American planners may sometimes envy their foreign counterparts, where public intervention in real estate development may be more prevalent. But what actually happens when urban real estate is developed on a large scale, and how does the project's set up influence the built result?
A part of the answer to those vexing questions can be found in The Urban Master Planning Handbook by Eric Firley and Katarina Gron (2013; Wiley; 288 pp.; $80). In the context if the book, the term 'master plan' is used to refer to a framework that provides design prescription for a development area, and not a policy document used to set up a legal framework for land use ordinances and infrastructure development. Also, the term "handbook" isn't meant to imply that the book is a "how-to" for the creation of such plans; rather it is a compendium of 20 case studies from around the world - 13 from Europe, four from the Americas, and three from the Middle and Far East.
The case studies aren't necessarily meant to be "best practices," either. Instead, the book is a comparative analysis, where the authors place a critical framework on each case in order to evaluate each one consistently. As a result, the authors convey the positive, the negative, and the incidental for each.
Take, for example, Stuyvesant Town in New York City. Developed between 1943 and 1948, Stuyvesant is an early example of tabula rasa urbanism, where a poor section of the city was purchased through eminent domain and subsequently evacuated and demolished to make way for high rise middle class apartment buildings. Many of Stuyvesant's historic elements make it unsavory - the tabula rasa approach, the private leasing company's initial explicitly racist renting policy, the now-dated modernist built form, etc. Yet at the same time, Stuyvesant has apparently been successful for the last six decades in providing urban housing to a large number of middle income residents, as it has enjoyed a low vacancy rate over time.
Or take the example of Euralille, a very large (311 acres) mixed use development in Lille, France. The original intent of the project was to capitalize on the increased rail traffic that was anticipated once the tunnel between London and Paris was completed by turning Lille into the line's hub and turn the city through its new development into a thriving international business center. The resulting project may not have turned Lille into the world-class node that its initial vision had intended, but it has nonetheless become an important business center on the national level, and the city's citizens who once viewed the project with trepidation have since accepted it as part of their city.
What makes the Handbook so interesting is that it challenges common notions in urban planning and design such as sole authorship and instead reveals the reality of the interplay of many factors in urban development - politics, finance, design, public policy, market factors and more all have a role to play in determining a given project's final result. What's more, many of the cases here were developed only after several dissimilar plans were completed for the same property over a period of years or even decades.
Ultimately, the book offers no grand theories in respect to urban master planning. Instead, it seeks to find commonalities amongst disparate examples spanning multiple continents and over two centuries.