5 books on our urban future
These new releases make the case for a hyper-dense, urban future.
Thu, Nov 07, 2013 at 09:01 AM
Photo: Ersler Dmitry/Shutterstock
To the authors of the following five books, cities — well-designed, hyperdense, pedestrian-friendly cities — are the answer to our most pressing challenges, from foreclosures, unemployment and unfunded schools, to spiraling health care costs, climate change and even oil wars. With a vision for smarter, more efficient, more resilient and more democratic future cities, they introduce inspired urban concepts and designs, promising new technologies and fascinating histories. But can we move beyond the deep-seated strain of anti-urbanism that has long defined American culture, and learn to love towers and urban environments as much as we have historically longed for rural spaces? The idea of a bucolic, small-town America seems hard-wired into the national self-image, but the following books urge us to reimagine ourselves and step boldly into an urban future.
By Vishaan Chakrabarti
Densification and development are not usually named as solutions to America's great national challenges, but Vishann Chakrabarti believes that well-designed cities are in fact the answer to problems including environmental degradation, unsustainable consumption, economic stagnation, rising public health costs and decreased social mobility. In his new book, “A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America,” Chakrabarti, the director of Columbia University's Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE) and a partner at SHoP Architects, makes a powerful case that cities are the economic engine of the nation and looks at how they developed across the 50 states, their roles in prosperity and globalization, sustainability and resilience, and heath and joy.
“For decades, growing U.S. cities have gained density not through strengthened downtowns — through hyperdensity — but through sprawling borders; as a result metropolitan regions have become less efficient — bigger consumers of our resources. In the process, cities have also lost the kind of cohesive order, hierarchy and structure that made them marvels of communal living dating back to ancient Xi’an and Athens.” Chakrabarti argues that if we can intelligently increase the density of our cities as they grow and build the transit systems, schools, parks and other infrastructure to support them, we can increase job opportunities and foster an improved, sustainable environment. The book is illustrated with striking infographics demonstrating provocative statistics on issues as disparate as rising childhood obesity rates, ever-lengthening automobile commutes and government subsidies that favor highways over mass transit. “A Country of Cities” shows how we can transform a country of highways, houses and hedges into a country of trains, towers and trees.
By Jeff Speck
Like Chakrabarti, Jeff Speck believes that many of America’s problems, including public health issues, sustainability, and even the lagging economy, can be addressed by fixing our cities. Speck, a city planner and architectural designer who advocates internationally for smart growth and sustainable design through his writing, lectures and built work, has dedicated his career to determining what makes cities thrive. He has boiled it down to one key factor — walkability — and in his new book, “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” he lays out a 10-step plan for changing the way we build and think about our public spaces. The steps are wide-ranging, from planting more trees and narrowing roads to investing in well-planned public transit systems and designing visually interesting buildings.
Speck’s General Theory of Walkability begins with four conditions, and explains how, to be favored, “a walk must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into 'outdoor living rooms,' in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.” For Speck, the walkable city is not just a nice, idealistic notion. Rather, it is a simple, practical-minded solution to a host of complex problems that we face as a society, problems that daily undermine our nation's economic competitiveness, public welfare and environmental sustainability. “Walkable City” is less a design treatise than an essential call to arms.
By Anthony M. Townsend
In his new book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for A New Utopia,” urban planner and technology forecaster Anthony Townsend investigates the historic collision of two global trends: rapid urbanization and the spread of ubiquitous computing. People have migrated to cities for thousands of years, drawn to them in search of connection, jobs and wealth. Today, more people live in cities than in the countryside, mobile broadband connections outnumber fixed ones, and cities around the world are solving problems using new technologies. There's great promise in many of these "smart" city programs, and though Townsend believes that using technology to make cities run more efficiently is a very good thing, he approaches the topic with a healthy dose of skepticism. The book takes readers through some of the early efforts to put urban areas inside computers while addressing pros and cons, as top-down corporate models develop alongside communitarian and entrepreneurial initiatives.
From Chicago to Bangalore, Townsend shows how cities worldwide are deploying technology to address both the timeless challenges of government and the mounting problems posed by human settlements of previously unimaginable size and complexity. Townsend attempts to strike a rational balance between the great promise of the data age, civic technology and hackable cities with all the ways it could be used to manipulate, oppress or even put us in danger as it ostensibly makes us safer. Filled with compelling stories of what both small groups of individuals and big corporations have done in attempts to make cities work better, “Smart Cities” encourages readers to join the long hack into more efficient, more resilient, and more democratic future cities. Writes Townsend: “How we guide the integration of these historic forces will, to a great extent, determine the kind of world our children's children will inhabit when they reach the other end of this century.”
"The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy (Brookings Focus Book)"
By Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley
In “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy,” Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution argue that with the federal government bitterly divided and dysfunctional, power is shifting to cities. “The tectonic plates of power and responsibility are shifting,” they write. “Across the nation, cities and metros are taking control of their own destinies, becoming deliberate about their economic growth. Power is devolving to the places and people who are closest to the ground and oriented toward collaborative action. This shift is changing the nature of our leadership — who our leaders are, what they do, and how they govern. The metropolitan revolution has only one logical conclusion: the inversion of the hierarchy of power in the United States.”
For 50 years, metropolitan areas have relied on their biggest single investor — the federal government — to finance infrastructure, housing, innovation and human capital, but now cities and metros are driving the conversation, and the Metropolitan Revolution has become a national movement. The book describes how it is taking root in New York City, where efforts are underway to diversify the city’s vast economy; in Portland, Ore., which is selling the “sustainability” solutions it has perfected to other cities around the world; in northeast Ohio, where groups are using industrial-age skills to invent new 21st-century materials, tools and processes; in Houston, where a modern settlement house helps immigrants climb the employment ladder; in Miami, where innovators are forging strong ties with Brazil and other nations; in Denver and Los Angeles, where leaders are breaking political barriers and building world-class metropolises; and in Boston and Detroit, where innovation districts are hatching ideas to power these economies for the next century. Katz and Bradley show that this revolution is happening, and every community in the country can benefit.
By Daniel Brook
In “A History of Future Cities,” journalist Daniel Brook explores the origin stories and transformations of four unlikely sister cities that are unified by the sense of disorientation they impart: They are all built to look like a place that they’re not. St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Shanghai and Dubai are where East meets West and past becomes future. In juxtaposing the stories of the architects and authoritarians, the artists and revolutionaries who seized the reins to transform each of these precociously modern places into avatars of the global future, Brook demonstrates that the drive for modernization was initially conflated with wholesale Westernization. In their zeal to be powerful and great, these cities have cast aside the local, regional and national characteristics that brought them into being, sometimes creating the sense that they are losing more than they are gaining in the exchange. Though it can bring its own set of drawbacks, Brook doesn’t regard imitation as necessarily bad. “That the Romans copied the Greeks hardly means that their civilization was a fraud,” he writes.
“The Romans went on to make their own contributions, far surpassing the Greeks in fields like engineering and logistics. That the Romans copied does not mean that history is nothing but copying. But it does mean that copying is an integral part of history.” Offering a crucial reminder of globalization’s long march and an inspiring look into the possibilities of our Asian Century, Brook shows how today, more than ever, “the fate of the world will be decided in the rising metropolitan hubs of the developing world, in places like Mumbai, Lagos, and Dhaka. Whether they can deliver on their promise is a pressing question not just for them but for us all."
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