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A Decade Since Jane Jacobs’ Death

April 25, 2016 Books, Featured, History/Preservation, Planning & Design, Urban Renewal Comments Off on A Decade Since Jane Jacobs’ Death
Cover of Death and Life of Great American Cities
Cover of Death and Life of Great American Cities

Ten years ago today, one of my heroes died. Jane Jacobs, author of The Death & Life of Great American Cities, was 89. Her 1961 classic was a sharp critique of Urban Renewal — the erase & replace thinking that was commonplace at the time.  New York’s Robert Moses & St. Louis’ Harland Bartholomew were among the top advocates of Urban Renewal.

At 45, she and many others directly challenged Moses’ plan to cut an interstate highway through lower Manhattan:

Jacobs chaired the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway (a.k.a. Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square to Traffic, and other names), which recruited such members as Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lewis Mumford, Charles Abrams, and William H. Whyte. Papers such as The New York Times were sympathetic to Moses, while the newly created Village Voice covered community rallies and advocated against the expressway. The Committee succeeded in blocking the project. On June 25, 1958, the city closed Washington Square Park to traffic, and the Joint Committee held a ribbon tying (not cutting) ceremony. Jacobs continued to fight the expressway when plans resurfaced in 1962, 1965, and 1968, and she became a local hero for her opposition to the project. She was arrested by a plainclothes police officer on April 10, 1968, at a public hearing, during which the crowd had charged the stage and destroyed the stenographer’s notes. She was accused of inciting a riot, criminal mischief, and obstructing public administration – after months of trials conducted in New York City (to which Jacobs commuted from Toronto), her charge was reduced to disorderly conduct. (Wikipedia)

Following her arrest, and in protest of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, she, her husband (an architect)  and two draft-able sons, moved to Canada. They settled in Toronto.

A few months after her death, I was in standing in front of the home where she lived in Toronto. Crying.

The following are some videos about her, some of her speaking.

Jacobs still inspires me today, I just wish I’d known of her in high school — I would’ve studied urban planning instead of architecture, in the mid-late 1980s. May 4th will mark the 100th anniversary of her birth.

— Steve Patterson


Reading: The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix by Grady Gammage Jr.

April 22, 2016 Books, Featured, Suburban Sprawl Comments Off on Reading: The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix by Grady Gammage Jr.
Click cover image to view publisher's page -- which includes a preview
Click cover image to view publisher’s page — which Reincludes a preview

Many Western cities aren’t as dense as Eastern & rust-belt cities, but residents still desire to live sustainably. Though St. Louis was a dense rust-belt city, bad decisions have turned it into an unsustainable mess largely suburban mess. But, we can learn from others on how to dig ourselves out.

A recent article, The Santa Fe Strategy: How Small Cities Can Act on Climate and Inequality, explored these issues. A new book goes deeper:

There exists a category of American cities in which the line between suburban and urban is almost impossible to locate. These suburban cities arose in the last half of twentieth-century America, based largely on the success of the single-family home, shopping centers, and the automobile. The low-density, auto-centric development of suburban cities, which are largely in the arid West, presents challenges for urban sustainability as it is traditionally measured. Yet, some of these cities—Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake, Dallas, Tucson, San Bernardino, and San Diego—continue to be among the fastest growing places in the United States.

In The Future of the Suburban City, Phoenix native Grady Gammage, Jr. looks at the promise of the suburban city as well as the challenges. He argues that places that grew up based on the automobile and the single-family home need to dramatically change and evolve. But suburban cities have some advantages in an era of climate change, and many suburban cities are already making strides in increasing their resilience. Gammage focuses on the story of Phoenix, which shows the power of collective action — government action — to confront the challenges of geography and respond through public policy. He takes a fresh look at what it means to be sustainable and examines issues facing most suburban cities around water supply, heat, transportation, housing, density, urban form, jobs, economics, and politics.

The Future of the Suburban City is a realistic yet hopeful story of what is possible for any suburban city. (Island Press)

The table of contents:

Prologue. Getting Through the Haboob

Chapter 1. Suburbs, Sprawl, and Sustainability
Chapter 2. Just Add Water
Chapter 3. Coping with Heat
Chapter 4. Transportation and the Suburban City
Chapter 5. Houses, Shopping Centers, and the Fabric of Suburbia
Chapter 6. Jobs and the Economy of Cities in the Sand
Chapter 7. Politics, Resilience, and Survival

Afterword. Planning to Stay

Our regions can’t just keep expanding outward the way they did the last 50-60 years. We must improve existing suburbia.

— Steve Patterson


Reading: The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us by Joel Kotkin

April 15, 2016 Books, Featured 1 Comment

humancity.kotkinThe title, The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, quickly got my attention. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In The Human City, internationally recognized urbanist Joel Kotkin challenges the conventional urban-planning wisdom that favors high-density, “pack-and-stack” strategies. By exploring the economic, social, and environmental benefits of decentralized, family-friendly alternatives, Kotkin concludes that while the word “suburbs” may be outdated, the concept is certainly not dead.

Aside from those wealthy enough to own spacious urban homes, people forced into high-density development must accept crowded living conditions and limited privacy, thus degrading their quality of life. Dispersion, Kotkin argues, provides a chance to build a more sustainable, “human-scale” urban environment.

After pondering the purpose of a city — and the social, political, economic, and aesthetic characteristics that are associated with urban living — Kotkin explores the problematic realities of today’s megacities and the importance of families, neighborhoods, and local communities, arguing that these considerations must guide the way we shape our urban landscapes. He then makes the case for dispersion and explores communities (dynamic small cities, redeveloped urban neighborhoods, and more) that are already providing viable, decentralized alternatives to ultra-dense urban cores.

The Human City lays out a vision of urbanism that is both family friendly and flexible. It describes a future where people, aided by technology, are freed from the constraints of small spaces and impossibly high real estate prices. While Kotkin does not call for low-density development per se, he does advocate for a greater range of options for people to live the way they want at various stages of their lives.

We are building cities without thinking about the people who live in them, argues The Human City. It’s time to change our approach to one that is centered on human values.
About the Author

Joel Kotkin is Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, Executive Director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism, and Executive Editor of the widely read website, NewGeography.com. He is the author of seven previous books, and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast, Forbes.com, RealClearPolitics, and the Orange County Register. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, City Journal, Politico, and many more outlets.

It’s true, there is a lot of middle ground between expensive high-density urbanity and low-density suburban sprawl. To live in a walkable neighborhood shouldn’t require a 6-figure income.

Here is the list of chapters:

  1. What Is a City For?
  2. The Importance of Everyday Life
  3. The Problem with Megacities
  4. Inside the “Glamour Zone”
  5. Post-Familial Places
  6. The Case for Dispersion
  7. How Should We Live?

I got permission to reprint the introduction:

BOOKS HAVE MANY ORIGINS, and that is also the case with this one. I started thinking about a new approach to urbanism after being ex- posed to a series of views—largely in favor of cramming people into ever-denser spaces—that now dominates most thinking about cities. I had also been exposed repeatedly to analyses, including some of my own, that rated cities largely from the perspective of their eco- nomic productivity.

Economic growth, of course, is critical to urban health and the lives of urban citizens. But how growth impacts daily life, I came to realize, is also important. If we build cities, as we increasingly do, in ways that accentuate divisions among the classes and decrease the quality of life for families—even to the point of discouraging people from having children—what have we accomplished? Even if skylines rise and architects create hitherto impossible-to-imagine structures, a city still primarily needs to be, as Descartes noted, “an inventory of the possible”1 for the vast majority of its citizens.

These thoughts came together for me when I was working in Singapore. Here was arguably the best-planned dense urban area in the world, a model of modernist design and post-industrial prosperity. Yet in doing scores of interviews and reviewing survey data, it became obvious to me that high-density living, coupled with enormous career pressures, was also producing high levels of anxiety and breaking down what had been an exceptionally strong familial culture.

I articulated these thoughts in a speech called “What Is a City For?” that I gave to the Singapore University of Technology and Design in the spring of 2013. It was published later that year by the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities.2 In that address, I began to search out answers to that question. My thinking was further shaped by a suggestion from one of my colleagues, geographer Ali Modarres, to look at Aristotle, first and foremost, for some basic principles.

In the ensuing two years, the book began to take shape, although I knew much of it ran very much contrary to the prevailing wisdom about cities. Yet as I went through the historical literature and ob- served cities around the world, it became clear that there was an enormous gap between what planners, politicians, and much of the business community were advocating for—ever more density—and the everyday desires of most people, particularly working- and mid- dle-class families. It seemed only proper that someone speak to these aspirations as well.

In no way do I consider this book, in its essentials, anti-urban. In- stead, the task here is to redefine the city in a way that fits with modern realities and the needs of families. In this respect, the urban experience is simply not only confined to the inner city or old neighborhoods but also to the “sprawl” that now surrounds them in virtually every vibrant urban area in the world. As Gregg Easterbrook, contributing editor of the Atlantic and the Washington Monthly, asks, “Sprawl is caused by affluence and population growth, and which of these, exactly, do we propose to inhibit?”3

Many voices influenced this book. These include the writings of Fernand Braudel, Lewis Mumford, Frank Lloyd Wright, Peter Hall, H. G. Wells, Herbert Gans, and, although I differed from her on many ideas, Jane Jacobs. These figures from the past informed my reporting on the present; their focus on how people actually live, and what they desire, gave me necessary inspiration.

No field of study—technical or in the humanities—thrives when only one side or perspective is allowed free reign and granted a dis- pensation from criticism. The question of the future of cities is too important to be hemmed in by dogma and should, instead, invite
vigorous debate and discussion. My hope is that this book sparks at least a modicum of that debate by challenging the conventional think- ing on the future of cities and the urban form. This book was written with that hope.


Orange, California, Fall 2015

(Reprinted with permission from The Human City by Joel Kotkin, Agate B2, 2016.)

We need more discussion about how to build cities that work for humans.

— Steve Pattterson


Reading: City on a Grid by Gerard Koeppel

April 8, 2016 Books, Featured Comments Off on Reading: City on a Grid by Gerard Koeppel

cityonagrid.koeppelRegular readers know I love St. Louis’ street grid — it’s one of the things that drew me here in August 1990. New York was already 150+ years old when St. Louis was founded. St, Louis’ first streets were in a grid pattern, but New York’s weren’t.  St. Louis had a population of 1,600 in 1810, but New York City was nearly 120,000 and growing fast.

In 1811 New York City adopted a new grid pattern for the largely rural island of Manhattan. It was unforgiving, no regard for geography. It would be decades before it was completed.

From author Gerard Koeppel:

Back in St. Louis, the original riverfront grid gave way to a less organized street pattern as you got away from downtown. The 1876 Great Divorce set the city limits far into rural land – those in the late 19th century didn’t foresee suburban sprawl that would take place in the mid to late 20th century.

You either love it or hate it, but nothing says New York like the street grid of Manhattan. Created in 1811 by a three-man commission featuring headstrong Founding Father Gouverneur Morris, the plan called for a dozen parallel avenues crossing at right angles with many dozens of parallel streets in an unbroken grid. Hills and valleys, streams and ponds, forests and swamps were invisible to the grid; so too were country villages, roads, farms, and estates and generations of property lines. All would disappear as the crosshatch fabric of the grid overspread the island: a heavy greatcoat on the land, the dense undergarment of the future city.

No other grid in Western civilization was so large and uniform as the one ordained in 1811. Not without reason. When the grid plan was announced, New York was just under two hundred years old, an overgrown town at the southern tip of Manhattan, a notorious jumble of streets laid at the whim of landowners. To bring order beyond the chaos—and good real estate to market—the street planning commission came up with a monolithic grid for the rest of the island. Mannahatta—the native “island of hills”—became a place of rectangles, in thousands of blocks on the flattened landscape, and many more thousands of right-angled buildings rising in vertical mimicry.

The Manhattan grid has been called “a disaster” of urban planning and “the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization.” However one feels about it, the most famous urban design of a living city defines its daily life. This is its story.

What would Manhattan look like today if the 1811 grid hadn’t been adopted? What would St. Louis look like if it had suggested a similar rigid grid?


— Steve Patterson


Reading: Touching the City: Thoughts on Urban Scale by Timothy Makower

March 25, 2016 Books, Featured, Planning & Design Comments Off on Reading: Touching the City: Thoughts on Urban Scale by Timothy Makower

One of the things that attracted me to St. Louis, when passing through in 1990, was the urban scale. Scale is a great differentiator from suburbia. Touching the City: Thoughts on Urban Scale by Timothy Makower takes an in-depth look into the subject — the “experience of size”, the “spaces between buildings”.

The publisher’s description:

Scale in cities is relative and absolute. It has the ability to make us feel at home in the world or alien from it; connected or disconnected. Both large and small scale in cities can be beautiful; both are right, neither is wrong. Whilst accepting that prescription is no answer, ‘getting the scale right’ – at an intuitive and sensual level – is a fundamental part of the magic of architecture and urban design. Touching the City explores how scale is manifested in cities, exploring scale in buildings, in the space between them and in their details. It asks how scale makes a difference. Travelling from Detroit to Chandigarh, via New York, London, Paris, Rome and Doha, Tim Makower explores cities with the analytical eye of a designer and with the experiential eye of the urban dweller. Looking at historic cities, he asks what is good about them: what can we learn from the old to inform the new? The book zooms in from the macro scale of surfing Google Earth to micro moments such as finding fossils in a weathered wall. It examines the dynamics and movement patterns of cities, the making of streets and skylines, the formation of thresholds and facades, and it also touches on the process of design and the importance of drawing. As the book’s title, Touching the City, suggests, it also emphasises the tactile – that the city is indeed something physical, something we can touch and be touched by, alive and ever changing.

Here’s the Table of Contents:

  • AcknowledgementsForeword: Scaling the XXL – Kees Christiaanse
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: On Scale and Size
  • Chapter 2: On Scale and Movement
  • Chapter 3: On Scale and Edges
  • Chapter 4: On Scale and Grain
  • Chapter 5: On Scale and Form
  • Chapter 6: On Scale, Skeletons and Surface
  • Chapter 7: On Scale and Detail
  • Conclusion: From Nature

As you can see, there are many aspects when examining scale.

— Steve Patterson