The City Planners Essay


Margaret Atwood, is a Canadian author, poet, critic, essayist, feminist and social campaigner. Best known as a novelist, she is also an award-winning poetess. As John Wilson Foster rightly comments, “her verse is that of a psychic individual at sea in a materialist society." "The City-Planners” is critical of the monotony and false beauty of modern cities, suburbs and its architecture. The poem views modern life as empty, artificial, and its inhabitants as robotic and lacking in spirit.

Land in the City vs Rural Land:

The land in the city has a great contrast  with the rural land. The influx of people moving from rural to urban areas keeps on increasing to this day. This form of displacement is also known as internal migration. Rural land is often viewed as more fertile and vast, whereas land in the city is limited and so space is used to the maximum. As more and more people move to cities in search of work and better standards of living, land becomes scarcer.


Living in such an environment with only concrete, steel and buildings, man consequently becomes more mechanical, stressed and partially dehumanized. The absence of vast land in cities deprives the harmony that a huge area of empty land provides. This absence of land in cities is severely criticized by Margaret Atwood in this poem where "the houses in pedantic rows" shows lack of warmth.

The Victory of Science over Nature:

The theme of this poem is perfection, uniformity, man’s attempts to control nature, and lust of power (the city planners). As the poet moves about in a residential area, she is offended by the "sanities" of the area. The word 'sanities' may possess a double meaning here. Firstly, it may allude to the unnatural 'sanitariness' of the place. Secondly, it may denote the saneness of minds, or soundness that render them sophisticated, uniform and therefore boring. The "dry

August sunlight" alludes to the province from which the speaker hails: Canada. The houses in rows appear too pedantic to be real. The trees have the appearance of being planted to render the scene picture-perfect. The levelness of surface further provokes the poetess as it appears to be a rebuke to the dent in their car door. There is no shouting there ,no shatter of glass. No instinctive action takes place here: everything is after-thought and preplanned. There are no shouts here, no loud wants as people are economically well-off and complacent. The only noise is the rational whine of a power mower. It is that rationality that makes this noise 'a voice'. In the era of applied technology, this sound is more pleasing to the ears than emotional echoes. The power mower cut a straight swath in the discouraged grass; and thus established the victory of Science over Nature.

Empty, Monotonous Lives of the People in the Cities:

Throughout the second stanza there has been absolutely no mention of any human movement, making it seem as if the sub-division is empty. This could metaphorically indicate that the people living here live empty, monotonous lives that are without meaning. The driveways neatly side-step hysteria by revealing even roads. that appear like mathematical units. Even a domestic entity like a coiled pipe appears as poisonous as a snake, as it is out of place. The windows portray a fixed-stare as though everything is static, and nothing is kinetic.

The natural scenery appears to be at the back of this residential area. The speaker hopes that the future cracks in the plaster will enable one to view the breathtaking natural view behind. She also admits that, “the houses in pedantic rows, the planted sanitary trees, offend us with their transitory lines, rigid as wooden borders”.

Man's mistakes seem to offer more than his creations in this stanza. The poet is trying to give power back to nature here, and stating that nature will eventually, definitely rise once again and break down these suburbs.

The Reality of the Real Estate Agency:

Stanza three is the end of complaints and shows the consequences of being so greedy. It also shows the reality of the real estate agency. These City Planners - calculating and manipulative in their approach to reach their ends are no less than political conspirators. In such a situation, they will be subjected to unsurveyed territories they had not even envisaged. They will be hidden from each other, where competitiveness will take a back-seat.

Blindness and Confusion of the City:

Margaret Atwood claims that there will come an inevitable stage when nature will ultimately conquer. Houses will capsize into clay seas. Is the poetess foreboding a natural disaster, most probably a Tsunami? It would the only take a minute to put to years of city-planning to naught. They will appear like glaciers then. The speaker utilizes the metaphor of ice to connote transience. Nobody notices how fleeting all this is. Blizzards and snows are used as an extended metaphor for the blindness and confusion of a city that is completely bland and uniform, in which the people do not even realise how routine and structured their lives and the suburbia in general are in reality.


The poem eventually envisages the city planners’ consequences of being greedy, and ends by saying that, the creations of these city planners will inevitably be destroyed by nature. To counteract the disturbing effect upon the human mind, land must be used in an effective manner. Land is essential to instil serenity in people's lives. To sustain the availability of land in cities, housing must be carefully planned so as to minimize the use of land. Green architects are required to maintain this balance between building and nature.



1. The Poetry of Margaret Atwood: John Wilson Foster

2. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood: Coral Ann Howells




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From: Wendy Plotkin <>
List Editor: Wendy Plotkin <wendyplotkin@WBHSI.NET>
Editor's Subject: POEMS: Atwood, "The City Planners"
Author's Subject: POEMS: Atwood, "The City Planners"
Date Written: Fri, 10 Jun 2011 12:39:32 -0700
Date Posted: Sat, 10 Jun 2011 15:39:32 -0400
"The City Planners" by Margaret Atwood In _Circle Game_ House of Anansi Press; 3rd edition (June 1, 1998) First published in 1965; 1st edition by House of Anansi Press in 1966 Cruising these residential Sunday streets in dry August sunlight: what offends us is the sanities: the houses in pedantic rows, the planted sanitary trees, assert levelness of surface like a rebuke to the dent in our car door. No shouting here, or shatter of glass; nothing more abrupt than the rational whine of a power mower cutting a straight swath in the discouraged grass. But though the driveways neatly sidestep hysteria by being even, the roofs all display the same slant of avoidance to the hot sky, certain things: the smell of spilled oil a faint sickness lingering in the garages, a splash of paint on brick surprising as a bruise, a plastic hose poised in a vicious coil; even the too-fixed stare of the wide windows give momentary access to the landscape behind or under the future cracks in the plaster when the houses, capsized, will slide obliquely into the clay seas, gradual as glaciers that right now nobody notices. That is where the City Planners with the insane faces of political conspirators are scattered over unsurveyed territories, concealed from each other, each in his own private blizzard; guessing directions, they sketch transitory lines rigid as wooden borders on a wall in the white vanishing air tracing the panic of suburb order in a bland madness of snows Courtesy of Margaret Atwood We appreciate receiving Margaret Atwood's permission (through her agent) allowing us to print this poem on H-Urban. Next week, I will post some contextual information on this poem, and welcome any commentary by our readers. Wendy Plotkin H-Urban Editor-in-Chief H-Urban E-mail address: (Click: ) Please use for ALL mail to H-Urban, including postings, inquiries, and comments. H-Urban ( is affiliated with the International Planning History Society (IPHS, at ), the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH, at ),and the Urban History Association (UHA, at ).

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