Durable Growth

Intro to urbanism, part ten: Summing up, further reading, and an example life

Waiting for a table at a Brooklyn pizzeria

Waiting for a table at a Brooklyn pizzeria

One of my favorite college memories, at least among those I can share publicly, is from my senior year.  I was in the living room of my student apartment, reclining in a beanbag chair, enjoying an Oly, and listening as I copied a vinyl album onto reel-to-reel tape.  (Did I mention it was the 70s?)

It was late in the school year.  Only a couple of weeks later, my roommate and I would be disturbed from studying for finals by the sound of students marching on our street, celebrating the fall of Saigon.  (Did I mention it was Berkeley?)

The record I was copying was “Flavours” by the Guess Who.  The album came late in the history of the Guess Who and foreshadowed their later rebirth as Bachman Turner Overdrive.  The earlier pop sound of the band was being replaced by a deeper, darker bass-oriented sound.  The song that was playing was “Long Gone”.  The few lyrics, that were more in the nature of tortured aphorisms in a low register, felt like they had to fight their way to the surface through the bass line, only to be immediately reabsorbed by the music.

As I was thus imbibing and listening, my roommate returned from class, tossed his books on the table, and headed to the refrigerator for his own beer.  But before popping the top, he cocked his head toward the music with a puzzled look.  “Who’s the group?”

“The Guess Who.”

“Doesn’t sound much like the Guess Who.”

Before I could a respond, the deep voice rose from the dark pool of driving bass.  “Who the hell are you to try and criticize?

My roommate, flustered by the perfectly timed interjection, fumbled to reply.  “Well … I … um …”

The voice declared “You’re still learning how to form an opinion.”

Thoroughly flummoxed, my roommate sank onto the couch to drink his beer and to listen to the remainder of the album in silence.

My reel-to-reel tape player has long since slipped a belt.  It may remain in the attic, in a corner next to a dusty pile of reel-to-reel tapes including the one with “Flavours”.  Other than occasionally smiling about the time that my roommate was humiliated by a piece of vinyl, I rarely thought about the album over the years.

But then I bought the CD last fall.  And I worked it into my rotation as I was working on my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”.  And I soon found that “You’re still learning how to form an opinion” was haunting me.  Although in my case, it wasn’t so much forming an opinion as in expressing it effectively that was troubling.

Today is the conclusion of my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism” series.  I’m pleased that I undertook the task.  And I don’t disown anything I wrote.  (Although I may soon take another stab at a definition.)

But I’m not satisfied with the effort.

Over the nearly 500 posts in this blog, I’ve learned how to polish a single idea and present it in a single post, most of which met my personal standards for logic and grammar.  I was selecting, polishing, and sharing a single pearl in cupped hands.  And I think I’ve succeed, at least moderately.

But the “Intro” was a different task, more so than I had realized when I blithely accepted the challenge.  It was assembling a string of pearls of matching styles.  And I underestimated how different that would be from writing single posts.

I don’t regret making the effort.  I only regret not doing better for those who follow me.  But I’m not surrendering.  I’ll work and rework what I wrote this year, with a better understanding of the task, and be ready with a new and improved “Intro” for January 2016.  I can’t allow the words from a long ago Guess Who song to haunt me again.

Summing It Up: Whatever misgiving I may have about the total product, I’ve reached the end of “Intro to Urbanism”.  After presenting my modest credentials, I offered a definition for urbanism.  (That’s the definition I may rework.)  I explained why urbanism matters, digging deeply into the finances and also touching on energy usage.  Lastly, I wrote about how public places, streets, and buildings function differently in an urbanist world.

All that remains is to provide ideas for those who are motivated to do further study.

Organizations: Although there are a great many organizations doing fine work, I find the material that speaks best to me at the Congress for the New Urbanism, StrongTowns, Smart Growth America, and Project for Public Places.  For a couple of those organizations, some of their material is behind paywalls, but the free stuff is still worth your attention.  Plus, joining is a good idea.

Books: If you prefer to hold stuff in your hands, even if it’s an e-book, Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck is often cited as a starting point for modern urbanism.

Happy City by Charles Montgomery writes persuasively on how the drive to suburbia hasn’t made us happier.

Walkable City by Jeff Speck is a small gem of a book, imminently accessible yet powerful.

If you prefer to have your activism fueled by moral outrage, The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler might meet your need.

Finally, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is the legitimate capstone of great urbanist reading lists.  The insights of Jane Jacobs ring as true today as when she wrote them over fifty years ago.

But the concepts in Jacobs’ masterworks can be complex.  I usually recommend starting elsewhere and working up to Jacobs.  However, I have a reader who, intrigued by my blog, secured a copy of Jacobs and plowed right through it.  It was something like learning to swim by leaping from the high dive.  But the reader survived just fine and has become a strong-willed advocate for urbanist causes.

Twitter: Okay, there’s a lot of superfluous fluff on Twitter, but there’s also a lot of great stuff if you can be discerning.  I’d start my urbanist follow list with Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns (@clmarohn), Brent Toderian, former chief planner for Vancouver, B.C. (@BrentToderian), and Jeff Speck (@JeffSpeckAICP).  If you check in just once a day and follow a link provided by just one of these folks, you’ll soon learn much.  I promise.

This Blog: I won’t put myself anywhere near the level of the organizations, authors, and Twitter folks I’ve listed above.  But I try to highlight some of the best stuff they offer, sometimes connecting it to real world examples in the North Bay.  Plus I appreciate readers.  They’re my only compensation.  If you want to receive an email every time I publish a new blog, drop me an email at my address below.  Or just check in regularly.

Example Life: One last thing.  Some may have followed the “Intro” thinking that the theories were interesting, but that most people didn’t really want to live in an urbanist world.  To those folks, let me tell you about a recent conversation I had.

Over the holidays, I chatted with a lovely niece I rarely see.  She, her husband, and her two young sons were visiting from their new home in Berlin, Germany.  Our schedules overlapped for a short time on Boxing Day.

The two make an affluent couple.  The husband is unwinding from a fifteen-year career in international banking and is plotting his next moves.  My niece has been a successful graphic designer in New York City and London, and is now working to establish herself in Berlin.

So where and how do they live?  Quite happily in a 1,100 square-foot home on the sixth and top floor of a new building in a busy Berlin neighborhood.  They own a car, with twin car seats strapped in back, but find that most of their daily lives can be most easily accomplished on foot or on the extensive transit system.  And on the occasions when the car is the best option for an outing, they report that traffic is quite manageable because so many people are using transit or walking.

Nor is this their first time living a relatively urban lifestyle.  Their lives in New York City and London were similar.

My niece and her husband aren’t unique.  They’re typical of the coming generation.  And if we want our cities to thrive as the new generations take charge, we need to be paying attention.

Thanks for hanging around for the “Intro to Urbanism”.  Hopefully I’ve given you a good start toward understanding urbanism.  And hopefully you can build upon that start before a deep, disembodied voice accuses you of not knowing how to form an opinion.

Next time, I’ll share a recent program from Canadian television on the public health and mobility benefits of urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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