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 media disinterest.
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.
And 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 placemaking.
Cryptic 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.
The 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 some illustrations.
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.
To 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 little action.
Some varying 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.