The space between: summer reading on cities

A great city is more art than science.

Appears in Summer 2007 Issue: Summer reading
June 1 st 2007

1. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

At a time when everybody else was trying to cure or kill the city, Jane Jacobs was a lone prophet asserting that the city was doing just fine. I learned to love the city from Jacobs with her eyes to see "the ballet of street life" while trained experts could only comprehend the city as rationally organized blobs on a zoning map. Jacobs saw poetry in the city, but she was anything but abstract in her approach. She begins with concrete. The first three chapters focus on the uses of city sidewalks: safety, assimilation of children, and social interaction. Jacobs shows that it is not the police that keep us safe in the city. It is the 'eyes on the street' on a lively streetscape. She clarifies misunderstandings between density and overcrowding. She redirects our aesthetic gaze to a city that is full of beauty but is not a work of art in a formal sense.

Perhaps her most important contribution, however, has been the least noted by her fans. Jacobs understood in a way that eludes planners even today what kind of problem a city presents. A city is not a problem of simplicity that can be solved by achieving the right balance of jobs and housing. Nor is the city a problem of disorganized complexity that can be solved through statistical analysis. Jacobs claims that the city, like the human body, is a problem of organized complexity. It is messy at times, but it embraces an elusive coherence as well as the wonderful ability to repair itself when 'experts' don't get in the way.

2. Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream

These pioneers of the New Urbanist movement spent the last few decades leading a renegade group of architects and planners who in one way or another rejected the post-war suburban style of development in favor of traditional neighborhoods and urbanism. Now their little movement has grown to be a major cultural force and is changing the way we all think about the built environment.

When they wrote Suburban Nation, 'mixed use,' 'district parking,' 'skinny streets,' and 'transit oriented development' were strictly verboten by municipalities across North America. 'Density' was a bad word on everybody's lips. Now it is hard to think of a significant urban centre that isn't employing most of these (neo-traditional) innovations in some way or another as well as scrambling to increase urban density. When you read this book, you will begin to understand why this movement has made such a pervasive impact over the past decade. These are not utopian dreamers, but sober pragmatists. They possess the clarity of insight to ask whether the suburban experiment has delivered on its lofty promises, and whether its existence has really justified scrapping thousands of years of human wisdom embedded in traditional urban forms in favor of its seductive charms.

3. James Howard Kunstler, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition

If you can forgive the comparison, James Howard Kunstler is to Andres Duany as Malcolm X is to Martin Luther King, Jr. Reading Kunstler on the city will scare you a bit but will also serve the purpose of making Duany's gentle persuasion even more compelling. But there is something uniquely compelling about this caustic prophet. This is about as far as the comparison will take us. For one thing, Kunstler is a lot funnier than Malcolm X. Kunstler is both hilarious and spot-on accurate in his observations about contemporary North American life. I know a few former suburban developers who repented of their ways after reading Kunstler's earlier works Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere.

In The City In Mind, Kunstler widens his scope beyond the American scene and develops the notion that the ability to create quality urban environments is an important litmus test for any civilization. He does this with a series of eight case studies ranging from Atlanta, "this giant hairball of a thirteen-county demolition derby," to Paris which embodies the difference between a "city worth caring about and one that is not." Each case study tells an interesting story in its own right and teaches something universal about the things that make a city work—as opposed to the things that doom cities to failure.

What is most striking about Kunstler's romp through the history of urban dwelling is the inescapable conclusion that ordinary humans can build places of beauty and grace. Such places were developed before by societies that were economically far poorer and technologically far less advanced than we are the contemporary context.

4. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life

The rediscovery of the city over the past decade has begun to change demographic patterns that were entrenched for a good fifty years. Interesting people with talent and resources choose to give up some of the privacy and convenience of the suburbs in search of the vitality of city life in major metropolitan centres, as well as smaller cities. Forward-thinking cities that were economically depressed for the '80s and '90s, now find alternative routes to economic growth without making significant environmental and tax concessions to exploitative corporations. Many are thriving economically not by sacrificing resources and prime real estate, but by maintaining a quality of life that attracts the employees creative and high-tech companies want to hire.

Richard Florida tracks this phenomenon from a sociological perspective in his influential The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida challenges Robert Putnam's argument for the economic value of social capital. Florida notes that social capital can have a negative effect on economic growth if it is accompanied by a high degree of intolerance that one might find in any tight knit community. Florida, then articulates and measures a number of assets (talent, tolerance, technology, and territorial assets) that municipalities can leverage to attract companies and employees, and that will support and even protect the local flavour of a particular city. While I don't completely agree with Florida's program (there is more to the shalom of a city than attracting young professionals), I do think that this is a very important book that will continue to make significant impact on municipal policy for years to come.

5. Allan B. Jacobs, Great Streets

After about fifty years of slavishly accepting Le Corbusier's rash dismissal of streets for anything but high-speed automobile traffic, we are once again recognizing that a requisite component for a truly great city is great streets. Some of the most significant public spaces in a city are to be found on its streets. Alan Jacobs's treatment is a tribute to Great Streets, and a serious study of some of the best-loved streets in the world. He points out that lively streets are among the most beloved and memorable places to visit. A study of this type makes for fascinating reading because so often we perceive the magic of a great street at a visceral level, but we would have a hard time identifying specifically what it is that makes it work. It turns out that a great street is more a work of art than hard science. The difficulty of creating a great street today is compounded by a half century of seeing streets not as places worthy of note but as naked corridors through which we necessarily travel in our automobiles to get to the real places of significance.

Jacobs reintroduces his readers to concepts and spatial tropes embedded in the fabric of older streets that were forgotten. Jacobs calls our attention to the role of building heights in creating a sense of enclosure for a street, and he helps us to see the complexity and texture of the "streetwall" and the "streetground" as keys to creating a vibrant urban environment.

6. David Solomon, Global City Blues

As a penitent, formerly modernist architect, David Solomon is the perfect guide to the waves of modernist hubris that nearly killed the city during the second half of the twentieth century. Consisting in a series of essays that are part autobiography and part expose, Global City Blues is a bit hard to categorize. David Solomon is a co-founder of the Congress of the New Urbanism, but he is one of the more interesting writers of that movement for his slightly less doctrinaire approach, and for his ability to make connections with other movements and trends.

Most seasoned practitioners of the recent urban renaissance are self-avowed pragmatists and polemic apologists for the movement. Solomon may be more of a poet at heart and as such he may provides helpful inroads to the movement for a theological discussion of "creational norms." This can be seen when he connects the efforts of urbanists with those of foodies or 'slow food' practitioners:

Foodies worry that masses of people will go through life and never taste a peach that tastes like a peach. The people will survive somehow—it's peachiness that is threatened with extinction. In the contemporary world, retaining the full-blown potential of the flavor of a peach is no small matter. It involves land-use policy, banking, union agreements, transportation and distribution networks as much as it involves peach breeding . . . the circumstances that now face cities are just as complicated and just as novel (17).

When reading Solomon one gets the sense that there is more at stake than the abstract categories of "urban," "suburban," and "traditional" or "progressive." Solomon seeks the delight, encounter, and meaning that speak of divine intention in the peachiness of peaches and in the traditional forms of the built environment.

7. Robert Fishman, Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier

It can be argued that Frank Lloyd Wright, Ebenezer Howard, and Le Corbusier made more impact on the 20th-century North American city than all other urban visionaries combined. All three sought a viable alternative to the swelling oppression of the industrial city, but each advocated radically different visions for the future. In Urban Utopias, Robert Fishman takes us on a journey into the lives and the visions of each of these influential thinkers. Although of the three of them only Howard saw any of his visionary urban plans realized, their thinking exerted a major impact on the canon of modern urban planning.

In his Villa Radiuse, Le Corbusier wanted to clear away all of the congestion of the centre city while increasing residential density by building massive high-rises and arranging them like towers in a park. He envisioned the city of the future to be a city built for speed. He connected his towers with high-speed motorways. Le Corbusier anticipated both the extent of the interstate freeway system that we endure today and the sterile fields of high-rises that grace most North American cities today.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City moved in the opposite direction. His vision eliminated the density of the city by scattering single family residences—each on at least one acre—across the American landscape. Wright saw improvements in communication and transportation technology as making central cities redundant. Wright's anti-social vision of everyone's having a 'little cabin in the woods' provided the DNA for the current suburban ideal of a detached home on a one acre lot. Wright was also ahead of his time in understanding the impact that communications technologies would make on demographics.

Of the three, Ebenezer Howard was the most pragmatic. He alone had the patience and the ability to work with others to see two of his Garden City plans realized. Howard's idea of drawing off some of the congestion of the city by balancing jobs, housing, and access to nature in a relatively compact locale spawned a number of experimental cities in North America and throughout the world. However, his more significant impact was to convince planners that the hopes and dreams of human lives could be anticipated, quantified, and organized in such a way that they could be realized programmatically by building certain features into the built environment.

I find the kind of impact that each of these visionaries made on the built environment and on the planning profession ranges from ambiguous to deeply disturbing. However, it is important to understand the origins of ideas that have wreaked such havoc on the North American landscape. Fishman is a knowledgeable and fair guide to these three influential characters.

8. Daniel Kemmis, The Good City and the Good Life: Renewing the American Community

Daniel Kemmis maintains that focusing our political attention exclusively on the national scene can only fall short of our expectations, and we will eventually become jaded. In The Good City and the Good Life, Kemmis recommends a return to the city as a context for human thriving and for rediscovering the dignity of political life. Calling the self-designation, 'taxpayer,' a profoundly undemocratic statement, Kemmis asks us to reconsider the profound privilege of citizenship. A "citi-zen" is literally a dweller of the city. It is in the context of the city that we learn to live with one another and to organize our lives together. I think that I've always loved cities and city life and always will, but Kemmis helped me to translate that love for the city into a vocation to care deeply about cities as a place to heal our political life.

9. Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community

The notion that we need a place to hang out that is not our workplace nor our home helps to explain the success of places like Starbucks and Barnes and Noble over the past decade. Thirty years ago, Ray Oldenburg anticipated this phenomenon and coined the term 'third place' to describe these places. Oldenburg helps us place this phenomenon in a wider context and he helps us to better understand the significance of this rediscovered impulse to a sociability.

One insightful section is his chapter on the role of third places for socializing people. We learn what is appropriate and inappropriate public behavior by spending time in coffee shops and other public places where we receive instant feedback on our public behaviour. Oldenburg outlines seven rules of conversation for third places:

  1. Remain silent for your share of the time (more rather than less);
  2. Be attentive while others are talking;
  3. Say what you think but be careful not to hurt others' feelings;
  4. Avoid topics not of general interest;
  5. Say little or nothing about yourself personally, but talk about others there assembled;
  6. Avoid trying to instruct;
  7. Speak in as low a voice as will allow others to hear.

Oldenburg's insights help to explain in small measure why public discourse has become so uncivil in recent times. As contemporary zoning has prevented many residential neighborhoods from including gathering spots like coffee houses and barber shops, we've lost these important places to learn the rules that make our lives together more gracious.

10. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace: The Kuyper Lectures for 1981 Delivered at the Free University of Amsterdam

There are a number of reasons to recommend the work of Nicolas Wolterstorff to Christian readers, but for the purposes of this essay I focus on just one aspect that makes his contribution to the canon of city literature important. Wolterstorff is one of a handful of writers (Christian or non-Christian) interested in the beauty of the city who understands that its value is not to be found primarily in the cultural institutions of the city or in the façades of the important architectural works.

Wolterstorff understands that for most people beauty in the city is found in the spaces between the buildings. From this perspective a beautiful city is a city in which the streets feel like outdoor hallways that invite us to explore. The hallways occasionally give way to open spaces that function like outdoor rooms that beckon us to rest. For Wolterstorff, this kind of beauty is essential to the "shalom" of the city. It is precisely the lack of such features that makes post-World War II cities so uninviting. Wolterstorff is not interested only in the peculiar beauty of cities. His aesthetic insight is just one dimension of his broader vision for justice and peace, but it is a perspective just rare enough to warrant special consideration.

Topics: Cities Literature
 

Eric Jacobsen is the author of The Space Between (Baker, 2012), and Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos, 2003) as well as numerous articles on New Urbanism. He is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, and a participant in the Colloquium on Theology and the Built Environment sponsored by St. Andrews University and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship at Calvin College.

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