By Sam Hall Kaplan
What seems like just a few years ago a gaggle
of planning and design critics and pandering politicians were bemoaning the
death of public space, a victim of municipal neglect, overt commercialism and
Apparently we had surrendered the weaving of
our urban fabric to an unholy alliance of myopic traffic engineers, duplicitous
developers, disingenuous elected officials, and undiscerning pedants.
Pedestrians were suspect, sidewalks shunned and parks avoided.
Pervading all except perhaps a policed shopping mall or a monitored
amusement park was a fog of civic unease.
today, in a notable change of personal perception and popular fortune, our
privileged urbanists are fervently celebrating the crafting and care of public
spaces as a harbinger of a more open and inviting city, a place where people
can come out from behind their computer screens to experience a rare sense of
community, however fleeting, and share a cup of coffee, however pricey.
To this chorus of the mostly comfortable and
civil are the swarms of ubiquitous tourists, their communal ardor feeding local
coffers and conceits. As for urban designers and planners, there is an
encouraging new awareness and appreciation for context and community, the
purpose and potential of public space, and a need to hone the cryptic craft of
indeed, for the diversity of cities, the fracture of communities, and shifting
demographics are very much a challenge to those in search of a “genius loci.” and
an inviting place to perhaps live, work or visit.
To that both personal and professional quest
recommended is a copy of “Envisioning Better Cities,” by Seattle urban
consultant Patricia Chase and University of Washington academic Nancy K. Rivenburgh.
Published by Oro Editions, the
paperback is as its subtitle states, “A Global Tour of Good Ideas,” a bucket
list if you will of an orchestrated journey to well grounded places, projects
and programs that make their host cities more “livable and sustainable,” and
hopefully inspiring to others.
tour is understandably derivative, and respectfully echoes the wealth of the previous
insights of Jan Gehl, Jane Jacobs, Holly Whyte, and Charles Montgomery, among many
others, and cites a host of the iconic landmarks, such as the High Line in New
York City and the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, and a familiar few hundreds more.
But there also are more modest other places and projects,
both novel and suggestive, though captions rather an index of credits would
have been appreciated. So would have an index, as well as better photos and
Whatever, there are a lot of good ideas in
this practical text, presented in an informative, unvarnished narrative that
the authors immodestly state hope “results in a book that will inform and
inspire.” It does, not only to advocate professionally in a host city, but also
to include in a personal sojourn, if you had the means.
be sure, these people friendly fixes focused on public places make our communities
more livable. Though increasingly being raised by the authors and others is the
question of how selectively is this celebrated, given the harsh reality of the
nation’s income inequitabiity.
This growing gap indeed has become a principal
socio-economic and political problem that in time undoubtedly will undermine
the democratic hope for a diverse and sustainable city, urban design
initiatives not withstanding as well as democracy itself.
Putting this and in general gentrification into
a prescient perspective is the “The Divided City: Poverty and
Prosperity in Urban America.” by Alan Mallach (Island Press)) Noted by an
insightful and progressive Mallach is the demise in many major and notably
middle sized, middle America cities of the middle class, pronounced
homelessness and the increasing lack of affordable housing. It should be added
this is very much at present grist for academic conferences, and think tanks, but
solutions are however offered in a recently published and welcomed third
book, “Affordable Housing, Inclusive Cities,” edited by Vinayak Bharne &
Shyam Khabdekar, (Oro Edition.) Collected in a well-organized, informative and
illustrated text are 36 essays of actual case studies and real projects
tackling inclusiveness in housing and public place. Though the perspective is world
wide, the focus is refreshingly local, with in-your-face and on-the-ground
realities that affect a staggering nearly one billion people.
The scattered efforts everywhere, described by
the discerning editors lend some hope for a more livable future and social
justice for all. One likes to end these reviews not with an after thought, but with
a note of optimism.