Building the Urban Environment

Visions of the Organic City in the United States, Europe, and Latin America

Harold L. Platt
Book Cover

PB: $30.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1237-9
Publication: Oct 15

HC: $90.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-1236-2
Publication: Oct 15

Ebook: $30.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1238-6
Publication: Oct 15

312 pages
6 x 9
1 figure, 14 maps

An international comparative study that considers how competing agents of change have interacted to build the urban environment

Read the Introduction (pdf).


Building the Urban Environment is a comparative study of the contestation among planners, policymakers, and the grassroots over the production and meaning of urban space. Award-winning historian Harold Platt presents case studies of seven cities, including Rotterdam, Chicago, and Sao Paulo, to show how, over time, urban life created hybrid spaces that transformed people, culture, and their environments.

As Platt explains, during the post-1945 race to technological modernization, policymakers gave urban planners of the International Style extraordinary influence to build their utopian vision of a self-sustaining “organic city.” However, in the 1960s, they faced a revolt of the grassroots. Building the Urban Environment traces the rise and fall of the Modernist planners during an era of Cold War, urban crisis, unnatural disasters, and global restructuring in the wake of the oil-energy embargo of the ’70s.

Ultimately, Platt provides a way to measure different visions of the postwar city against actual results in terms of the built environment, contrasting how each city created a unique urban space.


"Building the Urban Environment is entirely original in its overall conceptualization, synthesis of the literature, and its major arguments. Platt demonstrates how post–WWII planning was conducted within a historical context that valorized specific ideas and visions of the city often at the expense of the people who lived in the city. His analytical framework of the organic city is original and significant. It challenges the reader to reconsider the rationales/rationality of modernism as well as the values upon which so much of the received wisdom of the post–WWII planning of cities was predicated."
Maureen A. Flanagan, Illinois Institute of Technology

"Building the Urban Environment offers many fresh and powerful insights. Platt makes a convincing case that planners were as much a part of the problem as the solution to many urban ills. His synthesis, within the metaphor of the organic city, is highly effective. It frames the entire discussion in a unique way, and provides a cogent means to incorporate nature into the discussion of the city, and to highlight many of the wrong-headed ideas of modernist urban planning. Building the Urban Environment provides a powerful and penetrating critique that touches not only on environmental issues, but race, labor, housing, and municipal administration at both the local and national levels. Through his effective exploration of multi-continent case studies, Platt enriches the argument for the adoption, the failure, and rejection of the organic city.
Craig E. Colten, Louisiana State University

"Historian Harold Platt seeks to chart the 20th century history of planning in Building the Urban Environment .... The book sparkles with concepts and turns of phrase.... (It) will definitely provoke comparisons and stimulate thought."
Planning Magazine

"Platt offers an engaging, fascinating comparative case study that examines how cities were built during the postwar era in the US, Europe, and Latin America.... Summing Up: Highly recommended."

"Writing transnational history is not an easy task. Harold L. Platt, one of the most eminent American urban historians, is well prepared for this task and the empirical, conceptual, and linguistic challenges that come with it. In Building the Urban Environment , he looks at seven engage the notion of the 'organic city' and how it has influenced urban planning paradigms in the twentieth century. This work is highly ambitious in the best spirit of transnational history.... He powerfully demonstrates how architects, engineers, and planners were given great leeway to actualize their grand-scale utopian visions of the organic city and how that transformed urban environments.... Platt’s account brilliantly illustrates how abstract concepts like the organic city are problematic foundations for urban reforms.... Building the Urban Environment offers a very powerful account of the postwar development of urban visions, organic city models, and their significance during the Cold War."
American Historical Review

"Platt’s Building the Urban Environment is an important contribution to understanding the complexity of large-scale urban growth in the twentieth century, of the rise and decline of the systems approach to managing that growth on three continents, and of the popular responses to professional efforts to impose design solutions from the top down. Architectural, planning, and urban historians will find the book useful, as will historians of organizational structures, social historians interested in comparative history across three Atlantic continents, and policy people who want to know more of the twentieth century developments that helped shape many of our large cities in the twenty-first century."
Social Science Journal

" Platt’s transnational history Building the Urban Environment tracks seven cities...that embrace or reject the 'Organic City' concept.... (He) places Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright in conversation with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Los Angeles police violence victim Rodney King, and invites us to see planning as contested, and to understand how struggles to shape the built environment serve—and neglect—the interests of urban stakeholders.... Platt asserts a bold reimagining of twentieth-century planning."
Journal of Urban History

Table of Contents

I Constructing Modernism
Introduction: Planners, Policy Makers, and the Grass Roots 1 Growing the Organic City, 1890–1945
2. Running the Modernization Race, 1945–1960
3. Case Studies, 1945–1960

II Deconstructing Modernism
4. Uprising against the Planners, 1960–1968
5. Case Studies, 1960–1968
6. Contesting the Organic City, 1968–1980
7. Case Studies, 1968–1980
Conclusions: City of Flows—City of Citizens


About the Author(s)

Harold L. Platt is Professor of History Emeritus at Loyola University Chicago. He is the author or editor of several books, including Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago, and Building the Urban Environment: Visions of the Organic City in the United States, Europe, and Latin America (Temple ). He has twice won the book-of-the-year award from the American Public Works Association.


In the Series

  • Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy edited by David Stradling, Larry Bennett, and Davarian Baldwin

    The Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy Series, edited by David Stradling, Larry Bennett, and Davarian Baldwin, was founded by the late Zane L. Miller to publish books that examine past and contemporary cities. While preserving the series’ foundational focus on the policy, planning, and environmental issues so central to metropolitan life, we also join scholarly efforts to push the boundaries of urban studies. We are committed to publishing work at the shifting intersections of cultural production, community formation, and political economy that shape cities at all scales, from the neighborhood to the transnational.