Trouble in Brasília

The Guardian has an interesting spotlight on the world's most famous planned city. Brasília, the capital of Brazil since 1960, was designed from the ground up by Lúcio Costa (urban planning), Oscar Niemeyer (architecture of the important buildings), and Roberto Burle Marx (landscape design). These guys were no slouches in terms of credentials. Oscar Niemeyer, for instance, is one of the most famous living architects, even if I am not really impressed with his work (or his Communism).

The big problem is that it was supposed to be the planning architect's dream city, and instead actually has real people living in it.

Unveiled almost half a century ago, Brasilia astonished the world. Brazil's purpose-built capital of perfect grids and avant garde buildings exuded wonder and optimism, control and beauty.

The then president, Juscelino Kubitschek, hailed a new dawn for his country and the United Nations designated the city a world heritage site. It was a living, futurist museum.

As the 50th anniversary approaches, however, the future seems to have ambushed Brasilia. What was supposed to be a shiny citadel with huge attention to detail and organisation has in places degraded into a violent, crime-ridden sprawl of cacophonous traffic jams. The real Brazil has spilled into its utopian vision.

The design of the city is really remarkable, make no mistake, but its location—the real world—is a hard problem to work around. Niemeyer's take:

"The way Brasilia has evolved, it has problems. It should have stopped growing some time ago. Traffic is becoming more difficult, the number of inhabitants has surpassed the target, limits are being exceeded."

Well, in that case, I guess the Brazilian governement at some level will simply have to tell people they can't move to Brasília. The city was supposed to be a fixed, completed entity without more inputs. It would not "live" like other cities "lived". It would have a goal imposed on it from on high and an ordered plan, free from the organic mess that characterized life in other cities.

That these aspirations did not come true is no doubt puzzling to the designers and their imitators the world over, but it shouldn't be to us classical liberals. The ideas that a handful of people will have for the uses of a city, however brilliant they are, will never match up with what the inhabitants (and possible inhabitants) want to do with their lives in that city. Just like expert economic planners can never predict the specific decisions of a multitude of economic agents, expert urban planners can never predict the specific decisions of a multitude of city residents.

Via Archinect 

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Sim City is not entirely useless in understanding the situation and appreciating the problems of central planning.

If you want to plan a city, then at the very least you need to define zones where different activities will take place, where different kinds of structure might be built, etc. If absolutely any activity can happen anywhere, if absolutely any kind of structure can be built anywhere, then there is no plan at all.

Sim City is a lesson in zoning. Specifically, one of the things it teaches you is that (unless you're very lucky) you can't define the zones at the start and then walk away. What makes it a game is that you can't do this but must continually tend to your city in order to allow it to grow. In particular, your initial plan, whatever it is, will not survive. You will find yourself forced to zone in ways you hadn't anticipated in order to keep your city alive and growing. Your city's eventual layout will be the largely unanticipated product of its largely unanticipated evolution.

I think this lesson is real and robust and is not an artifact of the programmers' flawed assumptions. It predicts the current situation in Brasilia.

These comments are based on my remote memories of having played the game. Of course, I might have been playing it badly.