By Barbara Rahder
Hans Blumenfeld (October 1892 – January 1988) was a planner, architect, and professor, who worked in Europe, the USSR, and across North America. He is perhaps most well known for his significant role in shaping contemporary urban form through his work with the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board. In this article, Barbara Rahder provides a brief profile of his life and contributions.
Hans Blumenfeld was a lecturer at the University of Toronto when I began graduate school in Urban and Regional Planning in 1975. He was 83, very short, soft-spoken in at least eight languages, with bright eyes and a quick smile. Other faculty members showed him such deference and respect that I knew he was important. Though I soon learned that Hans was considered one of the most original thinkers in Canadian planning history it would take me years to understand the depth of his genius.
Hans’ course on transportation began every year with the question, “Why move?” He recalled seeing cars and airplanes for the first time and spoke of those events, and their implications for cities, with the same sense of awe he must have had as a young man. He showed slides of city plans in every lecture, often with the projections upside down or backwards. The class would giggle, and he’d explain:
It isn’t important which way is north. What is important are the patterns and the spatial relations and these don’t change no matter how you look at it.
A controversy around Hans and his work, advanced by Jane Jacobs among others, was oversimplified into “planners versus local communities.” But Hans was neither a technocrat nor an apologist for Toronto’s urban renewal of the 1960s. Though he defended planners and planning expertise, he was highly critical of the form urban redevelopment was taking. He believed that planning could and should support local communities, but that development was distorted by the real estate industry, multinational corporations, and politics. Though he thought Jane oversimplified complex urban issues, he admired her unconventional thinking.
Defying Conventional Wisdom
During his seventy years of professional contributions to planning worldwide, thirty in Canada, he became known for identifying trends sometimes decades before anyone else. For example, he began promoting public transit in the 1930s because he foresaw the dangers of planning for cars: sprawling suburbs, congested urban centres, increasing risks to pedestrians, and pollution. Similarly, in the 1940s, he predicted that low-density suburbanization would hollow out neighbourhoods in city centres, long before this was acknowledged by other planners.
As an early environmental advocate, Hans believed there must be limits to metropolitan growth. He challenged common economic assumptions about urban development in favour of critical and systematic analysis. He saw unbridled urban expansion as a threat both to the natural environment and to the efficient and equitable function of cities and was concerned about energy use and recycling long before other planners.
Opposed to planning dogma of all kinds, Hans wrote clearly and simply in order to elucidate complex issues. He lamented the fact that many of his earlier “heresies” became dogma to others. For example, he argued that not all expressways are bad; not all mixed use is good; and though everyone is a planner, some are more planners than others. He was committed to public housing and adamant that urban renewal must improve the lives of those worst off, that increasing inequality could not be addressed by mixing, and that Toronto didn’t have a housing problem but an income problem that could only be fixed by redistributing income.
From a Rothschild to a Bolshevik
Born into a wealthy Jewish family near Hamburg, Germany in 1892, Hans’ parents assumed that he would go into banking with his mother’s family the Rothschilds. Instead, Hans studied architecture until he and his brother Franz enlisted in the German army at the start of World War I. The brothers were horrified by what they witnessed and when Franz was killed at the front, Hans became convinced of the senselessness of war. He returned to his studies, became active in the Communist Party of Germany, and earned his architecture degree in 1921. For the next nine years, Hans’ worked as a draftsman or apprentice in Germany, Austria, and the US, where he practiced in New York, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. When at home in Germany, he took part in street battles organized by the communists against Nazis who were on the rise.
Hans left Germany for the USSR in 1930, excited about the opportunity to blend his communist ideals into his professional work. He immediately joined the Russian State Planning Institute and was recruited to work on the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan. Rapid industrialization was creating new problems that Hans was excited to address, helping to plan several towns, buildings and housing projects in various parts of the country.
In 1937, as Stalin’s purges were increasing and fear of foreign spies was heightened, Hans was expelled from the Communist Party, denied employment, and vilified in the Soviet press as an “enemy of the proletarian revolution.” Despite his efforts to rectify what he thought was a misunderstanding, as a foreigner he was eventually compelled to leave the USSR.
Unwilling to return to Nazi Germany, Hans travelled to Istanbul, Paris, and London before immigrating to New York in 1938, becoming a US citizen in 1944. One of his first projects involved designing a model of a "future city" for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Hans told me that he had attempted to design a new town without streets but after numerous attempts concluded that it was impossible due to the need for emergency vehicles. When Robert Moses proposed widespread slum clearance and urban redevelopment for New York City, Hans took umbrage arguing that it would worsen the housing situation of low-income groups. He was adamant that any destroyed housing should be replaced by new subsidized, rent-controlled housing and was soon employed in the design of some of the city’s first public housing.
Professional journals began to publish Hans’ articles in the early 1940s as he articulated and modified his ideas about the modern metropolis, its patterns of growth, spatial structure, and the need for regional planning to provide for the public, rather than the private, good. The Philadelphia Housing Association took note and persuaded him to do research on housing and urban development in Philadelphia, where he continued to refine his ideas based on cities he’d worked in and observed around the world.
In 1953, when Hans went to have his passport renewed the US State Department refused because of his membership in “subversive” organizations. Hans’ planning career and international reputation were growing and though McCarthyism did not prevent him from working in the US, it prevented him from traveling and working abroad.
He didn’t need a passport to enter Canada, however, so he moved to Toronto in 1955 easily obtaining landed immigrant status. Nevertheless, when he applied for Canadian citizenship in 1960, his application was refused because of his work with the Canadian Peace Congress. After friends intervened, he was granted citizenship in 1963. Not many knew it at the time, but Hans was smuggling American draft dodgers across the border into Canada throughout the 1960s.
Professionally Hans served as the Deputy Director of the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board and prepared Metro's 1959 Official Plan which encouraged higher suburban densities, a strong central core, and orderly growth. After seven years, he retired from the public service at the age of 70, as required, and became a lecturer and an international consultant. In Canada, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Montréal all benefitted from his expertise, particularly regarding housing and transportation. In Montréal, for example, he helped plan the city’s Metro subway system, its east-west expressway, and Expo '67.
Acknowledged as having an extraordinary intellectual range, Hans was the recipient of almost every award imaginable including honorary doctorates, distinguished service awards and, in 1978, the Order of Canada. His acclaimed articles were collected and republished in two books: The Modern Metropolis (1967) and Metropolis and Beyond (1979). Best known, perhaps, for his conceptualization of the metropolis as distinct from earlier cities, not just in its scale but in form and function. He argued that suburbs are not separate from their cores, but related parts of one urban system. This new metropolis needed regional planning to help it function as one.
If planning means anything it means not only seeing the immediate but the more distant consequences of our actions…both in our relation to non-human nature and to other humans, then we will understand that we can survive only by co-operation and trust (Blumenfeld 1985).
For Hans, the most successful action of his life began with a letter he wrote in response to the US carpet bombing of Hanoi over Christmas in 1972. His letter, entitled “This War Must Stop,” was signed by hundreds of academics and other prominent Canadians and published as a full-page ad in the Globe and Mail. This letter—among the first of its kind—prompted debate in the Canadian Parliament and resulted in their unanimous condemnation of the US war on Vietnam.
Hans also believed that the planning profession had an important role to play in the peace movement. To that end, in 1982 Hans became chairman of the Toronto Coalition for Peace and, on his 90th birthday that year, initiated the Franz Blumenfeld Peace Foundation in honour of his brother.
In 1979, Hans became my dissertation supervisor. We usually met at his high-rise apartment on Charles Street and I remember the first time I heard the creak of his oven door opening, followed by the clink of bottles as he reached in to retrieve his favourite aperitif. He routinely served cherry brandy whenever we got together. We’d sip our sweet liqueurs and get to work.
Hans was 93 when I defended my PhD in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Toronto. I was his only doctoral student and his influence on me was profound. He taught me to question all orthodoxies, including Marxism; to examine urban problems and issues within their historical, political, economic, and cultural context; to write and speak with clarity and focus in order to elucidate rather than impress or convince; to listen carefully and respectfully to others; to ask probing questions rather than rhetorical or antagonistic ones; and to always keep in mind the emancipatory potential of planning for a future of ecological resilience, human equality, and world peace.
Hans Blumenfeld passed away in Toronto on January 30, 1988 at the age of 95. His memorial service, in Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto, was a celebration of an exceptional man, a man who said in his autobiography published the previous year: I never stopped thinking of myself as a Bolshevik.
Barbara Rahder is Dean Emeritus and Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University. Reprinted from The Progressive City.