Urban Expansion, Housing and the Le Corbusier Trap

By Desmond

Can developing-world cities keep up with their growing population demand for housing without sowing the seeds of future social disorder?

After more than two centuries, global urbanization continues to speed up. The world’s population is currently 54% urban, and is slated to hit 58% by 2050. Unfortunately, the global supply of housing has not kept up. In quickly low to middle income  countries across the global South, the majority of urban populations is trapped in slums without high quality housing, social services or a meaningful level of infrastructure. This problem was thrown into sharp relief two years ago, when the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics were adversely affected by runoff from favelas, or hilltop slums, few of which have trash pickup, clean water or other social services.

The African continent is rapidly catching up with the rest of the world in terms of urbanization  Source: World Bank Data portal

The African continent is rapidly catching up with the rest of the world in terms of urbanization

Source: World Bank Data portal


The world has faced such problems before. Following the Second World War, a combination of explosive population growth and destroyed housing stock forced European countries to pour resources into creating a new housing system virtually overnight. They did so—there were no permanent slums in Paris or Prague—but at a cost to social cohesion. The new housing built in the wake of the war failed to provide the social spaces needed to hold a community together: much of it was located on the outskirts of major cities, far away from grocers, doctors’ offices and other businesses, according to Andrew Hussey’s 2014 book The French Intifada. Traveling through the outskirts of Lyon, in eastern France, Hussey found that the unwelcoming banlieus had become a new kind of slum, home to mostly black and brown African-French, and nursery to the explosive race riots that tore the city apart in the early 1980s. More recently, the isolation of the banlieus has pushed many black and Arab Frenchmen toward the siren song of jihad and violence against a society that has physically rejected them. Nor is this phenomenon confined to France; in his magisterial Postwar: The History of Europe Since 1945, British historian Tony Judt found that the upheavals that convulsed western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s usually grew out of the substandard housing complexes on the margins of booming cities such as Milan and Paris.

A great deal of responsibility for this disorder can be laid at one man’s feet. Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known by his professional name Le Corbusier, is little known in the United States. But the Swiss-French architect’s modernist style, characterized by the use of white concrete and supporting pillars, is evident in most continental European cities. While his work won many architectural awards, Le Corbusier’s impact on urban planning was disastrous. He favored enormous buildings, wide boulevards for fleets of cars and the wholesale rejection of old, walkable city centers. Despite minimizing the chances of social integration, his designs had the advantage of being cheap, and were widely adopted by social housing authorities. At a time when their successors in developing cities such as Lagos face many of the same challenges and pressures, it is far from certain that they will learn from the past.

And yet, the Swiss architect’s work may hold the key to ameliorating global housing shortages. In the half-century since massive postwar housing blocks began to show strain, the world has refined its approach to design. Projects such as BedZED, an “eco-village” in southwest England, are emphasizing the importance of mixed-use spaces, placing schools, shops and homes in compact, walkable spaces. In developing world settings, Le Corbusier’s minimalist, inexpensive housing designs could be combined with mixed-use layouts to obtain the best of both worlds. Cities have done this before; Berlin and Tel Aviv, both of which were rebuilt after 1945, used simple, Le Corbusier-esque designs on a smaller scale than he had originally intended, creating modern, walkable central cities. Whether Lagos, Nairobi or Saigon will embrace such a mixed approach remains to be seen.