What have our cities become, transformed into places that have separated us from what is naturally connected? How did we get to this frantic long-distance lifestyle? How did we get to less public space where cars are king with never-ending commutes, streets, avenues, boulevards, roads, and freeways? What caused nature to be relegated, at best, to a mere decorative role? Why have we lost the connection with nature that is essential to our daily regeneration? What mechanism has led us to disrupt the natural equilibrium between oxygen and CO2, resulting in an increase in CO2 and other toxic particles that jeopardize our health day after day?

To answer these questions, it’s essential to understand the underpinnings of how we arrived at our current juncture. We will navigate the intricate pathways of urban fragmentation, charting the course of decisions and developments that have shaped our modern landscapes.

In The Great Gatsby, written in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald has one of his characters, Nick, contemplating New York:

“Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.”

Yes, the Roaring Twenties, with the growth after the Great War, went hand in hand with urban development, the construction of imposing buildings and tall towers devoted to work, and the boom in cultural activity, parties, and the cult of success. The period that began in the 1920s in the United States was a time of effervescence and prosperity after the sacrifices of the preceding years. The decade was marked by a carefree atmosphere and an explosion of cultural activity.

Lavish parties, exuberant dancing, and celebrations were commonplace. Americans enthusiastically embraced a culture of fun and pleasure, seeking to enjoy life after the hardships of war. The cult of success was also omnipresent, with a frantic quest for wealth and social success. But this period is also inseparable from that of a profound economic transformation that saw the emergence of the hard-work-to-succeed cult, new industries, the rise of the consumer economy, and the popularization of mass culture.

In the United States, the 1920s were also marked by major developments in the industrial revolution. It was a time of transition, when the gradual abandonment of the steam engine gave way to new technological advances, notably the arrival of electricity in many homes and industries. The emergence of the motor car had a profound impact on society, opening up new possibilities for travel, leisure, and work. Road infrastructure developed to meet growing traffic needs. The car industry also contributed to economic concentration, with a few major manufacturers dominating the market.

Mass production became a reality, due to methods such as Taylorism, developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, which aimed to optimize the efficiency of workers and production processes. The Model T car, also known as the Ford T, was the first affordable car widely accessible to the general public. Thanks to efficient production techniques and the standardization of components, Ford succeeded in making the Model T car affordable for the middle classes, transforming American society. The car emerged as a symbol of belonging to a society where, in order to exist, you had to be seen.

During the 1920s in the United States, the construction industry underwent a period of significant growth and transformation. Urban expansion, combined with economic growth, led to the construction of new buildings and the transformation of cities.

The emergence of electricity opened up new possibilities for the construction of skyscrapers and modern buildings. Architects exploited this new source of energy to create innovative structures, with illuminated facades and lifts, redefining urban landscapes. Cities such as New York, Chicago, and Detroit experienced this spectacular transformation, with iconic skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in New York.

Standardized construction techniques and the use of less expensive materials enabled vast residential developments to be built, meeting the growing demand for housing in urban areas.

The construction industry was also influenced by the principles of the modernist movement in architecture, which favored functionality, simplicity, and efficiency. Modernist architects such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier proposed innovative ideas for building design and construction, with a vision focused on the future and the pursuit of functional aesthetics.

The functionalist movement’s beginnings compounded technology with the key to shaping our cities in a new way. The role of a mass marketing policy in influencing the choices and behavior of increasingly urbanized city dwellers must also be considered in this new context.

Edward Bernays played a major role in this transformation. He was Freud’s double nephew and often regarded as the father of public relations and modern propaganda. Bernays exerted a significant influence during this period in the United States. He was a specialist in public relations and a theorist of public opinion manipulation. He had a deep understanding of individuals’ psychology and how they could be influenced in their choices and behavior. He developed strategies to influence consumer choices using psychological and sociological techniques. He understood that people’s desires and motivations could be manipulated to promote particular products, ideas, and interests. He worked with transportation companies to promote the purchase of private cars and to shape attitudes toward public transportation. By emphasizing personal freedom, convenience, and the social status associated with car ownership, he was able to contribute to the emergence of a car-centered society and the growing preference for private travel over public transportation.

Similarly, by working with property developers and interest groups, Bernays helped shape public opinion on urban development, the expansion of residential areas, and architectural design choices. Using persuasion and manipulation techniques, he participated in a global movement that shaped people’s attitudes toward the triptych of concrete, cars, and oil.

At the Motorama exhibition at the World’s Fair in 1939 and 1940, millions of people saw the city of 1960 as General Motors had imagined it: a city where you could drive anywhere, anytime, without delay, with multilane expressways running right through the city.

It is against this backdrop that we need to understand the scope of contribution toward the transformation of cities that Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, known as Le Corbusier, has had. This Swiss architect, urban planner, and designer is considered to be the founder of modern architecture and provided a real impetus to architecture and urban planning. His life and work had a profound influence on the development of architecture in the twentieth century. Le Corbusier also played an important role as a writer and theorist. He published several influential works, including Towards a New Architecture (1931), which helped to shape architectural thinking and spread his ideas around the world.

Le Corbusier believed in the need to rationalize and organize urban space to improve its inhabitants’ quality of life. He proposed a radical vision of zoning, based on the strict functional separation of different urban activities. He believed that the successful city is the city that moves fast. For him, cities should be divided into distinct zones, each with a specific use. He promoted the idea of the Ville Radieuse (Radiant City), an idealized city where urban functions would be clearly separated: residential areas surrounded by green spaces, separate work and commercial areas, and well-defined transportation infrastructures. Le Corbusier’s vision of zoning was based on a functionalist and rationalist approach. He believed in the efficiency and convenience of separating urban activities, while striving for a modern aesthetic and clean architectural forms.

Thanks to his fame and influence, Le Corbusier was able to include his ideas and vision of urban planning in the Athens Charter. His functionalist ideas and his desire to rationalize and organize urban space were key elements in his contribution, which went on to transform urban organization around the world. Le Corbusier participated in the drafting of the Athens Charter thanks to his role as a major architect and urban planner in the inter-war period. His experience in the design of modernist buildings and his innovative vision of urban planning earned him a prominent place in the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM, or International Congress of Modern Architecture), an organization founded in 1928 that sought to promote modern architecture and influence urban planning practices.

CIAM’s founding members included Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, J.J.P. Oud, Cornelis van Eesteren, and other key figures in modern architecture. Over the course of its existence, the CIAM published a number of declarations and charters expressing the positions and recommendations of its members on urban planning and architectural issues. The most famous of these is the Athens Charter, drafted in 1933 on the occasion of its Fourth Congress by Le Corbusier and other eminent architects. Its aim was to influence urban planning and the spatial organization of cities. The Athens Charter was conceived as a guide for the planning and structure of modern cities, with zoning and separation of social functions at the heart of this approach.

In addition, the post-war and reconstruction context in many countries encouraged the adoption of these zoning principles. This approach had a profound influence on the way cities have been designed in modern times, dividing the territory into distinct zones, each reserved for a specific use such as residential, commercial, industrial, or green spaces. This charter has been influenced by the ideas of urban hygiene, rationalization, and functionality, and over time, it has contributed to social segregation and car dependency by creating areas that are far apart from each other. It has also greatly limited the social and functional mix of local neighborhoods.

What has happened to our cities? How have cities around the world changed under the influence of Le Corbusier and the Athens Charter’s legacy? Numerous urban projects have been launched with the aim of “improving mobility and accessibility in cities.” This has led to the construction of numerous transportation infrastructures, such as freeways, tunnels, and bridges, as well as larger urban development projects such as residential areas and business centers.

Inevitably, many of these projects have had consequences for the daily lives of local residents. For example, the construction of freeways and major arterial roads has often led to the destruction of entire neighborhoods, the separation of communities, and air and water pollution. Urban development projects have been developed with a strong technological component, implementing new processes but without the sensitivity required to understand the needs and preferences of local communities.

Cities worldwide saw the birth of the great post-war works that accompanied the urban boom of the 1960s and beyond. At that time, resources were considered infinite. Materials such as cement, concrete, and reinforced concrete were abundant. The transformation of metals, the mass production of cars, and mass construction were the norm. Urban life became the place where these transformations converged on a massive scale, transforming urban spaces into gigantic construction sites.

Le Corbusier’s legacy, also rooted in hygienism—which emphasizes cleanliness, light and air circulation—and rationalism, gave rise to large, high-rise residential complexes that housed urban workers and brought their share of social isolation, lack of facilities and services, and monotonous, oppressive architecture. As Le Corbusier advocated the separation of residential, commercial, and industrial zones in cities, the activities essential to everyday life were segregated into separate zones. Suddenly people were living in monocultural urban areas, where workers were separated from their place of residence, leading to acute problems of mobility and social isolation. Work became specialized with the construction of high-rise office and retail buildings.

They became a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape, with “business districts,” their “skyline,” and employees in suits, ties, and cash clips for the working man and later suit sets and stilettos for the working woman.

Increasingly built on the outskirts of towns, these buildings also made a major contribution to urban sprawl. Long distances became the norm, long commutes a habit, and car dependency the rule. The construction of expressways became “the solution” for “freeing up traffic and improving traffic flow in cities.” As previously cited, men—and later women—became modern centaurs, half human and half car. With gas engines, pollution became an integral part of everyday life, with emissions of CO2 and fine particles. Traffic jams were part of that life, and spending even several hours in a car became, in the manner of Edward Bernays, just a symbol of freedom—unfortunately, the freedom to be stuck in your car for hours on end, all alone.

These freeways and expressways disfigured the urban landscape and exacerbated the fragmentation and segregation of the neighborhoods through which they passed, creating physical barriers between communities and increasing air and noise pollution. Urban development, in the wake of the Athens Charter’s modern urbanism, results in the loss of exchanges through this functional and social separation of our daily lives. This expansion has occurred at the expense of proximity, community, and the traditional activities of city life, such as local markets, walks, and urban nature.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from The 15-Minute City: A Solution to Saving Our Time & Our Planet, by Carlos Moreno. Copyright © 2024 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books are sold.

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