Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Review -- City: Rediscovering the Center

City: Rediscovering the Center by William H. Whyte is a rather lengthy book written in 1988 that examines different elements of the city, from access to sunlight to what makes a successful sidewalk or public space. At the end, it careens into a quick look at what may prove why a city is unsustainable -- the cost (and execution) of housing and office space, as well as a look into companies that flee the city for the suburbs.

I cannot think of any of my friends, save Brett, who would be the target audience of this book. FederalWayan might find it interesting and I would definitely recommend it to the city planners and leaders of Federal Way, but it's not my usual fiction or business-related non-fiction. I'm not sure how I first came to put this book on my list of books to read, may have been from hugeasscity (I used to read their RSS feed, was a great site) or maybe it got cross-posted from Publicola (I don't follow) to Crosscut or Seattle Transit Blog or something.

Anyhow, the book seeks to figure out what makes a city work, borrowing from the author's life's work researching and studying the city. Interestingly (or maybe not so) is that most of the book spends its time outside, examining public spaces, parks created by developers as part of a new building, sunlight, sidewalks. Near the end, it briefly examines companies which have moved to the suburbs (almost always to location close to the CEO but a long commute for the average worker), the problems with towers (families don't want to live in them, small companies -- the kind that has the biggest growth -- can't afford them). In the end, one can't help wonder if the city (mostly New York City in this book) is a sustainable, ideal environment by the end. And maybe it isn't, the author closing to briefly extoll the virtues of the town, a smaller scale entity with a strict grid whose growth is carefully controlled by extending the grid in all directions, a few blocks at a time as needed.

Unfortunately, this, too, might not be possible as developers often get their own way since they're the ones willing to spend money. And developers, who are gone by the time the project is done, want large scale grid-destroying closed environments with large amounts of parking and big blank walls to keep everyone else out. It is these very things, the author suggests, that robs the city of its "center," a smaller human-scale pedestrian-friendly environment where casual, random interactions between strangers and friends make the world a slightly friendlier place.

That said, our city could take some lessons as it struggles with what to make of the large plot of land it finds itself holding on to now that the overly large towers won't be built. (P.S. Bellevue is held up twice as an example of things done right, at least as of the printing in the late 80's.)
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