The following article is excerpted from the forthcoming book, Temples & Towns: A Study of the Form, Elements, and Principles of Planned Towns by Michael Dennis.

The book is expected to be published in 2015.


    For most of human history cities and towns have consisted of architectural monuments and urban fabric—temples and towns.

    In Classical Greece the most sacred temples were often located on the acropolis, separate from the town. In Hellenistic Greek towns and Roman towns, however, the temples were usually within the town. This condition of reciprocity between architectural monuments and urban fabric remained until approximately the mid-eighteenth century, when important Western institutions began to be expressed as articulate architectural monuments—freestanding icons—often in gardens.

    This Neoclassical change in sensibility reemerged after the frenzy of nineteenth-century city building as the spatial and philosophical underpinning of modern architecture and town planning. Essentially, the city disappeared; architecture became more and more assertive and violent; and the private realm of architecture finally achieved hegemony over the public realm of the city.

    During this process, society lost its sense of community and urbanity; staggering amounts of finite resources were consumed; and our planet became so polluted that the damage may be irreversible.

    “Temples” without “Towns” is untenable. Both temples and towns are needed.

    (with gratitude & apologies to Leon Krier)(with gratitude & apologies to Leon Krier)(with gratitude & apologies to Leon Krier)(with gratitude & apologies to Leon Krier)  


    Despite efforts to redefine architecture and urbanism during the last quarter of the twentieth century, contemporary architecture has become ever more narcissistic and autonomous—the result of a three-hundred-year formal and social transformation, from near complete hegemony of the public realm in the seventeenth century to a no less tyrannical hegemony of the private realm in our time. The physical civic realm has all but disappeared.

    Legible urban space is required for a physical public realm, but little architecture today contributes. This may be the most crucial professional issue of our time.

    ...from near complete hegemony of the public realmParis, France...from near complete hegemony of the public realmBordeaux, France...to a no less tyrannical hegemony of the private realmDubai, United Arab Emirates...to a no less tyrannical hegemony of the private realmHot Springs, Arkansas

    As the world continues to urbanize (over 50 percent of the world’s population now live in cities); as population increases (it is predicted to increase from 6 billion to 9 billion by 2050); as the world’s resources diminish (especially petroleum); and as we continue to poison the planet by continuing to burn fossil fuels; it will become imperative to reexamine architecture and its relationship to the city.

    The size and lifestyle of our human population are the drivers of this crisis through production of food and materials, consumption of renewable and nonrenewable resources, and waste and pollution.

    The Earth can naturally support about 2.5 billion people. Population size beyond that has only been supported by technology in the production of food, and with some segments of world population living in marginal conditions at best. Production of food has plateaued, however, and population continues to increase.

    The production of material goods in the developed part of the world has also increased to an extravagant degree. The lifestyle to which we have become accustomed demands the production of ever more massive amounts of “stuff.”

    We humans are consuming the Earth’s nonrenewable resources, such as petroleum, gas, coal, and metals, at a geometrically increasing rate. There are relatively fine-grained arguments about the remaining amounts of these resources, but nonrenewable means that when they are gone, they are gone. Tragically, an excessive proportion of nonrenewable resources are squandered on America’s predominantly suburban lifestyle. We have 4.6 percent of the world’s population, but we use almost one-third of the world’s petroleum.

    World population is also consuming so-called renewable resources at a greater rate than can be replenished, including: water, soil, forests, and seafood. As population increases, consumption grows, and as diets in the developing world become more protein-centered, consumption expands further.

    The results of our complex, modern lifestyle of consumption are no longer unseen, but visible: from toxic pollution of the food chain and water system to melting ice and snow caps, rising sea level, acid seas, deforestation, desertification, fresh water loss, soil erosion and loss, and species extinction. Of all of the results of our lifestyle, however, global warming is by far the most devastating. We can live without oil, but we cannot live on an excessively warm planet.

    The political excuse for non-action is always economic. But remediation is more expensive than prevention, and extinction is even cheaper. All we have to do is continue what we are doing, and the forces we have unleashed will purge the Earth of the problem—us. Even if it takes a millennium or more for the Earth to come back to equilibrium this is an insignificant period in the time line of the world.


    The concrete evidence of the past and the present may be described and argued with some degree of clarity, but predictions about the future almost always prove to be quite wrong. Even if the future cannot be predicted, however, there are facts that can be known and trends that can be identified with some degree of confidence. For example, the environmental and economic trends identified in The Limits to Growth in 1972 have proven to have tracked more or less as predicted over the last forty years, and we now face unprecedented environmental and cultural challenges that threaten not only the quality of life on our planet but possibly even the continuity of planetary life. Predictions of the future are not required, but an acknowledgment of the facts of the present is. As Aldus Huxley has stated: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”


    Excessive consumption of both renewable and nonrenewable resources, population growth, waste, and pollution (including carbon) are crucial facts of our time. They are exacerbated by our non-urban lifestyle, and have ominous implications for our future. At best, radical change will be required, and at worst, if we do not change, the near future could make the centuries of disintegration of the Roman Empire seem like a pleasant interlude.

    No excuse—not even pending environmental doom—should be needed in order to produce livable, joyous urban environments. We have several thousand years of excellent precedents to draw upon. But more than a century of destructive urban behavior has produced contemporary architectural and urban conventions that are impotent to address twenty-first-century issues, much less for producing quality urban environments. And, when conventions are inadequate, principles become necessary.


    Urban life may indeed be the most sustainable form of habitation, but rapid and increasing urbanization, primarily in India, South America, and China, does not suggest livable and sustainable urban futures. Nor does continuous horizontal sprawl in the United States. These forms of habitation may technically be cities, or mega-cities, but they are not urban, because the civic realm is missing. They are simply warehouses for people, and the reasons, or excuses, for producing them are endless. Most of those reasons have to do with expediency, automobiles, and other aspects of the status quo. But the status quo of today is not very likely to be the status quo thirty years from now. Indeed, if identifiable facts and trends materialize, the near future will be radically different from present-day reality. Thus, environmental prudence and good urban practice should conspire to produce sustainable and livable twenty-first-century cities.

    The combination of excessive vehicular circulation and detached buildings have together done more to produce bad urban environments than any other factors—by far. Conversely, the combination of dense contiguous buildings and streets as narrow as possible would do more to produce good urban environments than any other factor.

    ...these forms of habitation may be cities, or mega-cities, but they are not urban.Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui, China...these forms of habitation may be cities, or mega-cities, but they are not urban.Atlanta, Georgia...these forms of habitation may be cities, or mega-cities, but they are not urban.South Jordan, Utah

    More of the status quo will not produce beautiful cities; it will preclude them. If recent trends towards urbanization are to continue, as they should, architectural and town planning practice must change radically.


    Oddly, after all the theorizing, everyone knows which are the good cities: Paris, Rome, Bordeaux, Bath, Venice, Barcelona. All are compact, with continuous fabric, tight streets, and fabulous spaces. There is communal life because there is a civic realm. They are also among the world’s most sustainable cities on a per-capita basis.

    The basic form guidelines for good urbanism are simple:

    Dense, contiguous urban buildings forming modestly sized blocks;

    Streets as narrow as possible, designed primarily for people, not cars (or diesel buses);

    A pattern of plazas or squares of moderate size;

    Neighborhood and civic parks and gardens;

    Mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods;

    A legible civic structure of public spaces and buildings; and

    Efficient public transportation systems.


    Not every city in the world can be surrounded by the world’s best wines, but even without the wine Bordeaux would be a superb example of beautiful urban life. Architecture, landscape, and urbanism enjoy a mutually reinforcing relationship in Bordeaux, enabling the latest technology, and the latest architecture, to be absorbed with ease into the formal and social fabric of the city. Why shouldn’t every city have this quality—if not the wine?

    …even without the wine Bordeaux would be a superb example of beautiful urban life.Bordeaux, France…even without the wine Bordeaux would be a superb example of beautiful urban life.Bordeaux, France…even without the wine Bordeaux would be a superb example of beautiful urban life.Bordeaux, France…even without the wine Bordeaux would be a superb example of beautiful urban life.Bordeaux, France…even without the wine Bordeaux would be a superb example of beautiful urban life.Bordeaux, France

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    McKibben, B. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. New York: Times Books, 2010.

    Owen, D. Green Metropolis: Why Ling Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to
    New York: Riverhead, 2009.

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