We continue our walk through Weis and Arnesen’s “Thriving as a City in 2020,” this week with a case study.
Lest we ascribe the demise of urban life to the inextricable forces of post-war modernity, we must contend with the gleaming exceptions that populate the rest of the developed world.
The era of modern urban spaces began in Rome on April 25, 1966, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to award the Games of the XX Olympiad to Munich, West Germany (International Olympic Committee, 2006). In 1966, Munich was a newly-rebuilt city, having been destroyed at the end of World War II. The sunk costs of having rebuilt Munich were enormous. It might have sounded rational to look at Munich in 1966 and say “we’ve just finished a multi-billion Deutschmark rebuild – let’s give it a rest.” But the city leaders looked at the city infrastructure and decided it would neither accommodate a major international event, nor serve to move Munich into the 21st Century as one of Europe’s premier cities. And as to the recent investment in rebuilding the city — like all sunk costs, it was irrelevant. Between the IOC vote on April 25, 1966, and the opening of the Olympic Games on August 26, 1972, Munich dug up its new streets, built a comprehensive inner-city subway system (U-Bahn) and a comprehensive rail system connecting neighboring towns to the Munich inner core (S-Bahn), pedestrianized its entire commercial core, rebuilt and rerouted its light rail network, and excavated for subterranean parking for visitors and residents who still wanted to drive into the city.
Munich accomplished all of this in six short years – a total makeover of a city that had only completed its post-war reconstruction a few years earlier. European visitors to the Games of the XX Olympiad were dazzled by the new Munich, and within another decade most major cities on the continent adopted the Munich design for revitalizing their urban centers. They did so because they had seen the future and determined that cities without comprehensive mass transit and urban beautification schemes were not viable approaching the 21st Century. No votes of the citizenry were taken, just as no votes were taken in the 18th and 19th Centuries when our once great American cities were designed and built. Cities were simply rebuilt, with the kind of efficient dispatch that we have not seen in America since San Francisco began rebuilding on April 19, 1906 – the day after it was destroyed by the great earthquake and fire (Ellsworth, 1990).