Toward the Livable City
Emilie Buchwald, editor
If planned communities are such a great idea, then why is Hampden more fun than Columbia? For the same reason Lexington Market rocks harder than Harborplace. Gathering spots cohere best under a certain looseness. Too much quality control squeezes the sublime out with the subpar. Room must be made for participants to mix in their own flavors.
Which is why I cracked Toward the Livable City with some wariness. A collection of essays on how to better our communities could easily issue too many prescriptions for top-down management. However well-intentioned, these ideas would make for dull and useless reading. Livable City is poised to capitalize on the buzz from 1993's The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, by Peter Katz and Vincent Scully Jr., which offered antidotes to suburban sprawl and has made big-picture theorizing about building cozier neighborhoods a hot topic ever since.
Livable City does offer some good ideas--such as gardening abandoned city lots--that nonetheless wear the reader down with their preachiness. But the book also holds many surprises, revealing complex, little-noticed forces shaping our landscape. Phillip Lopate's essay, "The Empty Harbor and the Dilemma of Waterfront Development," is a fascinating sketch of the challenging aesthetic and economic choices cities (such as Baltimore) face in revamping waterfront property that's been abandoned by industry. Myron Orfield's "The Region: The True City," meanwhile, delves into the trend of suburb impoverishment, in which areas surrounding cities suffer from too many homes and not enough commercial businesses to provide a tax base for schools and other services. These communities compete in zero-sum games to lure malls and superstores, with predictably land-marring results.
Best of all are the essays that do not sermonize at all, but rather celebrate appealing characteristics of neighborhoods that just arose organically. In "Divorcing the City," Lynda Morgenroth describes her move from a city she adored--she was chased off by endless construction and neighbors from hell--to a quieter but blander outlying town. Her struggle to reconcile both worlds shows how to draw pleasure from wherever we reside. In "The Backside of Civility," Emily Hiestand admires Boston's infrastructure. "Often, an hour talking with an operator at a toll bridge or fish processing plant offers information about a city that you will not discover in its cafés, shops, and museums," she writes. These essays may offer the best advice in the book--that half the trick of improving one's community is simply appreciating what is already there.