Thursday, December 02, 2010

An urbanist's gift-book list

Planetizen.com has released its annual list of the Top 10 urban planning books. Take a look.
I haven't yet read and thus can't in all honesty recommend any of them but one - "What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs," a collection of essays by well-known urban writers looking at cities and the issues cities face. The idea was to put into practice Jacobs' technique of looking at the real world and how it functions instead of letting your view be clouded by insisting on applying theories, whether of planning of economics, regardless of whether the facts showed something different.

Mary Rowe's piece on getting to know Jacobs, who died in 2006 in her adopted home of Toronto, is filled with warmth and close-eyed observation.

Roberta Brandes Gratz writes, in vigorous prose, about the crucial importance to "green" building of preserving buildings instead of demolishing. Ans she quotes one of my favorite passages from Jacobs' masterwork, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" about how creative entrepreneurs and new business start-ups must have the inexpensive space that new buildings simply can't offer:

"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation – although these make fine ingredients – but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings. ... Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

I haven't finished the book; it's a good one to dip into when you need an urban-writing fix.

If you missed it, here's the 2010 Planetizen book list. I can recommend Anthony Flint's "Wrestling with Moses" as an exceptionally readable history/biography of New York's parks/highways/everything czar (and you thought Obama's czars had too much power?), and Jacobs and their struggles to shape New York. In addition, "The Smart Growth Manual" by Andres Duany and Jeff Speck is a readable little handbook with simple prescriptions, such as "Design public places around existing trees," and " Designate civic sites in each neighborhood." Under the heading, "Price parking according to its value," is this: "Of course there is never enough parking. If pizza were free, would there ever be enough pizza?"

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

thanks for the list my boyfriend will definitely enjoy one of them!!! Lets get that light rail moving in Charlotte

cytomitch said...

Urban planning enthusiasts should take a lesson from Robert Moses. His ideas were once considered cutting-edge, the inevitable future of the city, the sensible thing to for for 20th century living...and look at all the unintended consequences. Anytime you invest much power in 'experts' with 'smart ideas' so they can get big things done, you live with the results of a decision by the few instead of the choices of millions.

Right now 'smart growth' advocates wish they had the power of Moses to reshape cities in their minds' image. Isn't that rolling the dice again?

Cato said...

Whether she realizes it or not, Mary has a bit of a love/hate relationship with Moses. On the one hand, she deplores the kinds of design he brought. But she pines for the days when Charlotte had local leaders like Hugh McColl with strong visions for the city and, like Moses, were willing to use their power to bring them about.

If I recall, she once wrote that the major employers in town should require relocating executives (this was during the salad days when "relocation" meant high earners moving to, and not from, Charlotte) to send their kids to CMS as a condition of employment. (If my memory is faulty, my apologies.)

This pervades the smart-growthy industry. On the surface, it aspires to a kind of "small is beautiful" ethic: urban Jeffersonianism with lots of small "d" democracy. But scratch below and you find no problem with technocractic micromanagement and petty coercions.

If you doubt this, ask one of them their opinion of the Supreme Court's decision in Kelo v. New London, in which the Court allowed a town to demolish a perfectly fine, if unglamorous, neighborhood because it cut a deal to have a trendy development put in its place.

The opinion has been roundly criticized across the political spectrum: from property-rights libertarians to advocates for the inner-city poor. But I've yet to find a smart-growth advocate condemning it. (Again, I'll be happy to stand corrected if I'm wrong).

Anonymous said...

Well, this smart growth advocate dislikes Kelo. I think Jane Jacobs would have the same criticism of large-scale projects following New Urbanism principles. And that is, organic infill is always more sustainable than any master-planned development, especially large urban renewal schemes.

Mary Newsom said...

And let me chime in, Cato, that I too have deep reservations about that Kelo ruling. As the smart growther just said, Jane Jacobs would probably loathe those massive, would-be "economic development" schemes. Last I heard, the New London development for which all that land was taken hasn't gotten off the ground. Nuff said.

Also, Cato, you misremember what I wrote. Although the fact that you even remember it inaccurately all gives you pretty good creds. On April March 20, 2004, I had an op-ed column about the threat to Charlotte's economic future if if affluent, educated people decide to leave CMS. I wrote: "The city's business and political elite tout corporate support for public schools. But where are they sending their kids?"

And here are the proposals I wrote about:
"Here are my ideas for some initiatives. Good minds can surely devise other, better ones:

"If you're a CEO, make sure staff moving here gets facts, not nasty whispers, about CMS. Create and give to newcomers a list of public school parents at your company who can offer guidance in choosing a good public school.

"Business leaders, make clear to your deputies that sending kids to public school wins your approval. Some folks think such arm-twisting isn't seemly. They may be right. But arms are twisted anyway for causes such as United Way or the Arts & Science Council. Why not on behalf of CMS?

"The Charlotte Chamber must take the issue seriously. Form a committee. Why not concoct a five-year campaign to raise the percentage of Chamber members with kids in public school?"

Nothing about requirements, only about incentives.

Bréanainn Séaghdha said...

Kelo v. New London was not a win for smart growth it was a win for private developers.

Smart growth involves efficient use of city infrastructure while guiding private development to make use of that infrastructure through zoning regulation.

What happened in New London was not zoning regulation it was eminent domain bought and paid for by private developers.