Rapunzel as Urban Allegory

Lee Hachadoorian on Dec 31st 2010

Sometimes coincidence can generate unexpected connections. I happen to be reading Jane Jacob’s incomparable The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In it, Jacobs skewers several planning archetypes that she saw as dominating (in 1961) orthodox urban planning. One of these archetypes was Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, or “towers in the park”. In this design, 95% of the ground is left as open space, while all housing and commerce is contained in isolated skyscrapers. This ideal ended up being influential in the design of American public housing, mostly lower-income but some middle-income projects as well. Jacobs goes on to criticize this type of design as creating open spaces that nobody actually uses because of the lack of street level commerce.

Then, last week, I took my daughter to see the Disney movie Tangled, a modern retelling of the Rapunzel story. In the Brothers Grimm version, a pregnant woman craves an herb (rapunzel) in a hidden garden belonging to an enchantress. Her husband steals the herb several times, but finally is caught, and the enchantress agrees to let him live in exchange for the child when it is born. A girl is born, which the enchantress names after the herb. (In an earlier, Italian version, the child is named Petrosinella after the Italian for “parsley”). The enchantress, Mother Gothel, locks Rapunzel in a tower and raises her as her own daughter. Of course, giving away one’s newborn daughter is not typically regarded as decent behavior (anymore), so the new version has Mother Gothel kidnap Rapunzel outright. They also add that Rapunzel’s hair, in addition to making a good rope ladder, has magical healing powers. None of this is important.

What is important is the tower, a defensive domicile sheltered in a hidden valley. A beautiful tower in a park. Basically, a Radiant City skyscraper. It suddenly struck me. Le Corbusier’s skyscrapers are not just Utopian, they are fantastic. They are fantasy towers like Mother Gothel’s tower in Rapunzel, or Orthanc in Tolkein. The open space in Radiant City is not merely beautiful, it is defensive. Jacobs criticized the Radiant City-inspired parks and plazas of superblock development for being places that are passed through rather than used, and that is the role that the lush valley of Rapunzel’s tower is reduced to as well.

Orthanc, the tower of the fortress Isengard

The allegory can be stretched even further. Safety is a key theme in Tangled, as Mother Gothel convinces Rapunzel that it is not safe outside of the tower, and safety is a key theme in Death and Life as well, with Jacobs discussing the role of sidewalks in promoting safety. The ground level commerce and comings and goings make the sidewalk safe because of constant eyes on the street. But the empty plazas and parks of superblock development are no-man’s-lands that people hurriedly pass through. They are designed, as Isengard’s gardens and Mother Gothel’s hidden valley, to keep enemies out. How can they also serve to attract people? Mother Gothel is the overprotective mother (Tatar’s The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, p. 106) who does not let her child go downstairs for fear of what will happen, just as a source Jacobs cites describes a family living in the projects who won’t let their children downstairs.

Here, reading the allegory too literally is problematic, for the parents in the projects are probably not being overprotective, as the dangers are real. But the dangers, as Jacobs stresses, are due to the project design. Mother Gothel, therefore, is not to be regarded as an actual parent, but as a paternalistic planner. This type of planner, like the overprotective parent, is motivated primarily by fear, and this fear drives them to do things that should be against their better judgment. The planners Jacobs describes have been educated to regard well-functioning (by their own admission) neighborhoods as slums in need of clearance. Like the overprotective parent, this type of planner does more harm than good to those they are trying to protect. In the name of safety, projects are designed which are actually less safe. By striving to keep out nonresidents and nonresidential activities, unfriendly spaces are created, that serve only to attract unfriendly people.

This is of course not intended as a criticism of planning per se, and since the time of Jacobs writings, many of her ideas have become as influential (if not even more so) among planners as the ideas that she criticized. Open space is still valued, but there is greater emphasis on designing spaces that will be used rather than merely passed through. There is also a greater emphasis on mixed-use and transit-oriented development, which bring the kind of diversity of use that Jacobs valued. And we have to remain conscious, in planning and in virtually all aspects of our lives, of the way that the quest for security can actually make us less secure. When the park across from my home was redesigned a couple of years ago, a neighbor complained that an open bandshell might attract ne’er-do-wells, and should be enclosed so that it could be locked while not in use. I replied that such a design, with a lock that could be broken to give access to a space hidden from public eyes, would bring about exactly the effect she wanted to prevent. This idea, that the more open design is actually more secure, also ties into my interest in open source software, and the idea that open source software is more secure precisely because its source code has public eyes on it. The idea that code is more secure if it is proprietary, if it is hidden, is exactly backwards. Perhaps, like Rapunzel, we can let down our hair and embrace openness as a security measure.

Filed in Planning,Urban | One response so far

One Response to “Rapunzel as Urban Allegory”

  1. Brian D.on 06 Jan 2011 at 1:29 pm

    Wow, that was extremely fun. Good work Lee.

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