Are we closer to utopia?

Last century, architects and urban planners had to deal with the fact that vehicles were rapidly increasing their presence in cities. To solve the relationship between cars and pedestrians, some proposed to separate them.

A relevant example of these urban planners was Clarence Perry, who developed a concept in the early 1900’s called the “Neighborhood Unit” that proposed residential developments be built around basic services, like schools, and would be accessible on foot, so people wouldn’t need to use the car in their daily life. There are some built examples of this concept, one of the most relevant is Radburn, New Jersey. He also had a big influence in later projects like English New Towns.


Fig 1: Clarence Perry’s neighborhood unit, illustrating the spatiality of the core principles of the concept, from the New York Regional Survey, Vol 7. 1929 (wikipedia)
Fig 2: Radburn, New Jersey (


This approach, that works fine for a suburb, does not seem so easy to apply in a big city center, where the urban fabric is more complex and the car presence stronger. This was the challenge The Smithsons faced in the Berlin Hauptstadt contest in 1957. They resolved it with an utopical design that included an upper-level platform for pedestrian and a lower-level street network for vehicles that should provide equal freedom of movement and access to both of them (you can appreciate it in the sketch in fig. 3 and 6).

Smithsons’ designs didn’t become realized in our current cities, where cars are currently sharing the same urban space with bikes and pedestrians, who may feel vulnerable in this situation and be dissuaded to go on foot and become drivers, which has a direct influence in pollution levels. (see graphics)


Nowadays these interesting and utopical proposals are nearly forgotten, but New York and Madrid have recently built big upper-level pedestrian platforms like the High Line and Madrid Rio with a surprisingly similar design to the Smithsons’ (see images below).


Fig 3: Berlin Hauptstadt contest upper-level pedestrian platforms sketch, Alison and Peter Smithson (
Fig 4: Madrid Rio (
Fig 5: The High Line (

Although both High Line and Madrid Río seem to have been conceived as promenades or green areas, I think it would be very easy to use them as pedestrian paths to reach city services such as schools, libraries or commercial centers. This could be encouraged by perhaps taking actions like redesigning intersections at some points, redistributing traffic around these axes or just suggesting to citizens through advertising campaigns, to walk through a nice, secure pedestrian path to get to their work, shops, etc.

Fig 6: Berlin Hauptstadt contest floorplan, Alison and Peter Smithson ( Fig 7: Services around Madrid Rio (made by the author)

Fig 6: Berlin Hauptstadt contest floorplan, Alison and Peter Smithson (
Fig 7: Services around Madrid Rio (made by the author)


Being more ambitious, if this idea of being near a pedestrian path becomes a profitable value for commercial centers, schools or whatever, projects like the High Line and Madrid Rio could become the seed of a pedestrian network connecting services in cities as the Smithsons once imagined. Especially since funds to improve cities (needed to make more upper-level platform for pedestrians) appear when someone is able to create the expectation that money would be made by those improvements.

Note: while I was writing this post, the New York Times published “High Line’s Best-Kept Secret: It’s a Fast Commute” which points out how many local residents use the High Line as a means to get to work. It’s nice to see how citizens use the city wisely. What would happen if this secret becomes a urban strategy?

photo 8: Harry Chaplin, 20, walking to his consulting internship along Manhattan’s High Line, is one of many who use the elevated park to get to work. (New York Times)

photo 8: Harry Chaplin, 20, walking to his consulting internship along Manhattan’s High Line, is one of many who use the elevated park to get to work. (New York Times)

Laura de la Plaza is an architect and urban planner, you can see more about her here.

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2 Comments on “Are we closer to utopia?”

  1. alexsommer August 12, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    Very interesting post!
    I think Madrid Rio and Highline are useful and beautiful routes, but would never fully replace true commuting routes for pedestrians and cyclists. For example, some of the opponents to the Prospect Park West bike lane said it was a redundant piece of infrastructure and cited its proximity to the bike path within prospect park itself. In response, supporters of the lane said it served a more utilitarian/commuter purpose, which is certainly true. I think commuters will almost always prefer a direct route to a circuitous one, no matter their mode.


  2. manuelvega August 12, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    An interesting point of view. Why can not bycicle lanes be a faster way for commuters when the car struggles across the town? Or a cheaper way if cars had to pay a green tax? Madrid Rio is a fantastic intervention, but does not work as an alternative route in these terms because the bicycles share their lanes with skaters and pedestrians. I think The Netherlands is a good example of what to do.


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