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Two recent exhibits highlight American planning's strengths alongside its great weaknesses.

A planet of cities planning for growth is likely to be a messy business – a jostle of markets and government, informal settlement and infrastructure.

The future of megacities of the developing world, in particular, was on my mind after visits to two museums in New York recently.

First, there is the abject lesson of how not to accommodate a society’s population – the exhibit Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream at the Museum of Modern Art, where teams of architects, economists, and artists re-imagined five areas devastated by the 2008 housing crisis. The hotspots in New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, southern California and Oregon are all primarily suburban environments, though not as far-flung as the so-called zombie subdivisions miles from anywhere. 

The ideas in the exhibit prompted much commentary about how realistic they were, from James Russell, Blair Kamin, Diana Lind, Bryan Bell and my colleague Sarah Goodyear. Members of the team that re-imagined a factory site in Cicero, Illinois, Jeanne Gang and Greg Lindsay, penned a New York Times op-ed calling for a fresh design and policy approach to housing for the 21st century. Curator Barry Bergdoll said the proposals were meant to be "provocations."

In a symposium on the exhibit earlier this month put on by the Forum for Urban Design, MoMA, and the Lincoln Institute (where, full disclosure and as you can see in my bio, I also work) a panel of experts doused the well-attended exhibit with more cold water, talking about zoning and changing demographics and NIMBYism - all the challenges of reinventing more dense and less car-dependent patterns. There was a sense that in all these areas, planners and the housing markets had somehow got it wrong. In the built environment, it is a singular engineering challenge to go back and try to re-stitch things back together and get it right.

The morning after the symposium, however, uptown at the Museum of the City of New York, my confidence in mankind’s ability to plan for growth was restored. Wandering through the exhibit The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan for Manhattan 1811 - 2011, I was struck by how far-sighted and Daniel Burnham-like the planners of the 19th century had been. They were truly making big plans – laying out a grid north from Lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village to 155th Street, which was as far as they were willing to go, given the rocky, hilly, and otherwise inhospitable land at the upper reaches of Manhattan island.

The planners had to make a bunch of calculations: the length of the east-west blocks, the length of the north-south blocks, the major avenues, the question of whether to put in radiating streets similar to Washington, D.C., the location and size of squares and parks (the decision to set aside the big intervention of Central Park came later in the century). The city builders were essentially laying out infrastructure and creating a real estate market – a bit of a gift, really, to those lucky enough to buy parcels and take it from there. They even had to confront informal settlement: there were shantytowns of Irish and Italian immigrants all over, at places like 105th Street and 5th Avenue.

The grid was later critiqued by everyone from Rem Koolhaas to Le Corbusier, the latter urging bigger towers in superblocks with more light and air – a suggestion that the planning was good, but not quite big and bold enough.

The cities of the developing world would do well to take a look at New York City’s grid. There’s going to be a doubling of urban population and a tripling of land area in these cities in the next 30 years, according to Solly Angel, author of Making Room for a Planet of Cities. To accommodate all those millions of people coming in from the countryside, planners are going to have to think big, anticipating large expanses of urban land, planning for infrastructure decades in advance. The framework might make Manhattan’s grid look quaint by comparison; according to Angel, developing-world cities should plan for growth with major arterials one-square-kilometer in size. 

And yet, they must not think too big, as the ghost towns of China and the zombie subdivisions of the Southeast and Intermountain West attest. Not everyplace can be like New York, and enjoy its good fortune and staggering wealth. But in terms of its grid and planning for growth, it may be the perfect example of Goldilocks planning – not too far-reaching, not insufficient, but impressively, just right.

Photo credit: Jennifer Griner /Shutterstock

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