For more central cities and downtowns, and less CBDs

CBD is one of those Western World ‘take for granted expressions’. Perhaps because I come from a country where CBDs are uncommon – yes, there are the ‘Brasilias’ and ‘Palmas’ of Brazil, but ‘normal’ cities have city centres, and a lot of people live in these areas. I confess I don’t fully understand the principles of CBDs, especially in places where the need for mixed-uses is already well understood. But historically there is a logic. The passage below has been translated from Vicente Del Rio’s book entitled Introduction to Urban Design in the Planning Process (Original: Introdução ao Desenho Urbano no Processo de Planejamento – Del Rio, 2001, p. 20), the passage refers to the post-war planning ideologies which largely aimed for an empty canvas to start from scratch:

“In the First World countries, mainly in the USA, this type of ideology and way of acting would apply to public policies towards the central areas, both housing and commercial, that were in a situation of population and economic decline. This was not due to the physical and environmental characteristics of the areas but, on the one hand, by the current regional policies and, on the other hand, by the new ways of life and paradigms sought by the middle class and promoted by a society of consumption. These were the new “dignified” housing conditions offered by the suburb, the new cities where everything was “properly planned for our comfort,” the migration of large companies for greater effectiveness of performance, the new way of buying in shopping centers, among other factors. As a consequence, the central areas deteriorated physically, economically and socially. The more affluent groups would settle in their new suburban homes, retail and cultural activities followed their market, shifting to the suburbs, central real estate would suffer from a high rate of deterioration and neglect, less favored groups would inherit these conditions and the ghettos would be formed.

Major interventions by the government, or supported by it, would seek to adapt these central areas to the new functions advocated by the master plans and renewal policies, in order to enable the real estate and financial markets. CBDs (Central Business Districts) were then set up, imponent and grandiose road systems, monumental esplanades, large housing complexes in peripheries but with more “dignified” conditions, shopping centers etc. Cities were then seen as simple operating problem, maximization of investments and viability of reproduction and accumulation of capital.”

CBDs are therefore a product of modern planning traditions from the 50s and 60s, following ideas of urban planners such as Robert Moses and Le Corbusier, planners who very evidently forgot the street life and the human scale. In 1961, while fighting those planners and their planning schemes which killed the diversity of uses and buildings, human scale and density, Jane Jacobs wrote about the dangers of CBDs:

“This condition has been more or less formalized in planning jargon, which no longer speaks of “downtowns” but instead of “CBD’s”—standing for Central Business Districts. A Central Business District that lives up to its name and is truly described by it, is a dud. Few downtowns have reached (yet) the degree of unbalance to be found at the lower tip of Manhattan. Most have, in addition to their working people, a good many daytime shoppers during working hours and on Saturdays (Kindle Locations 2684-2687).”

More recently Jeff Speck (2012) has pointed out that opening lanes to keep streets safe is to give handguns to stop crime. In the case of our current housing crisis, Speck’s assertion also applies: to allow greenfield developments as far as the eye can see with the intention of fighting housing prices doesn’t seem to be a suitable solution. What our cities need is strong economies, and when Jane Jacobs wrote about the elements that make a good city, she was pointing out what the economy of cities actually is about. In 2017 we talk about the need for mixed-uses, but insist in locating CBDs, which is incoherent. We complain about housing prices, but build stand-alone single family homes distant from all that the city has to offer, which is also incoherent. While CBDs are identified as such, generating segregation of uses, we will struggle with doughnut city effects of cities that empty out after 5pm. This may seem obvious for some, but the issue needs attention as it is surprising how manipulative the use of language can be. In planning schemes CBDs tend to allow and largely focus upon, well… Business.

When I first moved to Australasia six years ago, I was naïve enough to see the CBD as an equivalent to the central city. There was something weird, but I struggled to put my finger on it. I was living in a (recent) post-earthquake city and for everything I didn’t like, the answer was the same: before the earthquake it was different. It didn’t take long until I realised that this information was a hopeful but mistaken answer.

* * *


del Rio V (2001) Introdução ao Desenho Urbano no Processo de Planejamento. São Paulo, SP, Brazil: Editora Pini Ltda.

Jacobs J (1992) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York, US: Vintage.

Speck J (2012) Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. New York, NY, USA: North Point Press. Kindle Edition.

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