymous suburbs.

More recently, New Urbanist critics have rediscovered some of the principles advanced by Mumford and his colleagues.  While initially applying their design solutions to suburban sprawl, they ultimately extended their theories to the reconstruction of public housing gone bad as well as to disaster areas along the Gulf Coast following Katrina’s devastating impact.

The results of all these efforts have been mixed. Too often, even the best intentioned reforms had unintended consequences.  The legacy of civic design thus remains uneven at best.