Thursday on The World we remembered Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died Wednesday. In the interview, Lawrence Vale, a professor of urban design at MIT, spoke about Niemeyer’s legacy, most notably, as the man who gave Brazil’s planned capital Brasilia its distinctive curved buildings.
This all got me thinking about other planned capitals around the world and my time in Islamabad.
Islamabad can be either the most boring or most wonderful city in Pakistan, depending on your tolerance for chaos.
The modern Islamabad was constructed from whole cloth in 1960 to be Pakistan’s capital. But it certainly isn’t brand new. The plateau where the city sits is regarded by some as one of the oldest human settlements in the region, up to a half million years old. It is now one of the most extensively and successfully planned cities in South Asia.
And that means it’s shockingly orderly. The streets are not swarming with vehicles, motorbikes and pedestrians. They’re not chaotic. In fact – and this may not raise eyebrows if you haven’t spent time in Asia or the Middle East – people actually stop at traffic lights. And there are wide sidewalks.
Greek architects laid the city out on a triangular grid, kind of like Washington, DC. The neighborhoods are actually named in grid-like fashion. So you might live on Street 43 in G-10/4. Here’s a nice map.
As you’ll see on the map, there’s also lots of green space. And lovely trails into Margalla Hills.
Contrast this planned city with neighboring Rawalpindi, just a few miles drive away. It is the proverbial teeming metropolis. To put it into numerical perspective, Islamabad in 2011 had a population of 1.15 million people in its 350 square miles. Rawalpindi, 42 square miles, had a population of more than 3 million.
But while Islamabad was relatively calm and orderly, Pakistan could always be a violent place. Not long before I arrived in October 2008, a suicide bomber had attacked the Marriott hotel, killing 52 people. And we were warned not to walk the streets alone.
Other capital cities that were planned by government to house the seat of government include Abuja, Nigeria (1991); Aracaju, Sergipe, Brazil (1855); Ankara, Turkey (1923); Austin, Texas (1839); Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil (1897); Dhaka, Bangladesh (1971); Brasília, Brazil (1960); Canberra, Australia (1927); Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil (1933); Islamabad, Pakistan (1960); Frankfort, Kentucky (1792); Jefferson City, Missouri (1821); Jhongsing New Village, Taiwan (1955); New Delhi, India (1911); Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1889); Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (1857); Palmas, Tocantins, Brazil (1989); Quezon City, Philippines (1948–1976); Raleigh, North Carolina, USA (1792); Washington D.C., USA (1800); and Wellington, New Zealand (1865).