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Planet of Cities

Anthony Flint / Jul 27 2012

For Release Friday, July 27, 2012

Anthony FlintIn 1922, the architect Le Corbusier launched the first of several visions for modern city-building — the Ville Contemporaine, or City for 3 Million People. The basic layout called for 60-story cruciform towers in large rectangles of open space, linked by highways and punctuated with an airport.

It was scorned at the time — as a concept, it was proposed to replace a large swath of Paris, as unthinkable then as now. Since then, of course, such large-scale planning has come to be associated with the urban renewal and “towers in the park” that Jane Jacobs and others have discredited.

Thinking in broad terms about the megacities of the 21st-century developing world, however, Le Corbusier might have had some ideas worth revisiting. Back then, the Swiss-born founding father of modern architecture was coming up with new ways to accommodate vast increases in urban inhabitants. That trend has only intensified.

Half the world’s total population already lives in cities, and that urban population is expected to nearly double in the next 40 years from 3.5 billion to 6.2 billion people — nearly all in developing countries. When urban populations double, the areas required to accommodate them will more than triple.

Shlomo “Solly” Angel, adjunct professor of urban planning at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service of New York University and a lecturer in public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University, is among those urging that it’s time once again to think big.

The city-building required today is not so much about tearing down existing areas for slum clearance and urban renewal, but rather making realistic plans for new urban land. That, Angel says, requires planning for expansion and infrastructure as soon as possible.

“Most people who desire to live in urban areas will already be in them by 2100, but by that time it will be too late to act,” Angel says. “If the land required for public works or public open spaces is not protected from encroachment before it is developed, it will be next to impossible to ensure the orderly development of cities to make them more efficient, more equitable, and more sustainable.”

As a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Angel is lead author of Atlas of Urban Expansion, a comprehensive guide to the past and future characteristics of metropolitan growth and expansion, and the forthcoming companion volume, Planet of Cities. He plans a major presentation on both at the World Urban Forum organized by UN-Habitat in Naples, Italy, in September.

If the necessary expansion of these cities proceeds without better planning and large-scale land supply for affordable housing, slums will inexorably increase. Already as many as 1 billion people live in informal settlements, without access to basic services such as clean water and sanitation.

Angel is effectively sounding the alarm — urging local and national governments, civic institutions, international organizations and concerned citizens to make minimum adequate preparations. For example, he says, it is vital that cities acquire the rights-of-way for arterial roads that can carry public transport and trunk infrastructure and protect selected open spaces from encroachment in advance of the coming expansion.

Angel’s work on the Atlas of Urban Expansion has resulted in a guide to how cities have expanded over time. His team assembled pairs of urban land-cover maps from circa 1990 and 2000 for a global sample of 120 cities, and also a set of maps for a global representative sample of 30 cities, showing the historical expansion of urbanized areas from 1800 to 2000. The bottom line is that urban densities have been declining. Twenty-eight of the 30 cities studied increased their areas 16-fold during the 20th century.

In Planet of Cities, which builds on the report Making Room for a Planet of Cities; published last year, Angel takes that history and applies it to what he believes will be the realistic needs for urban expansion in the future. At the heart of his recommendations are making adequate room for increased urban population growth, rather than emphasizing containment; providing an ample supply of urban land for decent affordable housing; and securing the land necessary for public streets, public infrastructure networks and public open spaces well in advance of development.

In the developing world, there may not be much use in thinking about urban growth boundaries. The sheer number of people — mostly poor people — moving to cities from rural areas requires a new conceptual scale. Without more orderly development, megacities will still be huge and sprawling — but with vast areas occupied by informal settlements.

For the 21st century, planning for a City for Three Million People may not have been thinking big enough.

Anthony Flint, a veteran journalist, is a fellow and director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., and author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder, Transformed the American City, This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America, and the forthcoming The Raven: The Life of Le Corbusier, Maker of the Modern (Amazon 2014) columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. David
    Posted July 27, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    A particular perspective, biased by my work in China:

    While I agree that cities (and their regions) should pro-actively acquire ROW’s and engage in other planning for the future, I disagree with the assumption that spreading out is the answer to housing affordability. Cheaper peripheral housing (due primarily to land cost, also construction technique) is largely a function of the ability to externalize transportation (est. commute) costs.

    One theory is that the form of cities is tied to transportation – infrastructure provision, and mode choice. For a city to plan future roads (or pipes) in the periphery, and certainly to build them, is to invite development to those areas. In contrast, increasing the efficiency (spatially, temporally, and economically) of mobility within existing areas can help cities remain compact, while accommodating a greater number of people in the same footprint (denser). E.g., BRT: less urban space per person moved (more land for ‘use’); greater reach for same commute time (reducing the reinforcing loop of formation of peripheral sub centers), and cheaper (ability to pay more for housing).

    It’s also critical to be clear about what ‘urbanized’ area means – not all are equal, in terms of built or population density. To pass over low-rise slums as already ‘urbanized’ and develop peripheral areas seems short-sighted, a missed opportunity to both make the city more efficient, and improve the lives of those currently living in cramped squalor.

    Population growth, and greater housing space per capita, are not in conflict with urban containment. It does require making more efficient use of the movement and living / working spaces of the city.

  2. Posted July 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    While I agree that now is the time to plan ahead, I fully agree with David’s comment above, based on his experience in China. Focusing on increased density in already urbanized areas should be our first priority. We should emphasize quality development for both the public and private realms. We can be satisfied with smaller private spaces with the nearby public spaces are of high quality and provide a mix of the uses we need within walking distance.

  3. Neal Peirce
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    For a prior column I wrote on Plant of the Cities and Solly Angel’s work, readers can check