There are a few treasured, dog-eared planning and urban design books I return to periodically for inspiration, and a little nostalgia, as I comment on public radio KBU and select websites.
Dating back to the 1960s when I was a metropolitan reporter for the New York Times during the day and a community activist in East Harlem at night, the books then and in the years following served as guides, generating both ideas and hope.
Yes, there was hope back then spurred by the emerging civil rights movement, urban consciousness and advocacy architecture, employing a host of innovative planning and development programs.
Good intentions prevailed, unlike now in the perverted programs proffered by a loathsome Trump and his stooges. They appear in lockstep, dead set to gut our democracy and the fragile efforts serving our cities and the less fortunate; indeed to only serve themselves and the obscene one percent.
And so we escape to books that remind us of their inherent good will. How insightful was Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, awakening our awareness, and appreciation, of the cityscape.
Then there was William H. Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, which he called more of a manual than a book, exploring with a camera and insight what makes public plazas and streets work for, and don’t work, for pedestrians.
Enlightening also was Jan Gehl’s “Life Between the Buildings,” which I like for not being about touristy city centers and staged occasions for the leisure class, but about everyday people experiencing the public realm.
That is what I also like about Alexander Garvin’s recently published “What Makes a Great City.” Be the title taken as a declarative, or a question, Garvin declares in the preface it is the people and public spaces that makes a city great, not the architectural icons, beauty or function.
The well illustrated and accessible book, from the environmental advocate Island Press, goes on to identify several essential characteristics needed to make a city attractive to people, and noteworthy.
These include being open, inviting and offering something for everybody, sustaining a habitable environment and nurturing a civil society. And he notes where and how it is happening.
I was hoping that is what “People Cities” by Annie Matan and Peter Newman would also be so informative, published as a celebration of the life and legacy of Jan Gehl also by the resolute Island Press.
While touching upon a selection of city planning projects Gehl pursued, the book is more a parochial testimonial to the however deserving and inspired cityscaper.
I prefer reading Gehl’s old books, while looking ahead, beyond the Trump misadministration.