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What If The Next Round of “Recalls” Targeted Defective Urban Planning?

Jay Walljasper / Apr 16 2010

For Release Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jay Walljasperl

What if mistakes in urban design and policy could be “recalled” – just like a broken gas pedal on a Toyota? City streets turned dangerous speedways declared obsolete and dangerous? Local zoning codes shelved where they bar the building of livable, walkable communities? Blank, dull building walls sent back to their unthinking architects for a second, smarter try?

The idea sounds facetious. But let’s face it: Misguided planning decisions can pose the same kind of safety risks to people as malfunctioning consumer products. And they’re dangerous to the livability, the environment and the prosperity of urban areas, too.

So why not recalls? This idea began as a joke, cracked by my Project for Public Spaces (PPS) colleague Ethan Kent as we sat around the office brainstorming ideas for the annual April Fools edition of our newsletter. But the more we thought about it, the more made sense. Right now, with the American economy in need of further stimulus, what better time to “recall” defective urban planning and go for some smart fresh starts?

So here are some news flashes we should watch for:

Unsafe Urban Roads Recalled by Transportation Department
DETROIT–Pointing to a “clear and present danger” to the American public, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced today the “recall” of all urban and suburban arterial roadways in America. These are the familiar roads built since the 1960s that function more as speedways than city streets.

Every four-lane road in a metropolitan area with a population of more 50,000 will be examined by Department of Transportation (DOT) engineers over the next 18 months to determine whether they pose “an undue threat” to motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.

The new plans, estimated to cost $180 billion annually over the next decade, are expected to pay for themselves in reduced Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security expenditures on people injured in car crashes.

New York Targets Dull, Windowless buildings that suck the life out of our cities
NEW YORK–New York City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden issued a recall for all buildings in the city that offer only a blank, dull, windowless face to the street. She cited public safety concerns as well as the buildings’ detrimental impact on community life.

Many other cities are expected to follow New York’s lead as part of the growing realization that economic recovery and social stability depend upon providing lively, attractive urban environments.

Building owners have 12 months to file plans with the city about how they will restore or rebuild their properties. In an effort to stimulate the economy, the New York City Convention and Visitors Bureau and the New York State Economic Development Commission both have established multi-billion dollar loan funds to assist property owners in starting renovations as soon as possible.

Burden unveiled the plans in front of the blank wall of the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden, which neighbors have long complained is a blight that harms the vibrancy of their neighborhood. A remnant of the MOMA wall will be left standing as a reminder of a passing historical era when architectural statements were deemed more important than communities.

A logical next step would be to undo the damage of single use zoning, which over the past 80 years has done so much to suck the vitality out of our communities. Actually the New Charter of Athens, signed in 1998 by many prominent European city planners, did something close to what’s described here.

New Lease on Life for Suburbs and Cities
ATHENS–A bold vision for the future of our communities has been unveiled here. Urban planners and architects from 172 nations gathered in the Agora (ruins of the marketplace at the heart of the ancient city) to formally rescind the Charter of Athens–a 1933 document that established the idea that homes, shops and workplaces should be physically separated.

“The charter of Athens has been nothing less than a catastrophe,” announced Steve Davies, PPS vice-president and leader of the American delegation. “Many people have no choice but to live in residential pods, far away from stores, schools, workplaces, shops and entertainment.”

A local crowd greeted the announcement with cheers of “opa!”, many of them noting that the original Charter of Athens was not even signed in their city. The charter, which has shaped urban planning since World War II, was written and signed by a small coterie of architects under the direction of Le Corbusier aboard a boat sailing in the Mediterranean.

Economic experts believe this action will boost the sluggish global economy. Scrapping outdated zoning codes will spark a construction boom of corner groceries, pubs, ice cream parlors, coffee shops, hardware stores and small-scale office buildings in neighborhoods around the world.

Bottom Line: April Fools or not, it’s time to start building a more humane world around us!

Jay Walljasper’s e-mail address is


  1. Fred Jordan
    Posted April 19, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Get Neal to bring you to our “old” neighborhood in the southwest sector of DC, where modern-day planners are apologizing for the sins of their predecessors in–you should pardon the pun–concrete ways. For example, Fourth Street was a transportation and communications artery of the neighborhood until the early ’60s, when Irving Renewal, the notorious planner, closed it with a megablock that turned out to have the effect of the Great Wall of China: it separated into two communities what had been one.
    Now, 47 years later, we are growing back together and, aided further by other improvements attendant on the re-creation of Fourth, people are feeling and talking about how good it is. It is wonderful to have reason to remember than no sin goes unforgiven if it is truly repented. Even plannereal sins.
    Enjoyed your piece hugely.
    Fred Jordan
    346 N St. SW
    Washington, D.C. 20024
    (202) 488-0814

  2. Posted April 19, 2010 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    Had a similar idea.

    Secretary LaHood Issues Recall of the American Motorist