Deep Dive: How did Modernist Theories Like the Radiant City Shift Planning Practices?

image of a gravel path in a densely wooded park

By Massimo Ghilarducci, Del-POP Member & Director

In the effort to redesign urban spaces to fight urban sprawl, one may reflect on the planning practices that enabled spaces to be built for cars over people. In the 20th century, modernist planning was becoming prevalent with the rise of the automobile and consequently, planning practices that reoriented the city for cars. An architect that shaped many of the theories of modernist planning was Le Corbusier, who centered his design around efficiency, separation of spaces, and the “revitalization” of poorer neighborhoods. In examining Le Corbusier’s modernist planning theory of “The Radiant City,” it is evident that through auto-centric design, removal of poorer neighborhoods, and the pollution brought about by car-centric spaces, his planning ideals shaped planning practices for decades. 

First, Le Corbusier sought to incorporate the growing popularity of cars into his designs. This came along with the separation of residential and industrial uses as people would need a way to commute between the two spaces (Roderick, Week 6). This planning for cars would see housing on the outskirts with industrial and governmental space allocated closer to the city center, ingraining car-centric, modernist, planning ideals in North American life (Roderick, Week 6). For example, in mid-20th century Vancouver, the city’s vast network of streetcars was removed in favor of a plan that would see a large system of freeways to the downtown core (Frank and Bigazzi, 2019). Though the plan never came to fruition, it did see the destruction of many homes in Strathcona, a poorer area in the city (Liscombe, 2011). The shift towards auto-centric

planning in Vancouver and other North American cities is demonstrated through the removal of streetcars and destruction of poorer neighborhoods; these car-centric planning ideals delineate the effects modernist planning approaches like “The Radiant City” have had over the urban built environment throughout the 20th century. 

Second, another key idea to “The Radiant City” was making most of the residential buildings look the same to curb what was problematically referred to as “blighted” neighborhoods and have the poor see how the rich lived (Roderick, Week 6). This was a problem for a couple of reasons as not only did Le Corbusier treat the city as a blank canvas that largely ignored the people, but it was also classist (Roderick, Week 6). This modernist way of viewing space worked its way into Vancouver’s planning practices throughout the 20th century and in a few instances removed residents and displaced them. In the 1964 short film, to Build a Better City (2015), the refurbishing of poorer areas is evidenced when planners decided a neighborhood in Vancouver was “decayed” and tore a lot of it down, replacing it with nicer buildings. This removal of poorer neighborhoods continues to be relevant to this day with areas like New Westminster, Surrey, and Chinatown continuously gentrifying their neighborhoods to revitalize them, showing how Le Corbusier’s ideas persist to this day. 

Third, the re-organization of the city for the automobile outlined in modernist theories like “The Radiant City” has had some negative consequences on the natural environment as cars have been highly pollutant in cities. One of Corbusier’s goals was to reduce pollution and clean up the city, but the construction of car-oriented spaces had the opposite effect (Roderick, Week 6). Due to the reliance on cars from the separation of living and working spaces, transportation is one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions (Frank and Bigazzi, 2019). Furthermore, the efficiency that modernist planners sought has been derailed by population growth and growing car dependency making cars less efficient than they used to be (Frank and Bigazzi, 2019). Overall, auto-centric plans outlined by modernist theories like “The Radiant City” were initially created to improve efficiency but have instead hindered it, while causing more greenhouse gas emissions from car-related transportation, deteriorating the state of the natural environment over the decades. 

All things considered, planning practices that have been taken from modernist planning theories like Le Corbusier’s made their way into the urban built, social, and natural environments through the 20th century. The separation of spatial uses and the revitalization of poorer neighborhoods have entrenched themselves in planning over time. Consequently, these planning practices have led to car dependency and thus the re-orientation of space for cars, the gentrification of poorer neighborhoods, and an increase in transportation-related pollution. In examining the planning practices that modern-day planners are trying to deconstruct, it is important to recognize the theories that led to these practices’ presence throughout the 20th century.


  • BC History. (2014, February 25). To Build a Better City—A 1964 City of Vancouver/CMHC film. Frank, L. D., & Bigazzi, A. Y., (2019). Transportation Vancouver the City and Vancouver the Region. In T. A. Hutton; and P. Gurstein. Planning on the edge: Vancouver and the challenges of reconciliation, social justice, and sustainable development (pp. 125-143). UBC Press. 
  • Liscombe, R. W. (2011). A study in Modern(ist) urbanism: Planning Vancouver, 1945-1965. Urban History, 38(1), 124–149. 
  • Roderick, L. (2021). The Radiant City. Personal Collection of L. Roderick, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver BC.


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