The War for the Cities

Why it matters that ‘we shape our cities, and then our cities shape us’

Chris Harris, PhD
16 min readJun 10, 2021

(Chapter 21 of The Utopia Thieves)

URBANISTS have long drawn our attention to the way that some rather old-fashioned urban environments appear to be, somehow, more sociable. Environments that look like this:

‘Towniness’ as depicted in a sketch by Gordon Cullen. Reproduced by permission of The Architectural Review.

That is, as opposed to a more recent suburb that looks like this:

‘Prairie’ as depicted in a sketch by Gordon Cullen. Reproduced by permission of The Architectural Review.

Where, if you don’t have a car or at least a bicycle, it’s a long wait for the bus, or a long hot walk in summer and a long cold walk in winter. The sort of place, in short, where almost nobody walks and where as a result, there isn’t much street life either.

The second image also depicts someone sketching a cosier sort of townscape on the footpath. But the implication is that in this kind of environment, cosiness and pleasant walks will only ever be a fantasy, or a pavement sketch.

The two images were drawn in the mid-twentieth century by Gordon Cullen, a noted British urbanist of the day who is chiefly remembered for two books that he wrote, called Townscape and The Concise Townscape.

The first sketch depicts an environmental value that Cullen called ‘Towniness’: a cosy, sociable, walkable urbanity. This was the way that towns and cities were built for thousands of years, until the automobile came along.

The second sketch depicts what Cullen called ‘Prairie’: a townscape devoid of Towniness and more typical of a later automobile suburb. That’s the case even though you can see that there are three automobiles in the first sketch and none in the second, ironically enough.

What Cullen’s sketches do depict, rather more obviously, is that towniness is a matter of ‘urban rooms’ or ‘public rooms’ created by comparatively even and sheltering façades.

Because the ancestors of all humans once dwelt among lions, no doubt, when it comes to the sorts of environments in which we feel safest, people are a bit like mice. As a rule, we don’t like anywhere that’s too exposed, and thus prefer to stick to the skirting-boards or their human-sized equivalents.

Smallish, sheltered outdoor areas with façades that are a good fraction of the width of the outdoor area encourage people to come out of their doors. Which is why urbanists so often use the phrase ‘room’ to describe these sorts of areas where social life goes on, even though they are outdoors and public.

(It also goes without saying that these façades should be of the sort that give people a reason to visit the public room in the first place: long strips of cafés and shops, not car parking buildings, blank walls or convention centres that are only used now and then!)

What Cullen referred to as ‘prairie’ on the other hand, is precisely the sort of place that makes the pedestrian feel naked. A sort of windswept Serengeti where the car is the hunter.

Visually, the most obvious difference between towniness and ‘prarie, in Cullen’s urban sense, is that urban prairie always has what can be described as a ‘snaggle-toothed’ look. You can see between the buildings to buildings beyond; and they may be of all different heights as well. Towniness works best at two or three storeys everywhere, and also in a fairly joined-up sense. On the other hand, prairie can be found amount detched bungalows and also among tower-blocks, towering high over wet grass.

In urban prairie, the only psychologically or even objectively safe haven is indoors or at any rate in space that you control absolutely, such as a back garden or compound that is not observable from the street. Urban prairie thus breeds a privatised, fearful and hostile mentality. On the other hand, towniness breeds cheerful cooperation and more pro-social mentality.

To misquote Winston Churchill: ‘We shape our cities, and then our cities shape us’.

Churchill was actually referring to buildings in his famous misquote. What he said, in 1943, was “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” He was urging his fellow-Britons, at the time, to make sure that the buildings they would soon erect in place of the ones that had been ‘blitzed’ would be of good quality, and not to skimp on the details; because a good-looking and well-designed building has an uplifting effect for generations to come.

But the famous war-leader has been endlessly misquoted as referring to “our cities.” Partly, this is a slip of the pen. But also, he gets misquoted because it has in fact been suspected since Howard’s day, and certainly since the coming of the automobile, that the form of the city has a profound influence on the issue of whether we see the world in terms that are fundamentally convivial, or in terms that are fundamentally hostile.

And vice versa too, that if we are a convivial people the cities we build will possess ‘towniness’, while if we are a hostile people they will express the values of ‘prairie’, which also find their expression in the blank gaze of mirror glass and the rolled-up tinted windows of what’s sometimes referred to as the urban assault vehicle.

In spite of the sterilisation of many of our cities by the automobile since World War II — Auckland above all, in New Zealand’s case — these insights are almost entirely overlooked in mainstream politics and civics lessons. Oddly enough, in Churchill’s day, they were actually understood better.

Thus, a 1948 New Zealand Government publication for schools, prepared by the Ministry of Works and bearing the title of Better Towns, told the high school pupils of the day that:

Buildings can be grouped freely around roads or greens — so long as they follow an orderly pattern — in such a way that a kind of ‘public living room’ is formed between them. See how the houses round the cul-de-sac enclose a homely space and in their general appearance express the spirit of neighbourliness.

. . . . .

Another feature giving homeliness to this town centre is the manner in which more or less defined spaces are enclosed between the buildings.

. . . . .

SPATIAL ENCLOSURE. This is merely the town-planner’s term for the shaping of spaces between buildings, which has already been referred to … The enclosure of open spaces is essential if shelter and a spirit of rest and homeliness is to be given to a village, town or city… If spaces are too wide and open one tends to feel lost. The cave, the farmyard, the village green, and the town square are all very different in purpose and appearance, but they they are all alike in that they all enclose “living spaces”.

“In recent times we have forgotten this need for a communal living space.

Better Towns also pointed to the downtown of Napier, lately rebuilt after the 1931 earthquake and asked pupils to imagine how much more attractive it might be, still, if car traffic could be excluded from such areas as Market Street:

Close this Napier street for vehicles and it is the ideal shopping arcade.

In those days, town planning in New Zealand was being referred to more and more often as ‘community planning’, the implication being that the main aim of the town planner was to ensure that community was built in to new urban areas, by way of community centres and railway station plazas, so that they did not become soulless prairie.

Some of the plans of that time were fairly amazing, such as these ones from State Housing in New Zealand (Ministry of Works, 1949), prepared during World War II by the émigré Austrian urbanist Ernst Plischke as part of a portfolio of designs for a suburb to be developed entirely by the state in the areas now known as Orakei, Glen Innes and Panmure, in the eastern part of Auckland’s central isthmus.

Ernst Plischke’s 1943 plan for a town centre at Glen Innes, in Auckland. The town centre was described as being at ‘Tamaki’, but that name is now used to refer to the wider area, and the specific location of this town centre is today denoted as Glen Innes. NZ Crown copyright reserved
The wider setting of the town centre immediately above, also by Plischke. I have shaded the parkland belts green for greater visibility. In practice this scheme was partly realised without such extensive connectivity of parklands, and also, unfortunately, in the sense that much of the outdoor area in the major town centre in the middle, known as Tamaki then and Glen Innes today, was turned over to surface car parks. NZ Crown copyright reserved.

The need to build opportunities for social life into the newer urban areas, and not to allow them to assume the form of prairie, was seen as an existential struggle — a bit like the war itself.

The tone of passages such as “we have forgotten this need” implied that the future conviviality of the city was in real peril of being somehow erased. And for many, the chief source of the peril was the automobile. According to a book by Plischke called Design and Living, published by the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs in 1947 with a slightly simplified spelling of the author’s name (another Antipodean Ernst by the name of Fuchs became Fooks, the better to avoid mispronunciation) the “novelty” of the automobile was, however, wearing off, and we were “becoming aware of its problems.” (p. 67)

NZ Crown copyright reserved

Such concerns were lent urgency by the fact that during the Second World War, civilian road traffic had been curtailed, but that after the War it was likely to increase dramatically, to levels never seen before, unless this growth were somehow pre-empted and channeled away from places where it would be undesirable.

In Britain, in 1946, the Ministry of War Transport produced a book called Design and Layout of Roads in Built-Up Areas, its cover unmistakably of that era.

UK Open Government Licence

The images inside speak to us across the years, the issues then quite clearly the same as now. A number of these images follow in succession, all reproduced under the terms of the UK Open Government Licence.

And if these images tend to make one think of a vanished England, well, the reason why it has vanished in many places is quite simple. Namely, because of eventual capitulation not to the Nazis but to the automobile!

But what’s also striking, apart from the nostalgic aspect, is how closely these images resemble the recommendations of today’s urbanists and environmentalists intent on creating a ‘Green City’.

From Garden City to Green City, as the title of one 21st century book has it, the more things change in town planning the more they stay the same. Everything Ebenezer Howard said in Garden Cities of Tomorrow is still relevant today, and the same goes for Design and Layout of Roads in Built-Up Areas.

But we can’t afford to live like that, you might say! These sorts of townscapes, which, apart from the first one, all look rather gentrified to our present eye, are normally really expensive to live in — aren’t they?

Well, in framing a reply to that objection, the first thing that comes to mind is that the average Briton in 1946 wasn’t all that well off, but clearly they could afford to live in such townscapes.

All the same, the idea that a comparatively compact and walkable, walk-to-coffee urbanism must be unaffordable is endemic.

Politicians often suppose that the only way to restore housing affordability is to eliminate all restrictions on outward urban sprawl and thus foster as much prairie as possible.

In reality, that’s a mistake. When the Third, 1972–1975 Labour Government boosted the construction of dwellings so dramatically in just three short years, thereby helping to collapse the housing market by nearly forty per cent in inflation-adjusted terms, they did so by greatly boosting the numbers of flats (or apartments) and townhouses that were being built, within existing city limits.

In more recent times, the transition to a more entrenched form of housing unaffordability only really took off in New Zealand once we nearly stopped building multi-unit dwellings at the end of the 1980s, for reasons that included increased off-street car-parking requirements.

If, as became the norm in New Zealand around 1990, two off-street car parks are required for each dwelling, there is one thing you can be quite sure of. And that is that the construction of affordable flats, apartments and town-houses will nearly cease. And those few that continue to be built will be located in unattractive wastelands of car-parking with no outdoor pleasance areas, further reducing the attractiveness of this option.

From Ian Page, Housing — Then and Now in ‘Build’ Magazine (2012, issue 130), published by the Building Research Association of New Zealand (BRANZ). Crown copyright reserved.

Ironically, many English-speaking countries have long suffered from a shortage of affordable dwellings for smaller households. That’s precisely why, in New Zealand, ‘flatting’ generally means a group of unrelated adults uneasily sharing a house that was built for a family.

That a variety of housing types is needed, not just family bungalows of the kind most likely to produce prairie if not well planned, was a fact well understood in the 1940s. Better Towns, that 1948 guide to urbanism for kids, contained the following graphic:

From ‘Better Towns’ (NZ Ministry of Works, 1948). Crown copyright reserved.

Around the same time, a somewhat slicker version of the same idea found expression in the following graphic.

Reproduced by permission of The Architectural Centre

This graphic was reproduced in a New Zealand magazine called Design Review in the early 1950s. But I’ve seen it elsewhere. If anyone knows where it came from originally, let me know!

The other issue, of course, is that too much reliance on outward, prairie-like extension of the city as a way to deliver housing affordability leads to a commuter hell and intractable traffic congestion.

It is surprising how often the costs of excessive commuting and sprawl are overlooked. These costs include the direct costs of additional cars per household, fuel and fares as enumerated in the American report Driven to Spend and its follow-ups, and also the more indirect but even greater costs in terms of nervous tension, pollution, wasted time, social isolation, lack of exercise and so on.

By contrast, compact housing forms enable people to live close to their work, make sociability easier and also encourage people to be more active, in the sense that there are likely to be more places worth walking to nearby.

The perils of sprawl and prairie, potentially exacerbated by the post-War baby boom and the consequent need for family homes of a detached type, were also understood by the Americans. In 1959, the Urban Land Institute and the National Association of Home Builders produced the following, fascinating film that describes ways of curbing the prairie tendency, even in a bungalow suburbia of the kind that was springing up all over the USA at the time:

On into the 1960s, there continued to be a keen awareness of the dangers of unchecked increases in automobile traffic and haphazard, prairie-inducing forms of growth. In Britain, the most famous expression of this concern was the 1963 Buchanan Report, Traffic in Towns.

The Front Cover of the Buchanan Report. UK Open Government Licence.

Here is one image from the lavishly-produced report, which I zero in on to show how it proposes a convivial living area, between a car-parking area in the foreground and a street with red, double-decker buses in the background, as one solution to the problem of urban living with cars.

Source: Buchanan Report, ‘Traffic in Towns’, HMSO 1963. UK Open Government Licence.
Source: Buchanan Report (image detail). UK Open Government Licence.

Here’s a film presented by one of the authors of the report, Ann MacEwen, in 1968. It’s called The City’s for Living In.

By and large, the Continental Europeans got on top of these sorts of issues more successfully than their Anglophone counterparts. For the latter, the slow conquest of their cities by the automobile and the consequent transformation of large parts of those cities into hostile, brutalised and lonely environments achieved, in some ways, what their fascist adversaries had failed to achieve in the 1940s.

Namely, the creation of what the American urban scholar Lewis Mumford once famously likened to an ‘anti-civilization’: a “non-city” or “war-metropolis” founded on a principle of road rage! A war-metropolis not in the sense of an otherwise tidy-looking 1940s England on which bombs were falling, but something more dystopian:

The city arose as a special kind of environment, favourable to co-operative association, favourable to nurture and education, because it was a protected environment. . . . Plainly, a civilization that terminates in a cult of barbarism has disintegrated as civilization; and the war-metropolis, as an expression of these institutions, is an anti-civilizing agent: a non-city.

Faced with the non-city and the war-metropolis, Anglophones have instead come to dream of escaping to the countryside in a survivalistic sort of a way: a sentiment captured in this photograph of a billboard set in a present-day New Zealand urban wasteland, taken by the urbanist and photographer Patrick Reynolds in 2011.

The billboard served an anti-littering campaign of the time, intended to make sure that less rubbish was carelessly dropped in New Zealand’s great outdoors. Yet, an equally pressing form of environmental degradation was to be found at the billboard’s base.

(Like Gordon Cullen, who started out as an illustrator — or for that matter Jeffrey Kenworthy, who has mentioned that he got interested in cities as a photographer of urban scenes as well — Patrick Reynolds is one of those who thinks a picture is worth a thousand words in a case like this. Those who understand the city best do tend to think in visual or three-dimensional terms, I think.)

In 2006, long after Mumford, the British environmental correspondent Lewis Monbiot expressed a similar insight with regard to the roots of the evident degeneration throughout the English-speaking world of civics and civility, everyday courtesy of the kind that was once taught in schools, and solidaristic political values that were also once seen as fairly normal:

When you drive, society becomes an obstacle. Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming and speed limits become a nuisance to be wished away. The more you drive, the more you seek the freedom that the road promises but always denies….

Little did Monbiot realise, in 2006, that social media was about to make things even worse! There, too, the issue is a similar one in the sense of being stuck in a more or less privatised space and sending out abusive tweets from behind a technological screen, that is in many ways the equivalent of rolled-up car window.

In this new, non-civilisation of generalised hostility, unaccountability and fear there is an equally generalised absence of the value the Māori call kanohi-ki-kanohi, which literally means face-to-face and thus hardly needs translation, since everyone ought to know what that means in any case.

Namely, the face-to-face or convivial approach that’s indispensable to a healthy society and the constructive defusing of problems. That is, as opposed to a society where we have fallen into the habit of making other people talk to the hand, and pushing each other’s buttons, and think that such abusiveness is normal.

To some extent, the latter is a consequence of modern scale, and large modern organisations, as opposed to life in an idealised sort of a village. In that sense, it needs to be curbed by organisational reforms: unions, ‘stakeholding’, and an end to managerial absolutism, assuming that we don’t want to simply go backwards to the days of the village blacksmith in technological terms.

But it is also a consequence of the way we have built our cities, as places where it is now difficult to be sociable.

And it is a matter of some concern that there is so little awareness of this as a political, indeed existential and civilisational issue now, when the problem was so well understood in the 1940s.

Was this yet another greatest-generation insight that boomer-era politicians somehow lost sight of, thereby allowing evils once thought vanquished to take hold again?

In this case, the evils of non-city and anti-civilisation, of hostile post-War urban environments that train us to suppose that we are each on our own.

Of course, we have urbanists who have been concerned to restore the values of walk-to-coffee urbanity in a physical sense, one that is often associated with expensive projects of gentrification.

And environmentalists have long been concerned with automove emissions. Others have worried about accidents and road safety, and the health effects of driving everywhere rather than walking or biking.

But these separate issues, important as they are, are each exercises in feeling separate parts of the proverbial elephant.

What I’m saying here is that we need to grasp that the form of the city is an existential, civilisational issue of the kind captured by the famous misquote, ‘We shape our cities, and then our cities shape us’. It’s that insight, prevalent in the 1940s, that we’ve lost sight of.


The quotes from Better Towns, billed as a ‘Post primary bulletin’ prepared by the Town Planning Section, Ministry of Works, Wellington; published by the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education, 1948, appear at pages 4, 13, and 14.

The Lewis Mumford quote appears on page 15 of Divided Cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar and Nicosia by John Calame and Esther Charlesworth, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

The George Monbiot quote comes from his 2006 book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, London, Allen Lane, p. 144.

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Chris Harris, PhD

I am an urban historian from Aotearoa New Zealand. With an engineering background, I also have a PhD in planning and economics.