“WMD’s” – Weapons of Mass Development

Doug Kelbaugh coined the term weapons of mass construction in an article he wrote published in “Places” journal 18.3 in October, 2006.  He saw certain major urban and suburban development projects as often being, to paraphrase, “Ill-conceived, poorly designed, poorly placed, big impact, allegedly serving the dire needs of the community”.

In the case of many new suburban developments and major urban “redevelopments”, I prefer to slightly alter Kelbaugh’s term, to Weapons of Mass Development WMD‘s.  Tom Wolfe, in his short but profound From Bauhaus to Our House (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981; reissued by Picador, 2009), characterized the massive urban renewal so prevalent in post-World War II America as a carry-over from Europe.  He mused that American city planners and developers must have been jealous of their compatriots in Europe who had bombed-out sections of major cities within which they could, were welcomed to, impose massive, radical, “modern” solutions – often to the further destruction of the historical areas and the culture of the cities.

Weapons of Mass Development may be BIG, but there are also medium and small WMD’s in the un-housebroken planner and developer arsenal – and they can be either strategic or tactical weapons, with potentially devastating results at a variety of scales.  All are “Mass Development” in terms of potentially negative impact on the target and its vicinity, as well causing as collateral damage, mission creep and fall-out.

One example would be the carpet bombing when the I-210 Foothill Freeway was cut through Pasadena, California in the 1960’s and ’70’s (you can easily find your own examples).  The swath that the mostly entrenched “freeway” cut through the city, including frontage roads, severed neighborhoods.  No longer could many walk to school, patronize the neighborhood market or cleaners, visit neighbors on foot, and on and on, because crossings of “the ditch” were few.  Wholesale changes occurred, and continue, in the character of some neighborhoods and in the lives of the residents.

Such results are not new to our age.  The broad avenues of Paris, Champs d’Elysees and the like, were conceived by “leadership” and designed by Baron von Hausmann to carve broad swaths through the slums of Paris, allowing a clear field of cannon fire to dispense with mass insurrections that might be expected to occur in the face of poverty, class warfare and dictatorial rule.  Now, they are wonderful boulevards.  Then, they were radically destructive of the fabric of the city.

Question: What is the “half-life” of the resultant “contamination” and “fall-out”?  In some cities, routes were carefully selected, designs nuanced at extra cost, citizens fully involved, and projects undertaken to repair the impacts and keep lives intact.

Question: What is the long-term impact of the action, including “collateral damage”, changed “alternative futures”, and the like?  In many cases, “gone forever” describes the environment, the wasted park, the lost neighborhood school, the friends.

Smaller, shorter-term development, when not handled correctly and out of context with a natural environment or existing neighborhood, might be termed IED‘s – Inappropriate Exploiting Development – .  Out-of-context projects in terms of type, intensity, use, location, scale and design – even poor pedestrian and public transit access – punch holes in a neighborhood.  Many appear to have appeared “under the radar screen” because of poorly written neighborhood plans and development standards.

Medium-sized development weapons have also been “in play” – “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” interventions, a tragic reference to certain Vietnam era outrages.

Still the big WMD’s create a radical, permanent, large-scale alteration of places, including mass urban sprawl, previously mentioned urban renewal transplants of uses and scale foreign to the area, and huge interventions such as stadiums, malls or airport expansions.  Some seem more subtle, like over-densification that could result from the urging to push suburban dwellers back into “efficient” urban cores, if poorly planned and implemented.

Consideration of the purposes for and results of Weapons of Mass Development can help us Recapitulate by study of lessons and attitudes of the past (and urban future planned by some…), and lead to Reformation of such processes – identifying error and placing urban planning on a better path – hopefully to result in a superior intent, process, conceptual planning and actual development of more livable, sustainable and resilient cities for the future.

Who is drawing up “battle plans” for YOUR city?

Get involved in planning your city’s future!


About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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