The City Planners, Margaret Atwood, Analysis, Summary, Style

"The City Planners" by Margaret Atwood presents a critical portrayal of urban development and conformity. The poem begins with the speaker cruising through residential streets on a sunny August day, expressing their dissatisfaction with the orderly and sanitized environment. The houses, trees, and driveways conform to strict patterns, evoking a sense of monotony and stifling sameness. However, beneath this apparent serenity, there are hints of disarray and imperfection, such as the smell of spilled oil and unexpected splashes of paint. The speaker also suggests a foreboding future, where the houses will eventually succumb to decay and slide into the clay seas unnoticed. The poem presents the City Planners as enigmatic figures, hidden in their own private blizzards of power and disconnected from the consequences of their actions. Through its vivid imagery and critical tone, "The City Planners" highlights the tension between order and individuality in modern urban landscapes.

The City Planners: Poem Text

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

Critical Analysis

"The City Planners" by Margaret Atwood is a sharp critique of urban planning and the resulting homogeneity and loss of individuality in modern cities. Through vivid imagery and a critical tone, Atwood exposes the negative effects of excessive order and conformity on the human experience.

The poem begins with the speaker driving through residential streets on a sunny August day, observing the meticulously planned houses and sanitary trees. The use of the word "sanities" in the second line suggests a sense of oppressiveness and the stifling effect of too much order. The houses are described as being in "pedantic rows," emphasizing their rigid and uniform arrangement. This conformity is further emphasized by the levelness of surfaces, which is portrayed as a rebuke to any sign of imperfection.

Atwood contrasts the calm and orderliness of the environment with hints of hidden turmoil. The smell of spilled oil in the garages suggests a sense of sickness or decay beneath the surface of this carefully constructed façade. The splashes of paint on brick, surprising like bruises, hint at the existence of imperfections that disrupt the uniformity. The plastic hose, poised in a vicious coil, adds a sense of tension and aggression in an otherwise controlled setting. Even the wide windows, with their too-fixed stare, provide momentary glimpses into the landscape beyond, a landscape that may hold future cracks in the plaster and the inevitable decay of the suburban world.

The City Planners themselves are portrayed as faceless figures with "insane faces of political conspirators." They are scattered and concealed, suggesting a lack of connection and accountability. Each planner exists in their own private blizzard, disconnected from the consequences of their actions. The poem implies that their pursuit of order and conformity has resulted in a bland madness of snows, symbolizing the numbing uniformity and lack of individuality in the suburban landscape.

Atwood's poem serves as a critique of the dehumanizing effects of urban planning that prioritizes uniformity and order over the uniqueness and vitality of human existence. The speaker's dissatisfaction with the planned environment reflects a longing for spontaneity, imperfection, and individual expression. Through her evocative language and imagery, Atwood urges readers to question the impact of excessive order and conformity on our lives and to consider the importance of preserving the human element within our urban spaces.


  • Persona addresses the perfection, robotic, bland and uniform structure of the city as she takes a cruise through it on a Sunday, something she finds completely sickening.
  • Setting: Suburbs; ‘houses in … rows’

    Part 1: Stanza 1 to 2 (Observing perfections and imperfections)
    In the first two stanzas of "The City Planners," the speaker describes their experience driving through residential streets on a sunny August day. They observe the perfect order and uniformity of the houses and trees, emphasizing the meticulously planned layout and the levelness of surfaces. The speaker finds this conformity and meticulousness offensive, as it represents an excessive desire for control and sameness. However, within this pristine environment, there are hints of imperfections and hidden turmoil, such as the smell of spilled oil in the garages and splashes of paint on brick. These details serve as reminders that beneath the surface of this orderly façade, there exists a sense of decay and disruption.

    Part 2: Stanza 3 to 4 (Foreshadowing)
    In the third and fourth stanzas, the poem takes a foreshadowing tone, suggesting the eventual deterioration of the planned environment. The speaker mentions the too-fixed stare of the wide windows, which momentarily allow glimpses into the landscape beyond. These windows serve as a metaphorical lens through which the future cracks in the plaster and the impending decay of the suburban world can be seen. The image of houses capsizing and sliding into clay seas, likened to glaciers, emphasizes the gradual and unnoticed nature of this transformation. The poem suggests that the order and sameness of the present will eventually give way to inevitable change and decay.

    Part 3: Stanza 5 to 6 (Blaming politicians and planners)
    The fifth and sixth stanzas shift the focus to the City Planners themselves. They are depicted with "insane faces of political conspirators" and are scattered over unsurveyed territories, concealed from each other. This portrayal suggests a lack of connection and accountability among the planners. They exist in their own private blizzards, disconnected from the consequences of their actions. Atwood blames these planners for imposing their vision of order and conformity on the landscape without considering the individuality and needs of the people who inhabit it. The poem criticizes their pursuit of order and control, suggesting that it results in a bland madness of snows, symbolizing the numbing uniformity and lack of vitality in the suburban environment.

    Part 4: Stanza 7 (Enigma)
    The final stanza of the poem adds an enigmatic touch. The poet refers to the City Planners as "guessing directions" and depicts them sketching transitory lines on a wall in the white vanishing air. This image suggests the fleeting nature of their actions and decisions. The poem concludes with the notion of the panic of suburb order, implying that the pursuit of excessive order and conformity is driven by an underlying fear or anxiety. This enigmatic ending invites readers to ponder the consequences of such planning and to question the balance between order and individuality within urban spaces.

    Stylistic Analysis

    "The City Planners" by Margaret Atwood is characterized by a controlled and precise style that reflects the themes of order and conformity explored in the poem. Atwood's use of vivid and detailed imagery allows readers to visualize the perfectly planned suburban environment while also hinting at the underlying imperfections and decay. The poem's structure consists of seven stanzas, each containing four lines, which contributes to the sense of order and symmetry. Atwood employs enjambment to create a smooth flow between lines and stanzas, enhancing the poem's rhythmic quality. The language is straightforward and accessible, yet there are moments of heightened poetic language, such as the comparison of houses sliding into clay seas like glaciers. Overall, Atwood's style in this poem combines precision, vivid imagery, and a careful attention to form to convey her critical exploration of urban planning and its impact on human experience.


  • Semantic field of organization and perfection, ‘pedantic rows’, ‘levelness’, ‘straight swath’, ‘neatly sidestep’, ‘same slant’
  • Personification, ‘driveways neatly sidestep hysteria’, ‘too-fixed stare’, ‘avoidance to the hot sky’
  • Imperative, ‘No shouting here’
  • Simile, ‘like a rebuke’, ‘gradual as glaciers’
  • Oxymoron, ‘rational whine’


  • No rhyme scheme
  • Enjambment throughout poem


  • Negative towards urbanization: ‘offends us is the sanities’,
  • Unorganized/natural things treated like imperfection: ‘like a rebuke to the dent‘, ‘discouraged grass’, ‘sidestep hysteria’ (hysteria=grass/nature), ‘smell of spilt oil a faint sickness’, ‘splash of paint… as a bruise’, ‘too fixed stare of the window’
  • Foreshadowing: ‘future cracks in the plaster’, ‘houses… will slide’, ‘ now nobody notices’
  • Nature will take over: ‘into the clay seas’, ‘white vanishing air’,
  • Planners/politicians go forward and don’t realize what's going on behind them: ‘over unsurveyed territories’, ‘each in his own private blizzard’, ‘guessing direction’, ‘in the white vanishing air’

    Linking poems

  • The Planners, reoccurring problem of urbanization being bad for society
  • Where I Came From, both poets favor the rural area,
    Post Image Art

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