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True Urbanism: Living In and Near the Center 2009/12/08

Posted by gtg496w in Land and Community Development.
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Book Review of True Urbanism:  Living In and Near the Center, Mark Hinshaw

Cities and urban centers have recently been making a comeback in the United States.  After decades of declining population the last 15 years has seen this trend reverse with people moving back into the city center.  This change has been accommodated with changing development and planning patterns.  The Congress for New Urbanism formed and gained prominence during this same time period, promoting the development of “compact, walkable communities.”  The concept of new urbanism has now become mainstream with a relatively strong influence on the plans, policies, and codes of municipalities and private development.  However, in True Urbanism:  Living In and Near the Center Mark Hinshaw proposes an alternative to these principles, something he describes as “true urbanism.”

Although acknowledging the positive aspects of new urbanism and the improvements created under it, Hinshaw posits many flaws of these principles and how overall, the new urbanism principles tend not to create truly urban environments.  Instead he argues against new urbanism in favor of a more organic approach.  Density determines the urbanity of a place, and a truly urban place embodies diversity as well, with “different ethnicities, races, cultures, age groups, income levels, and so on.”  This alternative trend in development is increasingly being seen applied across the country.  For the remainder of the book, Hinshaw describes the reasons for this new pattern and the benefits it offers for the future of cities, especially those along the west coast of the United States.

Hinshaw does not take a sympathetic view towards new urbanism and other policies that seem to him to be not conducive to generating diverse urban environments.  His overall tone does respect these differences, but occasionally his remarks tend to be blunt on issues apparently central to his ideas.  An example of this is in the introduction where he writes this about density, “Many citizens bemoan the disappearance of mom-and-pop stores, the neighborhood druggist, or the local movie house, but vigorously lobby their city council to deny new development projects that smack of the ‘d’ word.  You just can’t have it both ways” (ix).  This style of writing is not common throughout the book, but it does provide a look at what challenges urban places face in their effort to improve.

This book is written for those who already have some interest in the improvement of urban places, as the above quote displays.  It is not a book designed to convince those who are anti-urban or anti-density to rethink their opinions and become proponents of urban places, but instead this book is well suited for those already with an interest in urban places and how to improve them.  The main point the author tries to purvey is what exactly makes an urban place truly a great place and some suggestions for creating such a place.

Besides offering ideas and examples of urban places, Hinshaw attempts to explain why dense urban environments are important and poses several questions and thoughts that many people, even those who favor cities, may not have previously thought of.  This is the best aspect of the book.  Reasons for density and urban places posed here will allow the reader to think over these issues on their own, to further develop the base ideas into their own and hopefully be able to create new, novel plans and policies for urban development.  Along these lines, at the end of the book are ten questions for discussion, summarizing the arguments made by Hinshaw in a form that is helpful for thinking about the future of planning.

Do not expect this book to provide prescriptions or solutions for solving urban places’ problems or specific details on how to make a place better.  This is good.  A truly urban place cannot be created following specific rules and solutions that are the same from place to place.  Instead, solutions must be unique to the place, but with that being said, it is helpful to have some basis to build these unique solutions.  To this end, Hinshaw offers many examples of places he sees as successful and the processes that those places used.  What is important is that this book offers issues to think about and examples to analyze to improve other urban places.  Sixteen selected case studies of various urban places are presented as an appendix of the book.  Many of these further describe examples from the book.

The book builds off of the basis of the first few chapters.  These chapters discuss the changing demography of the United States and also discuss density and diversity.  Not until further into the book does Hinshaw address more specific issues such as the services streets should perform, how urbanism relates to active living, and how density and children do not have to remain separate.  The next two chapters of the book cover the tools necessary to implement the changes needed to improve urban places.  This includes public-sector investment and the corresponding private-sector response, and how to reform regulations.  The final chapter somewhat summarizes the book but offers more detailed examples of specific things that could be applied in some fashion.

This book offers a good overview of the challenges facing urban places as they begin to once again attract new and increasing populations.  In response to these challenges, Hinshaw supplies many examples of urban places that have successfully overcome these challenges and how they did so.  Furthermore, he supplies statistics, facts, and opinions to kindle the reader’s imagination as to why urban places are important and how to make city centers diverse, truly urban places.  Not written to convince people to become fans of cities, it does help one produce more arguments in favor of urban places and cities.  Overall, this book is a fairly quick read that serves its purpose well and can get the reader excited about the promising future of cities and urban places in the United States.

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