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This report is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.

Letter from Washington: City Planning David C. Ward
In 1842, Dickens, visiting America, called the Nation’s Capital a city of ‘magnificent intentions’, poking fun at the elaborate, ceremonial urban plan designed by architect Pierre L’Enfant in 1791 which was only partially fulfilled half a century later. Sited on the alluvial plain between the Potomac (majestic) and Anacostia (ignored) Rivers, the city was low, flat, and very muddy. It is still low and flat but not so muddy. The exponential growth of the national government, and the various industries – consulting firms, lobbyists and trade associations, law firms, etc etc – that it has spawned through bureaucratic symbiosis, has resulted in a glossy city whose architectural face is sheet glass and faux marble. Many of the buildings seem to have been created by mashing up computer elements of different styles and attributes: weird cupolas pop up on roofs or there are strangely sited ornamental pillars. The persistent urban myth in Washington is that no building may be taller than the Capitol Building, hence the low, unimpressive skyline. The reality is more prosaic and is the function of a late nineteenth-century zoning ordinance: building height is regulated by a formula calculated by the width of the street or avenue. The result is that Washington has been built out, not up. The city has expanded from its compact centre built around the axis of governmental buildings (the Capitol to the east, the White House to the west) into a sprawling megalopolis that has filled in the countryside to the west extending out to the Blue Ridge mountains. Two-lane ...

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