Book Review: The Living City by Roberta Brandes Gratz

In addition to the many blogs and articles I read each day, I set aside time to read at least one book a week.  While blog posts and articles are great ways to keep abreast of current events and trends, they are no match for the depth of insights contained within a well written book.

At least once a month, I find a classic book to dust off.  Sometimes it’s a book that I previously read, other times it is a book that I had overlooked. This month, I finally got around to reading Roberta Brandes Gratz’s The Living City: How America’s Cities Are Being Revitalized by Thinking Small in a Big Way from cover to cover.  While I had read the book on a chapter by chapter basis, and though enough of it to place it on my Best Books for Urbanists list I had never read it in its entirety from start to finish until last month.  Here’s my review:

The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way

Roberta Brandes Gratz

This book belongs on the bookshelf alongside Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and William H. Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center.  While Jacobs discussed what makes a great city and Whyte looks at why cities work the way they do, Gratz completes the trilogy with a look at how great cities are made.

The continuity of ideas is no coincidence.  It is rooted–in part–in Gratz’s close relationship with Jane Jacobs, who it turn was mentored by Whyte. Moreover like Jacobs and Whyte, Gratz approaches the study of cities from a journalistic perspective.  (She spent 15 years as a reporter for The New York Post and has traveled widely to other cities.) Finally, all three authors share a perspective that first-person observation is of paramount importance in understanding the how, what and why of a successful city works.

This is fresh and fascinating material; it is essential for understanding not only how to avoid repeating terrible mistakes of the past, but also how to recover from them.

–Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Small Changes=Big Differences

Cities respond most durably in the hands of many participants accomplishing gradually small bites, making small changes and big differences at the same time.

–Roberta Brandes Gratz, The Living City

In The Living City, Gratz explores how and why cities survive, thrive and die and explores why small, incremental change is often a more successful revitalization strategy than multi-block downtown malls, mammoth performing arts centers  or large-scale sports complexes. Throughout the book, Gratz grounds this exploration with close observations of neighborhoods that have rescued themselves from decay, and others that failed to do so. She finds that the most successful examples of urban revitalization are not the results of private developers or public authorities, but rather  citizen activists working on a building-by-building and block-by-block basis, rather than the efforts.

Based on these observations, Gratz arrived at a simple, but important conclusion: big government programs don’t work. Small local initiatives do. This is not because government experts do not offer sensible and appealing solutions, but rather because “they just don’t leave much room for either the breakthrough of the unconventional idea or the contribution of the on-site expert.”

Government and development leaders, when left unchallenged, are erasing the very attributes of urban life that make cities socially appealing and economically productive.

–Roberta Brandes Gratz, The Living City

Gratz finds that government agencies and large developers are often staffed by people who neither love nor really understand the places they plan for.  As a result, they tend to promote grandiose and often symbolic developments that–rather than meet a real need– act as visible proof to the voters that something is happening.   Moreover, while the benefits of organic community regeneration takes years, if not decades, mega-developments can be accomplished in months– well within the time-frame of the political cycle.

Urban Husbandry: Process, Not Product

While many commentators on the urban environment would be happy to leave their observations here, Gratz takes hers a step further by coining an essential term of the urbanists lexicon: urban husbandry. According to Gratz, urban husbandry is: “the care, management, and preservation of the built environment nurtured by genuine participatory planning efforts of government, urban planners, and average citizen.”

The fundamental principle of Urban Husbandry is change that is gradual, natural, noncataclysmic and responsive to genuine economic and social needs. Too much does not happen at once in one place and by one public or private developer.

–Roberta Brandes Gratz, The Living City

Rather than rebuilding and replacing downtown areas with large-scale development, such as convention centers, stadiums, and other blockbuster projects, urban husbandry recognizes the inherent value in the existing built environment and promotes the care, management, and preservation of urban neighborhoods. By illustrating the advantages of such simple, low-cost interventions Gratz demonstrates that rebuilding authentic places, does not occur because of a master plan, but rather through reconnecting communities and stimulating innovative change at a grass-roots level.

Conclusion

Although it is over 20 years old, The Living City holds up to the test of time.  This is an all the more remarkable feat given the book’s reliance on case histories that could have easily become dated. This is largely due to Gratz’s deft extraction of timeless lessons from each study. (Another reason is the sad fact that many cities’ approach to urban development has not evolved much over the past 20 years.)

The Living City is an invaluable resource for those wishing to know more about the power that  small projects have in improving a city.  It is required reading for anybody who considers themselves an urban advocate or activist.  You will find yourselves reading and re-reading passages and applying the books lessons of what, and perhaps more importantly, what NOT to do to current challenges in your own community.

Gratz doesn’t sugar coat the success stories-she illustrates that even small-scale improvements takes conviction, courage and a thick skin.  But it also shows that such perseverance pays of in a way that no large-scale project ever can.

 

Stay tuned in the weeks and months to come for posts related to the lessons in this book.  I have a notebook packed with insights and a small tree worth of post-its flagging important passages.

 

Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.

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