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Cape Town, South Africa
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  • Ellen Bassett

Modern(ism) Myopia

My autodidactic brother (the sibling who really should be teaching at a university but instead bestows his talents on third graders) brought to my attention a fabulous website with a range of podcasts. It is called 99% Invisible and can be found at:

The site covers a whole variety of topics associated with design, but what I follow are the posts on cities and infrastructure. In late February they posted two podcasts looking at how planning can go very wrong when planners become ideologues. (We like to stress the reflective practitioner in planning pedagogy and there is a reason—we’ve done a lot of bad over time.) These particular podcasts look at the building of the Bijlmermeer on the outskirts of Amsterdam starting in the 1970s. My knowledge of the place was pretty limited. During the period when I hung out with the Dutch (in East Africa), I knew of it as that housing project that some characterized as a slum. (Some Dutch—see Geert Wilders and the late Pim Fortuyn—do have issues dealing with diversity. The Bijlmer in the 1990s was home to many Dutch citizens originally from Suriname.) Most dramatically I knew about it when a cargo jet leaving Schiphol failed to gain altitude and slammed into one of the buildings killing a still unknown number of people.


In the podcasts, the history of the Bijlmer is laid out. It was a project of high modernism meant to be the city of the future. Designed to look like a beehive from the air, in many ways the vision was appealingly utopian and egalitarian (no differentiation of housing units, for instance, to designate socio-economic status.) In reality, it was also ridiculously ill-conceived relative to human needs, transportation systems, and understanding what actually draws people to cities (like hanging out with other people, mixing of land uses, using your bicycle—this is the Netherlands after all, etc.)

The story is so interesting because the signals that the development was failing came pretty early, but the planners kept moving forward. Moving myopically. Path dependency is a real thing. The parallels with the American experience with “towers in the park” and their failure as a form of public housing is discussed. Listen and weep.


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