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Edited by Emilie Buchwald
Milkweed Editions, 286pp., $18.95

By Erik Ness

What makes a city livable? Consider Madison, Wisconsin, where I live. It has in the last decade garnered dozens of best-city rankings from magazines such as Money, Outside, and Sports Illustrated. Magazine editors, at least, see it as one of the most desirable cities in America. But judging a city based on a select set of criteria (median home prices, number of hospitals) isn't so hard. What's difficult is understanding why a city is livable, or why it isn't.

Toward the Livable CityFor half a century, Americans have largely forsaken the complicated business of figuring out how to make our cities better in favor of simply moving away from them and into the suburbs -- and a life of car-dependency. But suburban sprawl and its reliance on cheap oil have exacted a steep price: Middle East wars, climate change, an obesity epidemic, subdivisions built amid landscapes meant to burn. How do we rediscover the art of building good cities to accommodate our growing population over the next century, and in the process turn the rough draft of the suburban idea into a sustainable -- and more endearing -- model?

This is the stated mission of Toward the Livable City, a surprisingly nonpolemical collection of essays on urban planning that includes work from a luminous panel of contributors, including Jane Holz Kay (author of Asphalt Nation), Bill McKibben (The End of Nature), James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere), and Tony Hiss (a former staff writer for the New Yorker). Editor Emile Buchwald asked them for "their definitions of a livable city and for strategies and tactics they believe might be helpful in achieving one." They deliver.

The first triumph of this book is that it intelligently discusses planning with barely a mention of yawners like zoning, tax policy, or unsewered subdivisions. It doesn't consciously hide from wonky details. It just knows how to describe a city without the insufferable language of the official city builders.

But despite this dearth of technical details, the book is a viable blueprint for a new century of city building. For more than a decade now, urban advocates, environmentalists, policy analysts, and designers have parsed the dangers of the sprawling American dream. Smart-growth advocates have developed compelling alternatives to the drive-five-miles-for-a-bagel lifestyle, but they've had trouble finding the right tone, often lapsing into dark visions of environmental apocalypse, self-congratulatory homages to the really cool urban neighborhoods they live in, or personal attacks on those who drive SUVs. These are often funny and poignant observations, but you can't persuade the populace to transform the American landscape by alienating the democratic majority who live in it.

Toward the Livable City largely avoids these faults by focusing not just on what makes the suburbs unbearable but also on what makes cities so much more inviting. At the outset, Lynda Morgenroth, a Boston-based food writer, tells a harrowing tale of endless construction and gentrification that drove her from her treasured downtown locale. Plenty of people can identify with what happened next: She couldn't find a decent, affordable home anywhere else in the city, so she settled for an old suburb of Boston, where began, she laments, "the continual, alienating reliance on my car."

"And there they were," she writes forlornly of fellow commuters stuck in traffic, "millions of motorists, having normalized a pathology. And there I was, no longer walking."

Morgenroth is not alone: Soaring property values in hundreds of old urban neighborhoods make it clear that people want the character and substance of a well-built city. And yet American cities large and small are ringed with thousands of cheap, faceless subdivisions. In order to supply people like Morgenroth with the rich, multilayered urbanism they want (affordable, desirable, and less dependent on oil), big chunks of the low-rise American landscape we call suburbs will have to grow up into cities. Otherwise, there's only one alternative: more sprawl.

But how to convince people of the need for change is something else entirely. There may be a good number of Lynda Morgenroths in this country, but there are plenty of others who don't despair when another mall heaves into view.

The writers in this book detail a number of innovative ways to make cities more appealing to everyone, ideas that can be used to improve not only our Chicagos, Detroits, and Baltimores but also those suburban areas that have the potential to become more like the cities they surround. The writers discuss how to grow food in and near the city, how to build housing that is not just four walls but part of the economic and cultural fabric of the community, how to fully utilize a city's natural geography -- such as the water surrounding Manhattan or flowing through Minneapolis-St. Paul -- to enhance mobility, productivity, and recreational opportunities. But perhaps what's most impressive here is an acknowledgement that people form strong attachments to the places where they live, even when those places are demonstrably bad for them, and a recognition that bullying people into the new urbanism envisioned by these writers won't work.

"Changing the face of a city is a matter of blueprints, of dollars, of cubic feet of concrete, of cranes and bulldozers," McKibben writes. "Changing the heart of a city is more difficult, and more important -- there's no simple way to bulldoze attitudes, to pour old feelings into plywood forms and let them harden in better shapes."

McKibben is writing about the success of the Brazilian city of Curitiba, where a dynamic mayor evicted automobiles from downtown, launched a world-class bus transit system, and even figured out how to collect trash in the slums. With Third World resources, Curitiba has outstripped the accomplishments of many American cities, providing a New World example of a city that works. That's important, because Americans too often gaze across the Atlantic, loving European cities to the point of mythologizing them. What makes them good, we seem to think, is rooted in something mystical about their antiquity. But as Jay Walljasper reports, even the old cities of Europe still evolve. Copenhagen's thriving and walkable downtown, he points out, was realized in just the last 30 years: Every year, cars are evicted from one more street. "Copenhagen's wonderfulness stems not from some happily-ever-after magic but from inspired thinking and hard work in response to real-world urban conditions," he writes.

The writers here are true urban enthusiasts, convinced that by choice or necessity Americans will someday embrace cities again. It's an optimism that can seem far-fetched -- any drive through a suburban strip development shows how much work lies ahead. That's why it's nice to meet Dan Burden, aka "the Johnny Appleseed of livable communities," who is profiled by Tony Hiss. Burden works more in the world of fact than theory. He is a tireless town planner who has been crisscrossing the country for several years to spread the gospel of smart growth. From Raleigh, North Carolina, to Tacoma, Washington, towns engaged in serious civic soul-searching recruit Burden to help them find alternatives to sprawl. Once he's there, Burden orchestrates an intense, days-long roving town meeting, which Hiss describes as "one part revitalization, one part revivalism."

Often, Burden's solutions aren't radical -- fitting a bike lane onto a busy street here, reconnecting a walking path broken by a new road there. By tweaking the little things, he shows towns how to revamp future development plans. But by getting a wide range of residents, many of whom are strangers to the arcana of city planning, to talk about the kind of community they want to have and to understand that they have the capacity to make it happen, Burden is on the ground doing just what Bill McKibben would have him do: He's changing hearts and minds.

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Erik Ness writes about science and the environment for a variety of publications, including Discover, Preservation, and Grist.

OnEarth. Winter 2004
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council