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Urbanization series: Modernism made us lose the art of creating human cities (4)

Written by Caspar Tromp

This story discusses another particularly large cost of modernism that deserves special attention: we have lost the art of building and designing cities for people.

In the past, we lacked modern technology and people moved naturally on average 5km/hour. As such we designed our streets, buildings and public spaces according to this human movement and comfort. Everything is smaller in size as a result. The old alleys of Punda and Otrobanda are reminiscent of this ancient walkability. High density was achieved by constructing buildings that were not much taller than four floors, on smaller plots and all attached to each other. We instinctively feel pleasant in spaces that have this “human-scale” (to be explained in the next article).

Yet, since the modernism of the 20th century, we started to design cities for the car, with an average speed of 60km/hour. Efficiency became more important than the human experience of public space and architecture. Broad highways and traffic made walking less pleasant or even dangerous, while also dividing neighborhoods. The car had allowed them to live with their private space in the suburb anyway. Suburbanization decreased, even more, the need for providing quality public spaces.

New engineering innovations also allowed buildings to become bigger and taller, often intuitively perceived by people as unpleasantly large while standing closeby. With modernist ideals of functionality and big capital interests, architecture shifted to become anonymous, standardized, introvert, boring in most cases and especially less human. Big capital especially greedily received modernism, as standardization allows buyers to know exactly what they buy, just like you know what you will get with a hamburger at McDonald’s. Functionality also allowed to maximize profit by making production more efficient while minimizing investments only to the most necessary. Modernist city planning was also used to segregate, both for the rich to self-segregate in luxurious condominiums as to socially or racially isolate unwanted “others” in modernist ghettos. By contrast, in socialist or communist states standardization was employed on a massive scale to ideals of the collectiveness and equality of laborers, and served to suppress the unwanted individuality, a basic human need. Standardization was also particularly useful during the population boom of the 20th century and particularly after WWII. It allowed for vast new neighborhoods - whether apartment buildings, terraced houses or detached suburban houses – to be built from scratch in just a few years to house an exponentially expanding population. Standardization in Curaçao is apparent in many social housing neighborhoods like in Otrobanda and the suburbs. Examples of functionality are also visible in more modern constructions in and around Punda, where introvert buildings clash with adjacent historical monuments, and where some back alleys are formed of long walls only air-conditioning machines - with no doors or windows.

Another important characteristic of modernist city planning was the strict division of land uses. In the old cities, you could have streets with terraced houses where on ground-level stores and cafés were located and on upper stories people lived. Religious, public and governmental buildings were around the corner. In the modern city, thanks to the innovation of the car, neighborhoods could be designed where people only lived, while in the central business district people only worked. Shopping malls with large parking lots also conveniently clustered all shops together. Mobility made it possible to leave your house by car, drive to work and to go shopping and later come back home.

This separation of uses however soon showed its downsides. First of all, it killed city life. Neighborhoods became dull due to the absence of human activity and stimulation. As more and more people were able to afford a car, the streets became more crowded with traffic jams as a result. Speeds of 120km/h are reduced once more to 5km/h, and those long-distances became long again. Long commuting time, loss of private time, pollution due to greenhouse gases and lack of exercise is detrimental to our well-being.

Ironically, in contrast to liberal capitalist ideals, modernist planning is often very rigid due to strict zoning laws and planning standards. It was also, partly due to ideals of standardization and functionality, not in tune with local contexts. Planners only looked at the city from above, like maps or scale models. Hence decision making was top-down and large infrastructure projects were imposed on older dense neighborhoods with close communities. As such modernist planning disrupted these local communities and social networks. This is also visible in downtown Willemstad, especially along the exits of the highroads of the Queen Juliana bridge in Otrobanda and Scharloo. To build the “Arubastraat”, large parts of the old heritage “Ser’i Otrobanda” and “Alley District” in Otrobanda were destroyed, and many houses and spaces next to this road are currently abandoned, empty and deteriorated as a result. Today both streets physically and psychologically divide the neighborhoods. This means that the streets do not only divide through car speed and lack of walkability but also through their size and its shady atmosphere of neglect which deters people. Furthermore, many beautiful monumental buildings in Punda, Otrobanda, Pietermaai, and Scharloo have been destroyed or cleared and became (large) parking lots. Not only does this increase car use in a vulnerable historical inner city, these parking lots have also created unattractive and even sketchy open scars in the cityscape where people do not feel pleasant to stay or pass by.

As city centers – worldwide but also in Willemstad - deteriorated during processes of modernization and suburbanization, people became even less compelled to live, move or hang out in urban spaces. This has created a downward spiral that has become ever more difficult to get out of.

The first movement against this trend was perhaps by Jane Jacobs, who observed these processes in New York of the ’50s and ’60s and stood up for the complexity and humanity of old, dense mixed-use neighborhoods. Her ideas became very influential with her famous book “The Life and Death of Great American Cities”. A new wave of designing cities for people and building in a “human-scale” was also formed by Jan Gehl, a Danish architect. In a beautiful exchange with his wife who is a psychologist, he started to think more about how people psychologically interact with their built environment, and what types of urban environments contribute to our well-being and which do not. Even in the Global South, slums are less cleared and rather more being integrated with the greater city, making use of the existing space and limited resources, in close collaboration with local communities, to come with creative solutions. Slowly a more human-friendly paradigm of urban planning is taking shape.

However, this new approach is still mostly implemented in progressive and affluent cities where resources and knowledge are available. Globally, the modernist paradigm of urban planning has been ingrained in our culture, and this approach is not only still very visible even in The Netherlands but also in particular on Curaçao. And like cities, capitalism, technological innovations, and mobility are on a much larger scale than in the past, it is challenging to change this urban planning culture. In our highly complex world, complex infrastructures did become indispensable – something Jane Jacobs could not really answer to. But we do need to be sensitive to fit in our infrastructure in a more sustainable and human urban world.

We can only progress when both the public, civic and private sectors see its benefits and start to prioritize a more sustainable urban form. Like Jane Jacobs created the first movement in New York and perhaps worldwide in favor of a human urbanism, we need such a movement as well on the island of Curaçao. And to rediscover the ancient art of creating thriving cities for humans.

This story is part of the ‘Urbanization’ series on Willemstad written by Caspar Tromp. In this six-part series, Caspar takes us on a journey to learn about how urban life in Willemstad has developed over the past decades.


  1. Sennet, R. (2018). Building and dwelling, ethics for the city. Allen Lane.

  2. Gehl, J. (2010). Cities for People. Washington: Island Press.

  3. Sim, D. (2019). Soft city, building density for everyday life. Washington: Island Press.

  4. VannPashak, J. (2018, September 29). Human Centered Cities Must be Built at a Human Scale. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/@jvannpashak/human-centered-cities-must-be-built-at-a-human-scale-a6c1336a0428

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