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Battle of Ideas: Master planning the Future?

This debate asks whether the ambition to build new cities is no longer realistic or desirable in the West?

The great American urbanist Daniel Burnham, the man who drafted the first comprehensive city plan a century ago, summed up the necessary ambition involved in the art of city-making: ‘Make no little plans… They have no magic to stir men’s blood’.  These days, the aspiration to stir men’s blood by planning cities seems out of fashion in the West, making Asian attempts at huge projects of social transformation, elevating millions out of poverty through urban expansion, all the more remarkable. The Urban Planning Museum in Shanghai is telling. The centrepiece of its exhibition is a vast model of central Shanghai which maps out the existing, and more importantly, the planned developments over the next 20 years. Here, the model is ‘the future’. Conversely, in Britain, the Prime Minister has recently announced his plans to recreate the past: a blueprint of urban villages derived from the Victorian era.

In the post-war period, by contrast, the mood in Britain was future-orientated. The Barbican itself was built by the Corporation of London after the Second World War and was Europe’s largest reconstruction project. It was conceived as a symbol of the optimistic new London arising from the destruction of the old. In 2001, the estate was ‘listed’ in recognition of its historical and architectural importance.  These days, it seems that the past is protected more than the future planned. Master-planning the future seems at odds with contemporary Western attitudes. Nowadays, the US and Europe are burdened with a cautious approach to development, growth and progress, often represented in calls for restraint, limits, risk-aversion, precaution, low growth and minimal consumption. 

Is the ambition to build new cities no longer realistic or desirable in the West? Alternatively, with shoddy designs, poor workmanship and inadequate conditions often resulting from China’s dash for urban growth, would the developing world benefit from a bit of Western-style restraint? Is the philosophical embrace of limits acting as a brake on the human-centred arrogance required to master plan the future; or is master-planning actually too audacious, technocratic and authoritarian?


Theodore Dounas
Associate Professor in Architecture, Xian Jiaotong Liverpool University; founding partner, archIV+

Penny Lewis
Lecturer, Scott Sutherland School of Architecture, Robert Gordon University; co-founder, AE Foundation

Malcolm Smith
Director and global leader, Urban Design and Masterplanning, Arup

Austin Williams
Associate professor in architecture, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou, China; producer, FCP Ltd for NBSTV; convenor, Bookshop Barnies


In association with

Future Cities Project

Battle of Ideas


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