Think Big. Freak Out.

Daniel Burnham's line "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood" is probably one of the most famous quotes to come out of the field of urbanism. It's also one of the most thoroughly abused. Burnham's maxim about aiming high is used by proponents of megaprojects like Atlantic Yards (the poster child for megaprojects, you see) in defense of superblocks and devastatingly overbearing towers. In truth, Burnham did not stop where the quote does. The quote is almost always truncated, cutting off much of the great planner's intent. The full quote reads:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big. (via)

The idea of a noble, logical plan becoming a living thing is about as far from the logic of the contemporary commercial megaproject as you can get. Giant developments that have become commonplace in cities like New York, London, and Chicago over the past two decades are designed to eliminate risk, to minimize mess. They are, in a word, sterile. Burnham was talking about creating plans that are dynamic, and that improve their surroundings, not wall themselves off from them.

So if it's not the four-tower 3,000-condo 250,000 square-feet-of-retail megacomplex, what does a grand plan look like? What can we do to stir mens' blood, to re-engage the many millions of people who have become disconnected from the urban environment, who have willfully or accidentally removed themselves from the discourse? In the face of increasingly grave problems, how can citizens be energized to turn their cities into the viridian green, environmentally-restorative engines that we have heard so many advocates call for them to be?

There are no small changes that need to be made. I refuse to parrot, any longer, the absurd myth that changing your lightbulbs or using a fabric bag to pick up groceries will save the world. The words "hogswaddle" and "poppycock" come to mind (apparently climate challenge turns me into a Dickensian lower-class Brit). It's true that these things add up, but public opinion on fighting climate challenge is waning; people are growing tired of the issue. The public is, of course, fickle, so this should come as no surprise. The bite-size formula is not going to work. The ante must be upped.

For planners, architects, and urbanists, this necessitates a call for big plans. We need so many more Burnhamian Big Ideas. It's time to re-think infrastructure, and architecture, and every tiny component of every city. All things can be re-imagined; we're starting to see these kinds of big ideas in playful fits and starts. Defunct airports can become magnificent tree-covered mountains; parks can be used as psychological and environmental rehabilitation centers; whole cities can become stand-in icebergs; we could build rivers in the sky, and fill them with floating classroom-ferries. Nothing about our cities is set in stone -- not even their geography. And as nature starts to change our cities in new ways, we need to re-think how our cities interact with nature.

Perhaps the greatest piece of infrastructure that cities have at their disposal, in terms of reimagining and regenerating the cityscape, is often also the last remembered. People -- the citizens that use the city, kick it, punch it, pull it down and lift it up a hundred million ways each day -- are brimming with ideas about how to make their cities better. The images in this post, for example, are from a collection of entries to a public call for the reinvention of Coney Island. This is the crazy shit that people come up with; it follows that what they want to start seeing more of, in addition to genuine, solid plans for making cities work better, is some freaky, crazy shit.

Here's a proposal; the seed of a big idea, perhaps: let loose. Think about the most unchangeable features of your city, and try to imagine them changed. Don't just daydream; come up with Big Ideas, grand plans for revolutionizing the way that your city works. Get crazy, and put down on paper the ideas you wouldn't dream of bringing up in a meeting at work. Then upload them and share them with everyone who has a computer and a set of working eyes. We need more sky rivers, more radical civic interventions, and more acid-trip theme parks. More than ever, we need very, very Big Ideas. And if we try hard enough, if we come up with enough crazy shit, maybe we'll be able to shock more people into caring about how their city works, and what it looks like. No one cares if you tell them the airport is being turned into condos and a dog park. Heads turn when you suggest that it be geo-engineered into an urban Matterhorn. It doesn't have to happen. It just has to get people to pay attention.

Burnham wisely noted that each generation's sons and grandsons would do things that would stagger their forebears. Make your grandparents proud; go freak out on your city.

(Photo from MASNYC's Flickr gallery.)


Richard Browning said...

Good post. You sounded like Will Alsop if you don't mind me saying. - He employs locals for what he calls "collective creativity" and it's no surprise that the public have such an affection for the finished article.

Interestingly his urban design arm is called "Big Architecture".


Warren said...

Dickensian perhaps but certainly not lower-class. London's slum-dwelling underclass are famous for many a choice phrase but as any good working class boy knows, 'poppycock' was favoured solely by them upstairs.