On the topic of urban planning and development, a pair of important books came out within the past few weeks.
“Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs,” by Robert Kanigel got the most attention and rightfully so. The late Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” was a pioneering advocate and a giant in the field. As reviewer Dwight Garner so aptly put it, “We are living in a world she helped make.”
The other book is “The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation Is Reviving America’s Communities” by Stephanie Meeks (with Kevin C. Murphy). As President and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Meeks is imminently qualified to write on this topic.
On the other hand, for some, such a resume might be a turnoff. The stereotype of a government official conjures up images of gobbledygook and govspeak.
Don’t worry. No such problems. In fact, this is a delightful read, chocked full of quotes and even some self-deprecating humor.
How many preservationists does it take to change a light bulb? Four – one to insert the bulb, one to document the event, and two to lament the passing of the old bulb.
Having said that, the subject matter – Earth and its inhabitants and the way we will live in the coming decades - is serious.
Eight years ago, Christopher Leinberger wrote, “The Option of Urbanism, Investing in a New American Dream.” (Also published by Island Press). The dream came true for young people, empty nesters and others who traded in soul-sapping commutes and less than stirring suburban life for a more vibrant lifestyle in cities and neighborhoods that embrace progressive measures such walking, biking, using public transportation or whatever other lickety-split options one’s smart phone recommends.
Eight years since the publication of Leinberger’s groundbreaking and influential work, there’s a new player in making neighborhoods and communities more walkable and livable. Adaptive re-use of older buildings has joined the tool kit of urban planners. For me, this is the part of this book I enjoyed the most. The part of the region we live, the Richmond Highway Corridor south of Alexandria, is at a critical phase in terms of needing a diet from the vicious teardown and build new cycle.
Adaptive re-use is not new; it’s just that we are only now beginning to embrace it on a larger scale. What’s fascinating and important is that saving older buildings has benefits beyond maintaining history and character. Chapter Seven, “The Greenest Buildings,” explains how saving a building instead of demolishing it has financial benefits as well as environmental ones.
The strength of this book is the number of quotes the author uses. In Chapter Seven, we learn the wisdom behind what architect Carl Elefante said about saving infrastructure: “The greenest building is the one that is already built.”
The only criticism I have of this book, and it’s a tiny one, is there is no mention of “Domicide.” Domicide is the intentional destruction of home that causes harm to those displaced. Canadian geographers and authors J. Douglass Porteous and Sandra E. Smith coined the term and wrote the book, “Domicide: The Global Destruction Of Home.”
Meeks does write about loss of place, including the research of Dylan Trigg and Lily Cho. She quotes Trigg as saying; “Being displaced can have a dramatic consequence on our experience of who we are.”
All in all a terrific book, one that provides solutions as well as lessons learned. It’s a much needed clarion call to governments, politicians, chambers of commerce and those in the real estate community who haven’t been able to pull away from the siren song paradigm of tear down and build new.
For some this book will be preaching to the choir. Nevertheless, individuals who care about what’s at stake will enjoy it the most. Of course, if you read Jacobs’ bio first, that’s quite understandable...