This Wednesday, 9,000 people are expected to hit Boston to learn whether everything’s up to date in Kansas City, Mo. — not to mention San Jose, Calif., Ann Arbor, Mich., Houston, Savannah, Ga., and Flagstaff, Ariz. They’ll go to workshops with endearingly earnest titles like “Moving Past the Smokestack: A Discussion on Business Attraction” and “Operational Efficiency — A Water Utility’s Best Friend.” They’ll quack on Duck tours. They’ll hear bragging about our urban planning gems: the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.
This is a big deal annual conference. Run by the National League of Cities, it’s called the Congress of Cities and Exposition, and it’s going on Wednesday through Saturday at the Boston Convention and Exposition Center. All this urbanity has inspired my reading this week, and I must say it’s been an uplifting, even giddy, experience. Toni Morrison said it best in her novel “Jazz,” when she wrote how small-towners feel when they choose city life: “There, in a city, they are not so much new as themselves: their stronger, riskier selves.”
The following books on cities are stronger and riskier, too. And I’ll bet you a Guinness at Flann O’Brien’s that nearly all of the city planner types bound for Boston have read one classic: “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (Modern Library, 2011, first published in 1961). It’s worth recalling author Jane Jacobs herself: She was a journalist/activist, not an architect or urban planner. And right after the book was published, she learned that her Greenwich Village home was slated for demolition, along with most of Little Italy and parts of SoHo, to make way for the Lower Manhattan Expressway masterminded by Robert Moses: The plans were canceled in 1962 because of passionate group opposition and her leadership. In Robert Caro’s first draft of his magnificent urban opus “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” (Vintage, 1975) he reportedly wrote a chapter on Jacobs. But it didn’t make the final cut.
That’s a shame, because Jacobs provides the perfect foil to Moses. She was a big proponent of “density done right,” in which residential and retail live in lively proximity. In Boston terms she’s the North End, and Moses is Government Center. She embraced the anarchy of the city; he wanted to control it. Each book in today’s column grapples with the tension between these two visions.
Jacobs loved tension, and reading her book five decades later, I’m still struck by her looking-for-a-bar-fight prose. Here’s the first sentence of “Death and Life,” for instance: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” She then says that cities are “[u]nstudied [and] unrespected” and that the rip-it-up urban renewal vogue of her time only created a “dishonest mask of pretended order,” which resulted in “marvels of dullness.”
“Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities” (Scribner, 2011) puts Jacobs and other early urban thinkers in insightful context. Author Witold Rybczynski, Slate’s architecture critic, is a smart, amiable tour guide to the birth and evolution of urban planning from the 19th century to now. It’s like hanging out with the perfect docent; over here is Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement (think low-density concentric greenbelts, with cities that look like suburbs). Over there is Charles Mulford Robinson with his City Beautiful ideas based on grandeur (think the National Mall in Washington, D.C.). And let’s not forget Le Corbusier with his Flash Gordon-ish Radiant City of vertiginous skyscrapers and schmancy parks that likely never “stood the slightest chance of being adopted,” as Rybczynski freely admits.
Jacobs scornfully dismissed all of these ideas as “Radiant Garden City Beautiful,” in that they were the brainchildren of city planners who didn’t like cities. She also wrote cranky stuff about Lewis Mumford, author of “The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects” (Mariner, 1968, first published in 1961). He didn’t take too kindly, and shot back with a nasty (and chauvinistically-headlined) New Yorker book review: “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies for Urban Cancer.”
Mother Jacobs wouldn’t have approved of my mother and father. When I was a toddler in the 1960s, the corner grocery in our Brooklyn Heights neighborhood got robbed at gunpoint. My folks yanked my brother and I to the suburbs (Tarrytown, then Croton-on-Hudson) shortly thereafter. We were part of a huge generational migration — which has now kicked into reverse. That’s the word from “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City” (Knopf, 2012). With urban crime a shadow of what it once was, many cities have become highly liveable; people are now ditching the suburbs and exurbs for the short commutes and vibrancy of the city. Shocker: In the 2000-2010 decade, the poverty rate in suburbs increased by 56 percent; it only went up 23 percent in the cities.
Author Alan Ehrenhalt, former executive editor of Governing Magazine, details more demographics: In the 1950s, half of American households included kids, whereas by 2030 it’ll be down to a quarter. Cities disproportionately draw young singles and older empty nesters. But doesn’t that make urban downtowns just a niche? They price out the middle and working class, after all; now they must lure the “creative class” that can live where it wants. As such, Ehrenhalt offers some great set pieces on how cities have fared in retaining and recruiting residents. I especially liked his take on Houston’s defiantly non-gentrifying Third Ward, and how some places (Phoenix, Dallas, Charlotte) have tried the build-it-and-they-will-come strategy of foisting downtowns where there were none. Then there’s his analysis of how Philadelphia has struggled to be more like tourist-friendly Boston and less like blighted Detroit. The local nickname for Philly? “Bostroit.”
“Transportation is destiny,” writes John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay in “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). This is the most futuristic of the books I read, and I wasn’t sure whether to admire or blanch at the inversion it chronicles; namely that airports used to be confined outside the city and soon will be the city’s heart, given our growing globalization. Hard fact No. 1: O’Hare boasts more jobs than downtown Chicago. Hard fact No. 2: China is creating manufacturing hubs around 100 planned new airports. Hard fact No. 3: New Songdo City, built from scratch on an island in the Yellow Sea in Korea, hard by Incheon airport, is an unnerving, LEED-certified and technologically “smart” city slated for completion in 2015.
I’ll end with last year’s hot urban planning title, “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier” (Penguin, 2011). That subtitle makes as many claims as organic face creams, but author Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor, is unflaggingly game to show why “on a planet with vast amounts of space . . . we choose cities.” Cities are the catalysts, igniters, and magnifiers of what human beings have to offer, he says. This is where the talent wants to be, where innovators meet entrepreneurs, where progress is made. Glaeser minimizes the minuses (crowds, pollution, traffic, crime) and quantifies the pluses: As the share of a country’s urban population rises by 10 percent, the country’s per capita output goes up 30 percent. Hey, you conventioneers, add that stat to your binders. And welcome to Boston.Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.