Revitalization Reads

September 29, 2023

This is a bit of a different direction for me as I typically just rant about cars being awful or why maintenance is the unsexy secret to saving our cities. But I am feeling a little sassy this week and thought I would try to provide you all with some brilliant words from other people. There are so many talented and amazing people working in different facets of revitalization, community development, urbanism, city planning, or whatever you want to call it. I tend to think of it as the Place Industry. All of these talented people are working to improve human habitats and that comes in so many different forms.

I am a pretty avid reader and do my best to bounce back and forth between fiction and non-fiction, but I typically end up reading twice as many novels as I do work-related books each year. However, I can’t stop myself from thinking about PLACE even when I’m reading the latest from Oprah’s Book Club. I always find the settings in which a book takes place to be an incredibly compelling part of the story and find it fascinating how those places get weaved into the narrative. Even when reading just for pleasure, I can’t help but see how the place the characters inhabit is integral to how they act and what takes place in their story.

As we are approaching the end of September, I am indulging in seasonal spooky reads, and guess what- none of them take place in Malibu in June. The same way that very few love stories would use the Home Depot as the backdrop. This is not the point of this post, but still worth mentioning- authors and movie/TV writers understand that the setting matters. Certain stories line up with certain places. We set the stage for the story we want to play out. A zombie apocalypse show is going to be filmed in a different location than a coming-of-age story. It’s the environment that dictates the kind of story that will be told. Remember this when it comes to the appearance of your community. Does your community look like the set of The Walking Dead or a John Hughes movie? Because either way, residents will adapt and a story befitting of those surroundings will keep taking place.

But moving on to my list of books that have influenced or impacted me most professionally, in no particular order.

First up, Happy City by Charles Montgomery. This was the initial book that really got me thinking about how the design of our built environment impacts our lives. Montgomery makes the case that GDP is not an effective means to measure a country’s success, but we should instead look at metrics that quantify health and happiness. With this in mind, he analyzes places that have positive or negative impacts on people depending on how they were designed. A number of years ago, I made this my selection for my book club, which initially pissed everyone off, because we were supposed to stick to fiction, but all the members were glad they read it and it lead to one of the more rigorous discussions.

– “Scant few neighborhoods in North America feature places that draw people together regularly for anything other than buying stuff.”

Second on my list, Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. This one came to me early on in my career as a recommendation from a coworker. It was mind-blowing at the time and I assume still is for anyone who hasn’t gone down the place rabbit hole. Like Neo eating the red pill in the Matrix, once you see the truth, you just can’t go back to how things were. Kuntsler eviscerates the modern built environment and explains how car-oriented places are wrecking our lives in every manner. This book continues to inspire me because it was not written by technocrats for other technocrats, but a guy pretty pissed off about how our cities and towns were failing the people that called them home.

– “We have created thousands and thousands of places in America that aren’t worth caring about, and when we have enough of them, we’re going to have a country that’s not worth defending.”

Next up, the Place Industry bible, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Jacobs rightfully dons the crown as the Queen of Urbanism and was established as such with this book. While her contemporaries were dissecting the city piece by piece and destroying it along the way, she understood her corner of New York City as an inner-connected and organic web of systems where all the moving parts depended on one another. She was a true lover of her community and this always shines through, but what strikes me most about Jacobs’s work is how she does not look at the city and its inhabitants as being outside of the natural world, but as being part of it and subject to it. More than half a century later, her insights are more valuable than ever.

– “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Walkable City by Jeff Speck is next on the list. When I first heard of this book, it seemed hard to imagine that someone could write a whole book about walking. Color me dumb. I can’t tell you how many other books I have read just about walking since then. This book connected so many dots for me and probably did the most to transition me out of a more staid way of thinking about downtown and cities in general. I came up through the Main Street world and looked at the downtown more as the sum of its parts. If the buildings improved, I was doing my job. If a business opened, I was doing my job. If the buildings and the businesses that comprised downtown were good, so was the downtown. It had not crossed my mind to consider how you traversed those blocks between those parts. What I understood after this is that car-dependent places will simply never be able to compete on any level with walkable places.

– “Long gone are the days when automobiles expanded possibility and choice for the majority of Americans. Now, thanks to its ever-increasing demands for space, speed, and time, the car has reshaped our landscape and lifestyles around its own needs. It is an instrument of freedom that has enslaved us.”

Welcome To Your World by Sarah Williams Goldhagen rounds out my list. This book best embodies the direction my work has shifted toward over the past couple of years. Yes, there are so many different ways you can go about revitalizing a community, but the most direct and most effective way is in elevating the design. Nothing else matters as much as improving people’s surroundings, because of how it affects their behavior. Goldhagen dives into this concept with both feet and explains how we don’t just inhabit places physically, but mentally as well and why that matters. One can’t help but start evaluating every facet of the built environment after this read and start contemplating how it makes them feel and what behavior that brings about.

– “The environments we inhabit and build can make us and our children healthy or sick. They can make us and the people we love smart or dumb. Serene or despondent. Motivated or apathetic. What’s more, it’s their design that is in large and measure responsible for the effects. A well-designed, properly constructed environment affects and supports our health, cognitions, and social relationships. It meaningfully conveys to each of us that our human presence, not just our product labor, credit card, or mortgage check is valued. So how our buildings and landscapes and urban spaces are configured is not and cannot be only a matter of personal taste.”

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but five works that have shaped my thinking the most that I come back to time and time again. The Place Industry is large and varied and there are so many angles from which to approach it, these books most closely align with how I see it.

I would be remiss not to mention a book that might not be the best I’ve ever read, but certainly, and by far, the best I have ever written. Finally publishing Your City is Sick after years of effort and frustration has provided me with an immense amount of respect for any and all authors who have suffered through the process and contributed to the knowledge base that we all benefit from sharing. I believe the best way we can go about improving the human condition is by improving the human habitat. So I am deeply grateful for anyone and everyone who contributes to this body of work.

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