Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: Where City Planning Stands Today

A spate of new books on problems of city planning suggests that, if our cities are not being rebuilt or made more pleasant at a very rapid rate, at least the city planners are full of ideas as to how this might be done. Frank Fisher, in the course of reviewing some of this recent literature, considers the state of city planning as an intellectual discipline today, and particularly the reasons why city planning has not as yet made any great progress toward turning our chaotic cities into more decent and efficient places to live.



One question about city planning must have come to the mind of anyone who has fingered the magnificent volumes in which the proposals of planners are generally presented. Why do those green spaces, those carefully placed skyscrapers, those pleasant residential districts and equally pleasant factory and working areas, still remain dreams for the most part? Why are our cities hardly any less ugly and unpleasant than they were at the height of the 19th century’s Industrial Revolution?

This article will try to suggest the answers. But we may begin by saying that the history of city planning gives us, once again, an example of the paradox which seems to infect almost every grand effort to improve man’s state: first there is a great vision that moves some men but is too remote from the practical world to have much effect; but then as the vision is taken up by many men and becomes practical, it seems to lose its power to effect the great changes originally envisioned.



The story of city planning begins with the ugliness, noise, and filth of the new industrial cities, their lack of fresh air and recreation space, the steady growth of their slums and the devastation of the surrounding countryside. All this was most obvious in 19th-century England, and some of the early socialists, like Robert Owen, tried to find remedies for the situation. Owen proposed in 1820 the founding of groups of agricultural villages, with between 800 and 1,200 inhabitants each, which would combine “all the advantages that city and country residences now afford,” and eliminate the “inconveniences and evils which necessarily attach to both those modes of society.” Later socialists, however, did not pay much heed to this particular aspect of the Industrial Revolution; apparently, they expected the liquidation of capitalism to solve these problems automatically. Indeed Engels opposed better housing for workers because it was a “palliative” measure, and expected that the workers, by seizing the commodious homes of the bourgeoisie, would in the end provide themselves with everything necessary. Engels failed to realize, not only that the dwellings of the bourgeoisie could house but a small fraction of the working population, but also that profound physical changes were required to make the cities fit places for human habitation.

But even more surprising is the fact that both Engels and Marx, who so incisively analyzed the phenomena of alienation in the economic activity and the ideology of industrial capitalism, hardly noticed that metropolitan life was perhaps its most concrete expression: The big city alienated men from nature as well as from one another. Thus the socialist movement, while the sharpest of all critics of inhuman living conditions under 19th-century capitalism, contributed almost nothing to city planning as an idea or program.

Nor did any of the other political reform movements of the time show more than a mild interest in city planning. As a result, this new field of study could develop without arousing political passions or prejudices. But this also meant that it could not muster much popular support.



Ebenezer Howard, an Englishman, whose book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, appearing in 1898, marked the beginning of the modern city planning movement, was less concerned than the socialists with the social, economic, or political causes of urban misery. Frankly Utopian, he combined certain ideas of his time in a specific and creative conception that has guided most of the thinking of city planners ever since. The garden city, or the notion of the balanced urban environment, was his original idea. Instead of letting industrial cities grow planlessly and depopulate the countryside, he proposed to build cities that would combine the social and cultural facilities of the city with the closeness to nature of the village. The “idiocy of rural life” and the slumminess of city life would both be obviated. “Town and country,” wrote Howard, “must be married, and out of this union will spring a new life, a new hope, a new civilization.”

The size of the garden city was to be limited; Howard conceived of a maximum population of about 30,000. However, the precise figures are less important than the underlying idea that there was an optimum size for a city, that—to quote Lewis Mumford—“it must be planned to the human scale and must have a definite size, form, boundary.” As a permanent reserve, a green belt of open country, around each garden city, would serve to prevent unwanted growth and also provide opportunity for local food-raising. Common ownership of all the land would prevent speculation, bad land use, and excessive density of habitation. Finally, the garden city was to have a sound industrial basis so that its inhabitants could support themselves. Unlike the dormitory suburbs of our time—some of which have arrogated the name “garden city” to themselves—it was to be based not only on a balance between town and country, but also between home, industry, and market; and between political, social, and recreational functions.

Six years after Howard’s book appeared, the first garden city, Letchworth, was built in England by a specially organized association of Howard’s supporters who were willing to invest their money in a new experiment with expectation of very limited financial returns. Letchworth was followed by a few similar projects in England, Holland, Germany, and the United States (where Radburn, New Jersey, embodied some of the same principles). The main practical difficulty was the inability of these projects to attract industries for the employment of their inhabitants; it is only the development of electric power and the automobile since then that has made decentralized light industries possible and attractive. The first large-scale attempt anywhere to carry out Howard’s ideas had to wait forty years, for the British New Towns Act of 1946, which authorized the Minister of Town and Country Planning to establish development corporations for the planning and building of new towns in designated areas. Many of the projects started under this act are in the Greater London area, and constitute an attempt to contain the inevitable decentralization of that metropolis within a sensible pattern.1



While Howard’s ideas moved towards realization only slowly, they stimulated the development of a considerable body of theory about city planning. It took many years, however, before the theory began to influence the actual administration of cities; thus only in recent years have theory and practice begun to converge.

Much of the work done in city planning after Howard was by urban sociologists, health experts, and land economists; it was they who collected the factual material indispensable to future proposals and propaganda. They established such facts as the high positive correlation between the existence of slums and juvenile delinquency; the shocking inadequacy of a large part of existing housing (lack of sunlight, bathrooms, space). They showed that “underprivileged” city areas paid less than a proportional share of city taxes but required much more than a proportional share of the city expenditures on sanitation, police and fire protection, and other essential services. They demonstrated that the opposition to change came from those who, directly or indirectly, profited from congestion and the excessive land values causing it, and which it perpetuated. Their work led to the adoption of minimum standards of health and safety for all new construction, to limitation of the proportion of land a building was permitted to occupy, and to the general acceptance of the need for parks and playgrounds.

But the actual proposals for a new kind of city came, in the decades following Howard, mainly from architects, and ranged all the way from Frank Lloyd Wright’s radical plan for a suburban “city” providing an acre of land to each family and barely tolerating basic industry, to Le Corbusier’s city of skyscrapers and parks.

Le Corbusier’s imaginative boldness and fascination with new techniques has had a great influence on city planners. His proposed Ville Radieuse is a city of rows of tall buildings zigzagging across landscaped space; the buildings themselves are set on piers to permit the unobstructed circulation of people and traffic underneath. It permits a high population density, and yet the tall buildings do not exclude air, sunlight, gardens, playgrounds, or the social equipment that make city life stimulating: room is provided for museums and schools, and even cafes. The plan for rebuilding the destroyed core of the French city of St. Die envisages eight tall apartment blocks grouped around a central core containing an administrative building, hotel, tourist center, union hall, museum, community hall, department stores, shops, and cafés. Each apartment block would have a shopping street in its center, a children’s club on each floor, a center for games and exercise on the roof, and an open park around the piers at the base of each block. The order, grace, and efficiency of this layout contrasts favorably with the ugly, haphazard congestion of our present cities and their sprawling suburbs.

Yet Le Corbusier is overly fascinated by the skyscraper, whose dependence on complicated services, from elevators to air-conditioning, makes it expensive to operate and extremely vulnerable to power failures, water shortages, strikes, and, of course, damage by war. The main drawback, however, is his insistence that everyone in his city live in skyscrapers. Some people will not mind being lifted ten or twenty stories off the ground, or having to do without backyards for their children to play in. But most will, and for good reason. Skyscrapers overwhelm and oppress man by their sheer size and power, and confirm and emphasize his remoteness from nature. Many of us believe that a fully human existence requires an environment built to human scale.



But what is human scale? Some planners, in order to obviate the vastness and lack of differentiation in metropolitan areas, try to arrive at a clearly definable “unit of urban life” that might serve as the cell of a reconstructed urban organism. Clarence Perry in 1929 proposed the “neighborhood unit,” an area which would require and support an elementary school with from 1,000 to 1,200 pupils, and have a total population of from five to six thousand. Even if every family had a house to itself, it would be unnecessary for any child to walk more than half a mile to school. Such a neighborhood unit could support local shopping facilities, churches, a library, and a community center connected with the school. Through traffic would be routed outside the neighborhood, while the inner streets would serve only to give the residents access to their homes.

The neighborhood unit makes the rational planning of many community services possible. The bad distribution of schools and recreation facilities, for instance, which is caused by rapid population shifts and the consequent deterioration of areas, would be avoided by the stability of these planned residential neighborhoods. Their proponents also hope that these would restore neighborliness and participation in civic matters—which is somewhat debatable. The neighborhood is still part of the city, and will consist of persons from all walks of life and of all types of personality. Closer physical contact may reduce group prejudices among them but will not necessarily induce the warm friendliness of the small rural community. As William Slayton and Richard Dewey point out in a study of the “Urbanite” in The Future of Cities and Urban Redevelopment (edited by Coleman Woodbury, University of Chicago Press, 1953, 764 pp., $9.00), the spirit of community life seems to require a rather homogeneous population, similar in income, occupation, and education—which is why this spirit is found at times in low-income metropolitan housing projects or in upper-middle-class suburbs. But such homogeneous neighborhoods would eventually split the city into socially stratified areas and eliminate the present advantage of city life, which consists in the range and variety of the social contacts it makes possible.

The neighborhood unit as the basis for physical planning became as important an idea in city planning as the garden city, and other writers developed it further. In Can Our Cities Survive? (published by the International Congress for Modern Architecture-CIAM—in 1942 and edited by J. L. Sert), it was proposed that six to eight neighborhood units be grouped together to form a township containing in its center a high school and principal shopping facilities. Light industry would be sited nearby, but separated by open spaces from the residential areas proper. The city would consist of a number of townships grouped around a “civic center” containing cultural, sports, and administrative facilities. Heavy industry would be placed along the main transportation routes, which would bypass the city. In this manner the big city would not be condemned, but loosened up and transformed into a “regional city” that provided cultural and economic advantages without completely cutting man off from nature. This plan would also assure the stability and controlled growth of the place.



We may mention one more idea that has played a considerable part in the thinking o£ city planners. This is the “superblock.” The superblock has already considerably influenced the actual practice of real estate developers. It is generally recognized that the old gridiron pattern according to which streets are laid out in many European and most American cities is wasteful. In the heyday of land speculation, it provided standard-sized lots for easy trading, apparently permitted the maximum utilization of land for building, and gave each house easy access to the street. The grid also had its effect on the type of construction characteristic of the older parts of our cities: impressive façades in front; dark and narrow interior courts in back; houses occupying the maximum percentage of land permitted by law; and tall buildings depriving their smaller neighbors of sun and air.

What convinced the real estate people that the gridiron should go was the fact that it actually wasted a lot of land in street space by making no distinction between local and through traffic. With superblocks, the land devoted to streets could be drastically reduced and be used for lawns and play space while still permitting a high degree of land utilization. A few interior streets and blind alleys could give access to the houses, which would no longer directly confront the noises and smells of busy thoroughfares, so that children could play safely out of doors. It should be emphasized, however, that superblocks by themselves do not answer all the city’s problems. While superior to the old system, they may still preserve an undesirable density of habitation, even increase it; and when designed without imagination, the uniformity of a large-scale project of this kind is as oppressive as the endless mediocrity of gridiron streets.

The garden city, the neighborhood unit, and the superblock today all contribute to a single large idea; that the growth of cities must be planned, and in toto. The problem cannot be solved by separate plans for housing, traffic, schools, parks and recreation, without considering the activities of the city or region as a whole, including work, travel to and from work, education, shopping, amusement, and all other required services. Much of the work of the planning agencies set up by cities and districts today is devoted to an attempt to comprehend the entirety of a city’s life in all its phases and deal with it by a master plan. Such a plan integrates many partial studies; an overall estimate of likely population development, plans for industrial, business, and residential zones, traffic, schools, parks, water, and sewage-disposal plans. Obviously, such a complex undertaking needs constant revision to take account of new developments, and must be flexible from the outset. It has to be conceived not as a static plan but as a continuous planning process.




Though these theoretical solutions to the problems of urban life have been familiar for a considerable time, it must be admitted that their practical effect has been very limited. Our cities continue to decay in their centers while the uncontrolled sprawl of their suburbs fills the country with row upon row of mediocre and uniform houses. These are built without consideration of the strain they put on traffic and school facilities and they bring the cities they surround—deserted by a tax-paying resident population, but strangled by masses coming to work in it—ever closer to bankruptcy. We do have decentralization now, but it is chaotic; we have garden cities, but instead of being Howard’s self-sustaining communities they are metropolitan parasites. Our country is experiencing the greatest building boom of history, but our cities are still ugly and inefficient.

Not that there have not been almost continuous efforts since the turn of the century to improve American cities (Coleman Woodbury tells the whole story in one part of The Future of Cities and Urban Redevelopment). Up until the First World War, a “City Beautiful” movement flourished whose aim was to give some character to the shapeless mediocrity of the industrial cities by building wide thoroughfares, squares and public buildings, civic centers, parks, and by beautifying waterfronts, and so on. Unfortunately, the noble visions of this school of planning did not take into account the basic problems of poor housing, high land values, and congestion. So while the City Beautiful movement was able to leave as its monument Chicago’s lake front, it was unable to avert or guide the wild speculation in land and housing that raged until the depression, and which defaced the outskirts of American cities far more rapidly than the builders of the City Beautiful could adorn their centers.



The next stage in American city planning was the attempt to control development by zoning. The New York City zoning ordinance of 1916, soon followed all over the country, clearly separated industrial, commercial, and various kinds of residential zones, limited the coverage of building lots, and restricted the height of buildings. Zoning was a great step forward in imposing order on urban chaos, and was long considered the main instrument of city planning, but it has many shortcomings. If cannot undo the past; it must, for the most part, confirm existing land uses, however bad, and permit the erection of similar structures in the established zones; so that while zoning can influence new areas, it can do very little about the built-up parts of a city. Furthermore, most zoning ordinances permit the construction of “higher” zone buildings in “lower” zone areas; though industrial buildings cannot invade residential zones, apartment houses and stores can be built in industrial zones. The height regulations of the New York zoning laws have not prevented Manhattan’s fantastic overcrowding by skyscrapers; nor do these regulations require skyscrapers to make adequate provision for the parking of the cars used by the people who work in or visit these edifices. According to Henry Churchill, in The Future of Cities and Urban Redevelopment, present zoning laws in New York would, conceivably, permit enough building to house a population of 77 million people, and the proposed changes that would reduce this limit to about 60 million are viewed with alarm! Finally, zoning is an inadequate tool because at best it can only restrict faulty land uses, but cannot supply positive guidance.



When the depression struck, ending the boom of the 20’s, American cities were ringed with half-filled suburbs whose streets, sewers, and street lights stretched out into empty wilderness. Real estate “values” disappeared and tax collections dropped, yet a huge burden of municipal debts, contracted in the extension of city services, had to be met; as a result, there arose a new interest in large-scale city planning.

The collapse of real estate values now brought many property owners over to the side of more farsighted interests, such as mortgage banks, that had long advocated planning as the way to stabilize land values. Owners of slum housing, who had made a comfortable living in the past, were now only too willing to be bailed out by slum-clearance programs. Foreclosures for tax delinquency on vacant lots in the hearts of cities made it possible to build playgrounds and sometimes parks where they were most needed. Public works programs were in any case necessary to fight unemployment, and they could also be used for rehabilitation. In some cities planning agencies were set up with decisive powers over capital expenditures, and charged with preparing long-term master plans. The studies of the National Resources Planning Board stimulated interest in regional planning, and government-sponsored Greenbelt Towns in at least three locations demonstrated the practical application of some—though by no means of all—of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas. A few federal- and city-financed housing and slum-clearance projects revealed the benefits of the superblock. All this activity was accompanied by much discussion and writing, most of which merely mouthed the slogans of the period. Yet at least one book written during that period, Lewis Mumford’s monumental The Culture of Cities, is still perhaps the most inspiring and comprehensive treatment of city life we have.



The destruction of cities in the past war has offered planners in Europe and Asia a great challenge and a great opportunity, but in America the effect of the war was to drive large-scale planning from the field of practical activity. However, as a field of study in the universities, it has flourished more than ever. The tremendous postwar building boom, surprisingly enough, turned out to be the Waterloo of large-scale planning. Slum clearance became less attractive to the slum landlords as the postwar housing shortage again filled their houses at high rents; and as real estate values rose again, the cost of condemning property often became prohibitive. This meant that when slums were cleared—as along the East River in Manhattan—costs forced the redevelopment organizations, whether public or private, to insist on a density of habitation actually higher than before. The introduction of the superblock and the construction of tall buildings made it possible to do this while at the same time devoting a much lower proportion of the land to the actual buildings. But play and recreation space should be provided in relation to the number of people housed, not in proportion to the area covered. Overcrowding of community facilities and play space, and unimaginative and monotonous architectural design, have stamped these projects from the outset as the slums of tomorrow. Moreover, they have not been integrated into the rest of the city according to any over-all plan, as the new traffic and school problems that have arisen in each neighborhood eloquently testify.

These disastrous practices in the rebuilding of urban centers were matched by equally disastrous practices in the expansion of the suburbs. Some of the residential suburbs that have sprung up since the war rival the Worst pre-war speculative developments in their uniform mediocrity—though most of them have at least abandoned the rigid gridiron layout. The best of them are hygienic dormitory towns, “garden cities” without industry, generally located on cheap land with poor transportation facilities to the city and often completely without cultural facilities and even schools. In most cases they are outside the jurisdiction of the city and therefore not subject to guidance by a master plan, even where such a plan exists.




The city planning movement now faces a unique situation. On the one hand it is better equipped than ever, technologically, to make a real contribution to the re-planning of our cities. Nor has it ever been in a better position institutionally: not only do we now have planning bodies in many cities, but we have academic groups, such as the Urban Redevelopment Study of the University of Chicago (which published the large volume The Future of Cities and Urban Redevelopment from which we have quoted a number of times), and the Institute for Urban Land Use Studies of Columbia, that do excellent work.

On the other hand, the million houses a year we have been building since the end of the war have dispensed almost entirely with such guidance as the planning movement could offer. Where the influence of planning is evident in some respects—such as the superblock and the replacement of the gridiron pattern by one following the natural contours of the terrain—we still find certain serious and basic shortcomings. The vast amount of building in America today, despite the real benefits planning could offer, is still determined primarily by the economic interest of the builders—which means that the interests, economic and non-economic, of the rest of us are overlooked.

The problem of city planning today is, in the largest sense of the term, a political one. How are the techniques of city planning to begin to operate so that we can enjoy the convenience, variety, and interest which they are capable of bringing us? We do not wish to imply that they offer salvation, and the only question is how to get people to reach out their hands for it. But certainly, without some popular participation, the benefits city planning can now offer will become illusory, and the frustrated planners themselves are likely to turn—as some already have—to grandiose visions divorced from actual needs. City planning needs popular participation, not only in order to realize itself practically but also because its aim is to serve people’s wants, and it must remain close to these if it is to fulfill itself.



As we know, no great popular chorus is demanding the improvement of our cities. Instead, we see profound popular apathy, interrupted only when a particular situation-like that of traffic—finally becomes unbearable. To a large extent this apathy is the product of ignorance. Many people have never learned that there are possible alternatives. They do not realize how much the drabness and uniformity of the new housing projects make their own lives drab. They do not resent sufficiently the standardization imposed by bureaucratic planners: they accept, without protest, the fact that some projects do not permit them to keep pets, and others barely tolerate their children. They do not mind the lack of a definite focus in these great clusters of buildings because their own existences suffer from the same lack of focus. It is not only “the damned wantlessness of the poor” that is responsible for the toleration of this state of affairs; the nondescript developments in which they live, and which are certainly an improvement over the slums from which they come, reflects the loss of a spiritual center in people’s lives in a civilization which replaces the church or agora or meeting hall with the corner drugstore.

We find the following reported in a study of “what people want”: “In response to the interviewer’s query ‘What do you find undesirable about your house and neighborhood?’ many answered, after some hesitation, that the sink needed painting, the roofs needed patching, some windows were broken or cracked. These replies were given despite the fact that the houses were jammed on 30-foot lots, in poor repair, and in a residential area that was definitely on the downgrade, being dirty, noisy, and cut through with heavy traffic.” (Slayton and Dewey, in The Future of Cities and Urban Redevelopment.)



If city planning had ever become a part of a great reform movement, with people at large involved in a political struggle for it, then it is likely people would now know what they want. However, city planning has always retained the somewhat genteel, middle-class flavor of its founders, who were more interested in restoring an idyllic village life, with city amenities added, than in transforming the great, blighted industrial centers. From the time of Ebenezer Howard, city planning took the point of view of the middle-class consumer, while the reform movements were primarily concerned with the control of production and the distribution of wealth, and thought that the rest would take care of itself.

By now things are different, and we have, in a sense, caught up with middle-class, consumption-oriented city planning. Today, this country, at least, has reached such a high and broad relative level of material abundance that problems of consumption are steadily gaining in importance over those of production. Today such a “luxury” as city planning can become a major political issue for reform movements and is capable of capturing the popular imagination.

But this new point of view places on city planning the responsibility to think their problems through more clearly than heretofore. Aside from technical proposals, we find considerable vagueness in the contemporary literature of city planning about the question of political implementation, and the philosophical yet very practical question of the meaning of urban life. Some planners regard themselves as mere technical experts who do not have to be concerned with the social feasibility of their projects. At the other extreme, we find planners who indiscriminately promise everything to everybody: stabilized land values to landlords and municipal treasuries: slum clearance and good housing to the poor; the ordering of chaos, at no unbearable financial burden, to taxpayers; in sum, a better life to everybody. Some of these aims are mutually exclusive. Land values cannot be stabilized until they have been drastically deflated; the financial cost of improvements must be borne by someone, whether local property-owners, urban dwellers in general, or federal taxpayers, and this involves a most important political choice.

As with so many political problems, there is no one villain whose head we can cut off at a blow. Savings banks (and their depositors), life insurance companies (and those insured by them), the local tax authorities (and the citizens depending on the services paid out of real estate taxes), all have a vested interest in the status quo. As against a head-on assault, an oblique one seems to promise better results: the encouragement of satellite towns so that the gradual depopulation of the metropolises prepares the ground for that land devaluation which must precede the diminution of urban congestion.



The suburb, then, has the same attraction for some city planners as for the many middle-class families who move to them, and who are swayed partly by the real advantages of open space, quiet, and cleanliness, and partly by the desire to establish their status among people of similar standards. But the garden cities, with or without industry, are nothing without the city core that provides the essence of urban life in economic, social, and cultural opportunities. As Henry Churchill puts it in a brief and pungent essay in The Future of Cities and Urban Redevelopment, the community of like-minded souls dwelling in well-ordered harmony amid neat community facilities is a dull utopia in which planners themselves would hate to live. “They forget that what makes them queasy is to many the only reason the city has for its existence, a vast confusion in the midst of which opportunity, honorable or other, offers its golden charms, and where melting away among other unknown failures is the solace for those who muff their chance.” No model community can replace the fascination of the city, which lures young people to it from all over the countryside. The massed power of stone and concrete, of machinery and the profit derived from it, may crush the human spirit and overwhelm the individual, but it also offers adventure and opportunity.

In order to find their direction, the planners will have to choose between values instead of trying to give all things to all men. They will have to keep in mind (as some already do) that relieving the present congestion of the cities is not enough: a collection of suburbs does not make a satisfactory city. The planners will have to think more deeply about the kind of life for which they are planning, and understand its ideals and its meaning, and the variety of forms in which it may express itself. To restore the city’s fundamental meaning as a meeting place, without the weight of ugliness and disorder with which a century and a half of industrial growth has burdened it, should not mean the destruction of its essence as a concourse of different people, as opportunity for a great variety of experience through the exchange of ideas, goods, and services.

In their latest publication, The Heart of the City (New York, Pellegrini and Cudahy, 185 pp., $10.50), the contributing members of the CIAM (International Congress for Modern Architecture) try to suggest how we may restore something of the spontaneous sociability that the famous Renaissance piazza of some Italian towns encouraged. It is, of course, difficult to recapture by architectural means alone the spirit of spontaneity so conspicuously absent from our time-dominated industrial society. But the intention is in the right direction: to make cities for people who need both noise and quiet, privacy and sociability, order and confusion. The best that planners can do is to create an environment which does not confine the human spirit by over-organization and encourages its free expression. This is the point where planning reaches its limits: it is most useful where it remains incomplete.




1 An excellent survey of what happens when a rural community is suddenly transformed into a new town is offered by Harold Orlans in Utopia, Ltd. (Yale University Press, 1953, 313 pp., $4.50). Mr. Orlans is especially concerned with the involved relation between the planners and those planned for.

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