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EXCLUSIVE

 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 - 9:30am PST byJONATHAN NETTLER

TIM HALBUR

NATE BERG

JOSH STEPHENS

MIKE NEWTON-MCLAUGHLIN

OLGA SERHIJCHUK

 

 

Architecture, Community / Economic Development, Government / Politics, History / Preservation,Housing, Land Use, Social / Demographics, Technology, Transportation, Urban Development

 

Planetizen is pleased to release its twelfth annual list of the ten best books in urban planning, design and development published in 2013.

 

top%20books%202014%20crop.jpg?itok=qB_lvVGyAbhi Sharma / flickr

They’re happy, they’re smart, they’re in revolt! The resurgence of cities and the growing interest in everything urban is reflected in a list of honorees that is largely focused on the city.

As the world urbanizes at an astonishing rate, the authors recognized in this year’s list endeavor to make sense of the push and pull of culture, technology, psychology, politics, and visionary leaders on the development of cities past, present, and future. These explications of the urban condition range from the practical to the historical to the theoretical, all offering lessons on how to create livable, vibrant, and sustainable environments for the billions of new city dwellers expected by 2050.

The Planetizen editorial staff based this year's list on a number of criteria, including editorial reviews, popularity, number of references, sales figures, recommendations from experts and the book's potential impact on the urban planning, development and design professions.

We present our list in alphabetical order, and are not assigning rank. And now, on to the list!


end-of-suburbs.jpgThe End of Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving

Leigh Gallagher

Portfolio, 272 pages

Of all the heartening news that comes from The End of the Suburbs, the most heartening of all may be the background of its author. Unlike the many tireless champions of smart growth whom she mentions, Leigh Gallagher is not herself an urban activist. She is a business reporter -- a veteran of Fortune Magazine -- and her premise is not merely that the suburbs are ugly or soulless or inefficient but rather that they no longer make business sense.

Gallagher opens at a particularly morose gathering of homebuilders, circa 2012, and proceeds to explain the many reasons why the days of galloping tract development are going the way of leaded gasoline. Communities can't bear the costs of infrastructure; Gallagher reports, and does not dispute, the claim that suburban sprawl is a "giant Ponzi scheme." Suburban kids don't want to grow up to be suburban adults. Middle-class comfort has, in some cases, given way to meth labs and foreclosures. And everyone is sick of driving.

Gallagher emphasizes how dramatic the shift has been, with descriptions of the booming days of 2003 reading like distant history. Of course, the suburbs aren't emptying out entirely (in part because center cities haven't added nearly enough units), but they're slowing down, and everyone is, according to Gallagher, waking up from their American dream.

Buy this book

 

happy-city.jpgHappy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

Charles Montgomery

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages

Charles Montgomery ponders, “is urban design really powerful enough to make or break happiness?” In an engaging new book, he explores the philosophy and the psychology of happiness as it relates to urban denizens. In proposing a ‘basic recipe of urban happiness’, Happy Cities contrasts progressive, sustainable, ‘new urbanist’ and ‘peer-to-peer’ values with the commercialized, auto-centric and top-down planning of the last century.

Montgomery posits that until the last two decades, science lacked the ability to describe a relationship between design, psychology and social livability. Newer neurological testing instruments such as EEG and FMRI and a broadening of the definition of “happiness” beyond economic utility allows researchers to understand more subjective forms of happiness relating to experience, relationships and place. The book offers a tome of research providing planners and designers with the scientific vocabulary to discuss street engineering and community building in terms of mental and physical health.

Among many engaging examples, Happy Cities cites the rise of chronic cortisol release, associated with stress and heart disease, in commuters with uncertain transit routes or depressingly long commute times. Montgomery delves into the ‘oxytocin’ molecule, and recent evidence that peer-to-peer networks may also increase ego-reinforcing neurological connections to promote trust. The book also explores how bike culture reflects the viewpoint of ‘beta- endorphin pumped, risk taking’ cyclists rather than the needs of the ‘peripheral-vision challenged’ kids and seniors that are trying to share the road. Happy Cities ultimately advocates a ‘Redesign for Freedom’ and asserts this as a right of every citizen via Henri Lefebvre.

Buy this book

 

history-future-cities.jpgA History of Future Cities

Daniel Brook

W. W. Norton & Company, 480 pages

Daniel Brook's achievement does not exactly rival that of building the world's tallest skyscraper or pulling a new Paris out of frozen mud, but he makes a good showing nonetheless. History of Future Cities is either a history book with an incredible urban sensibility or an urban book with an impressive grasp of history. Either way, it does for the cities of St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Dubai something that few urban histories ever do: it makes them interesting.

Those four cities would seem to have little in common, other than their appearance on Emirates Airlines' route map. And yet, Brook argues that each was planned, designed, developed, and promoted for the same reason: to eschew a provincial past and seize a cosmopolitan future. In each case, "cosmopolitan" means "the West." Built by ruling czars, imperialists, traders, and sheiks, respectively, each emulates the cities of the west and seeks to make western capital feel comfortable, as if each is a gigantic hotel (in Dubai's case, that's not so far off).

What's refreshing about Brook's analysis is that he ties each city to broader political analysis. He offers praise for Catherine the Great, and deep suspicion of the Chinese Communist Party, with wide-ranging commentary that is usually lost when scholars focus purely on local affairs.

Buy this book

how-to-study-public-life.jpgHow to Study Public Life

Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre

Island Press, 200 pages

With all the attention paid by planners and urban designers today to implementing the current theories on what makes places vibrant and popular, it is surprising how little time is invested in actually going out and watching how people use such spaces. Jan Gehl has always been at the forefront of the study of human behavior in public, and his bookLife Between Buildings -- published in 1971 -- is still incredibly relevant today. So what does How to Study Public Life add to Gehl's legacy?

This book fills a gap in the literature by providing a method to do exactly what the title says. Gehl (and co-author Birgitte Svarre, a project manager at Gehl Architects) detail proven methods of data collection that don't require fancy apps or smartphones, relying instead on patient observation and painstaking notes. This type of detailed evaluation - usually called "post-occupancy evaluation" in the field of architecture - often reveals significant patterns over time that the casual glance fails to notice. Gehl is an unassuming but essential guide to this criminally underutilized method of analysis.

Buy this book

 

metropolitan-revolution.jpgThe Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy

Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley

Brookings Institution Press, 288 pages

The Metropolitan Revolution was one of the most lauded,dissected and debated, books of the year – and with good reason. It synthesizes much of what those of us on the front lines of urban planning, design and development have witnessed first-hand: In an urbanizing and globalizing world, federal disinvestment and dysfunction has allowed (in many cases pushed) localities to provide the leadership in innovation and execution required to steer the United States into a new era. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, metropolitan areas are shaping the country’s social and economic transformation from the ground up.

By looking at specific case studies of “economy shaping in New York City and Northeast Ohio, society building in Houston, [and] coalition building in Denver and Los Angeles” and examining the economic, political, technological, demographic, and cultural shifts that are inverting the hierarchy of power in the United States, the book offers “a manifesto for change and action.”

Is it too late for your city if it hasn’t already joined the revolution? Maybe not. But places like Portland, Chicago, and Miami have a heck of a head start in the global competition for high-quality jobs and employees. So get moving!

Buy this book

the-planning-game.jpgThe Planning Game: Lessons from Great Cities

Alexander Garvin

W. W. Norton & Company, 224 pages

As another of this year’s Top Books superbly explains, localities across the United States are taking ownership of their own destinies. Though many cities are in desperate need of economic and physical renewal, the levers of power do not allow easy access to transformative change. In most ways that’s a good thing. But in a time when it takes hundreds of meetings, political horse-trading, and the determination and resiliency to overcome legal and financial challenges to realize even moderately scaled projects, it’s easy to long for a Robert Moses-type figure who can get things done.

Fret not, argues Garvin, you too can become a “star” of the planning game like Daniel Burnham or Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Though the players may change, the parameters of the game largely remain the same. The issues that planners confront and the tasks undertaken by planners “do not change with location or time,” he posits. The successful strategies utilized in a “public realm approach to planning” are universally applicable, no mater the era. Through a close examination of how Haussmann, Burnham, Moses, and Edmund Bacon were able to transform their respective cities, Garvin hopes to demonstrate how you too can win the planning game.

“There is … considerable debate about whether some of the things Haussmann, Moses, and Bacon accomplished were desirable, and even more debate about the appropriateness of what they did to accomplish their goals,” he concludes. “There can be no debate, however, about whether they were winners in the planning game.”

Buy this book

 

smart-cities.jpgSmart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia

Anthony Townsend

W.W. Norton & Co, 400 pages

Smart Cities is a manifesto of the coming of age of cities. Lauding the technological potential to re-imagine urban planning in the vain of ‘smart’, yet also critical of the often shortsighted and technocrati-elite, Townsend speaks directly to the urbanist skeptical of technology-as-panacea.

Introducing a history of communication, social networking, data collection and the ‘internet-of-things’, Townsend both excites and warns readers of the monolithic IBM ‘Smart City’ vision of a top-down, all-sensing city of the future. He also turns his narrative to entrepreneurial, grassroots-minded ‘geeks’. Overarching this dichotomy are the ethical and economic implications of the digital divide and his concern that technological ubiquity and mobile autonomy will lead to governments “casting off their responsibilities” at the expense of already excluded segments of society.

Invoking ‘pattern language’ and ‘lattice-complexity’, Townsend sees cities as “social search engines that help like-minded people find each other and do stuff.” He wonders if “…as the tools to form a different kind of smart city from the one that industry would spoon-feed us get into the hands of more activists, artists, and designers… will a new social movement emerge?”

From Bedouin tribes altering their ancient trading routes to include mobile hot-spot connections to hipster urban prototyping, Smart Cities is a wealth of titillating, well-researched anecdotes and thought-provoking maxims for a cautious, iterative and participatory civic future.

Buy this book

urban-street-design-guide.jpgUrban Street Design Guide

National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)

Island Press, 192 pages

A funny thing is happening among transportation engineers and officials -- they're starting to listen to what urban planners have been saying for years. Namely, that designing streets to favor driving and automobiles over any other use degrades the human environment. "(S)treets are public spaces for people as well as arteries for traffic and transportation," the book fires off in its opening paragraph.

The team behind the book was brought together by NACTO to create an easy-to-use handbook for professionals to reform the current model of auto-oriented transportation planning. Like Jan Gehl's book on this list, this isn't a compelling story. Instead it is a highly-functional, well illustrated manual to transforming ugly, underperforming streets into popular boulevards. And if your city is cursed with NIMBYs, the recommendations are broken down into "critical", "recommended" and "optional" steps.

NACTO has managed to hit a sweet spot, presenting street design in a form that an engaged layperson could understand but with enough meat that a transportation engineer wouldn't feel insulted. This is a book that you might very well use as a reference on a regular basis.

Buy this book

urgent-architecture.jpgUrgent Architecture: 40 Sustainable Housing Solutions for a Changing World

Bridgette Meinhold

W. W. Norton & Company, 256 pages

The world is facing a housing emergency, according to Bridgette Meinhold's new book Urgent Architecture. It's an emergency of various causes -- from natural disasters and wars to entrenched issues like poverty and limited resources. It's also an emergency of huge proportions: more than a billion people worldwide live in inadequate housing in slums, and upwards of 100 million people have no home at all. But it's a problem we can solve.

Meinhold's book highlights 40 examples of innovative and simplistically reactionary housing solutions that can provide sustainable permanent or temporary shelter to the hundreds of millions of people who regularly go without. More than just a look-book of clever architecture school thesis projects, Urgent Architecture features detailed examples of buildable houses -- many implemented or in production -- that can meet the global demand for shelter. The case studies cover the spectrum of need, from quick shelter in post-disaster situations to transitional housing to fast and affordable prefab solutions. Meinhold, an editor at Inhabitat, digs into the designs, but also looks at the costs of construction, the context of the projects and the materials used to pull these projects off. As could be expected, there are a few repurposed shipping containers in here, but there's also some less common materials such as inflatable plastics, wooden pallets and bales of hay. The book offers an array of housing options that can meet widely ranging demands while emphasizing environmentally sustainable building practices.

But as Meinhold argues, the housing problem is much more than simply a problem of not enough houses. Just as the architecture in the book responds to the various conditions causing housing instability, building codes and planning processes must also adapt to changing economic, environmental and political landscapes. "The world is desperately in need of a major retrofit in how we design, plan, and build homes," writes Meinhold. The 40 examples provided in her book shine a light towards filling that need and solving this great emergency.

Buy this book

 

world-atlas-graffiti.jpgThe World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti

Rafael Schacter

Yale University Press, 400 pages

The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti is a visual journey to every corner of the globe. Author Rafael Schacter investigates 100 monumental urban artists from 25 countries in this comprehensive guide to street art, artists, schools, and styles. Organized geographically by country and city, the Atlas chronicles the historical development of urban art in each region. Through 750 stunning images and accompanying artist profiles, the Atlas offers deep insights into the evolution of street art and its relationship with community and environment.

As John Fekner explains in his foreword, the art presented in this volume is distinct from the graffiti of the mid-1980s and the “mass produced, post-street art shown in some galleries today.” Through works that create “a sense of place” reflecting each artist’s unique experiences and artistic vision, the pieces examined in this book are “redefining the concept of public art in the twenty-first century.” Expert contributors aim to show that street art does not simply rely on slogans, politics, or self-promotion, but is “committed to a spontaneous creativity that is inherently connected to the city.”

Buy this book

Other Noteworthy Titles


charter.jpgCharter of the New Urbanism, 2nd Edition

Edited by Emily Talen

McGraw-Hill, 320 pages

We’re usually reluctant to include reissues in our Top Books list, but this volume deserves special recognition. The original Charter of the New Urbanism was ratified in 1993 by a group of architects and urban thinkers who proposed that the "disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage" were problems that had the same answer: better community building. This big idea attracted an unusual, cross-disciplinary group of smart people that regularly assemble and debate the finer points of form-based codes, tactical interventions, suburban retrofits and highway teardowns.

The second edition provides commentary on each precept of the Charter from 62 different New Urbanists, including Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, John Norquist, James Howard Kunstler, Tom Low, Dan Slone, and many more. The last version of the book was published in 1999, and "Then, as now," writes Shelley Poticha in the introduction, "CNU members look for depth. They discuss root causes and debate alternative solutions." This book is a testament to the rigorous engagement of this group of thinkers, and provides a great deal of fodder for discussion among planners, developers and anyone engaged with the built environment.

Buy this book

 

 

 

 

 

 

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http://dirt.asla.org/2014/02/10/jan-gehl-the-city-is-big/

 

Jan Gehl: The City Is Big

 

02/10/2014

howtostudy.jpg?w=500

 

How to Study Public Life / Island Press

 

“I graduated at the first worst point in city planning,” said Jan Gehl, the famed urban designer, at a crowd of hundreds at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The 1960s were the era “when the architect was big and the city was small.” Eventually, Gehl, who is trained as an architect, saw the light. He married a psychologist, who asked him, “why do architects hate people so much?” He soon realized there was a great “void of knowledge” about how to create buildings and public spaces people actually want to inhabit. So for the past 40 years, Gehl has picked up where activist and author Jane Jacobs left off, and “studied the life of the city in the way same a traffic engineer studies the flow of traffic.” This Danish architect is now appropriately small and the city is big.

 

Gehl’s six books, many of which are viewed as seminal reads in urban design, have been translated into 28 languages. “They are even in Chinese,” he added, but considering many Chinese cities have not taken up his lessons about creating cities for people, “perhaps they haven’t had time to read them yet,” he laughed. He wasn’t singling out the Chinese for special criticism though. “It really took us about 50 years for the West to really read and absorb Jane Jacob’s messages.”

 

Two Destructive Paradigms

Over the past 50 years, we’ve had two major paradigms, said Gehl. While Modern city planning ideas were first conceived in the 1920s, with Le Corbusier and his “Contemporary City,” which would be filled with freeways and gargantuan skyscrapers, it wasn’t until the 1960s when they were first implemented. Then, “planners started laying out cities from the airplane.” They would go up in helicopters to “get the full site view.” Modern architects and landscape architects followed their lead, so no one “looked after the people scale anymore.” Gehl calls this the “Brasilia syndrome:” the “city looks fantastic from the air, but is shit on the ground.”

 

brasilia.jpg?w=500

 

Brasilia Modernist City / Skyscraper City

 

Unfortunately, the Brasilia model has not breathed its last gasp yet. China is creating Brasilias everywhere. Dubai is creating “bird shit architecture, just a collection of funny buildings. They hope they can just plop these down and a city will form around them. This doesn’t happen.”

 

dubai.jpg?w=500

Dubai / Dubai Dhow blog

 

The other paradigm is the “car-centric city, or the car invasion.” People in cities have been pushed out in favor of creating an environment for cars. “This is a landscape of cheap gasoline.” This landscape almost took over lower Manhattan as Robert Moses sought to bulldoze Soho, the West Village, and parts of Chinatown to create huge freeway off-ramps and high-rises. Only Jacobs, with her “ceaseless” efforts, was able to stop him. She taught us that “if the Modernists and motorists dominated cities, they will become dead places.” She taught us “we must look at how people use cities to understand how to shape them.”

 

A New Paradigm

It was only taken us 50 years to process Jacob’s messages, but people now want “lively, attractive, safe, sustainable, healthy cities.” Through new research, “we now know the relative importance of rich public life, its value for democracy, public inclusion, and our happiness.” Successful cities are “people-oriented and smaller scale.” This is because “the greatest attraction of cities is other people.”

Cities where people can walk, bike, and use public transportation are better for people, too. “The cheap petroleum society has major health risks. Lack of daily physical exercise is worse than smoking.” Gehl’s goal is to “move people naturally through city design.” Investment in this design pays for itself: “We save on health costs.”

 

Gehl said Copenhagen, Denmark, has successfully moved from a “traffic place to a people place.” In the 1960s, the city took car traffic out of its main street. This effort coincided with the publication of Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Gehl said since then Copenhagen has “improved every day” — and continues to do so, with its new goal of becoming the best city in the world for people (and bicyclists) by 2025. The city is accomplishing this through “distinctly people-oriented policies” created by the city’s office of public life. Bicycling rates have doubled over 10 years, and now 37 percent commute to work every day by bike, in comparison with just 27 percent by car. In fact, the issue now is “serious congestion on bike lanes.”

 

Melbourne is another city that has thrown off the shackles of the car. “The city started out with traffic ridden streets.” The downtown was deemed the “donut” because there was nothing in the center. “It was a useless city center.” Now, there has been a “transformation, and it’s one of the nicest cities in Australia, Asia — even the world. It’s an Australian Paris.” Downtown, daytime foot traffic has increased 40 percent and nighttime traffic, 100 percent. There are now Copenhagen-style bike lanes, which use parked cars to protect bicyclists. Sydney has also become a better place for people, transforming itself with new bicycle infrastructure.

 

melbourne.jpg?w=500

 

People-sized street in Melbourne / Buytaert

 

Amazingly, Moscow is also making great progress. After they hired Gehl Architects, they have made great gains in returning the sidewalks to the people, at least downtown. “We are trying to humanize the city in a place inundated with cars, where the car is king.” Gehl said post-communism, Muscovites felt it was their god-given right to drive and park anywhere. “For a few years, this worked OK and then it didn’t.” Now, Gehl laughed, “if you park your car in the wrong place, it will be sent to Siberia.” He said the “transformation has been a miracle. There are now routes for people, which were nonexistent before.”

 

moscow.jpg?w=500

Moscow pedestrians / Gehl Architects

 

In the U.S., New York City is doing the most to “discourage commuting by car and increasing the use of subway, biking, and walking to get around.” NYC has also put in “more bicycle lanes in five years than Copenhagen has in 50 years.”Closing Times Square to car traffic has been a “huge success,” and a “fantastic influence on other cities,” because “if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere.” Gehl really hopes more pedestrian malls will open where there was gridlock across the U.S.

 

timessquare.jpg?w=500

Times Square Pedestrian Plaza / Project for Public Spaces

 

Studying People in Cities

After the success of Cities of People, Gehl and co-author Birgitte Svarre just released How to Study Public Life, which outlines the “field of public life studies.” Here, Svarre took the stage and explained how the field came about. “People knew something was missing in the suburbs but they didn’t know what. They didn’t know how to grasp the issues. There would be greenery and air but no life. Researchers had to start from scratch and treat the city as a lab. They had to go out and learn how to really experience a place.”

Early on, Gehl would go sit in a well-loved square in Italy, spending the whole day studying how people used the space. He found that “people prefer to stand at the edges.” Using that lesson, she asked us to think of all those awkward public spaces that have no edges. Are they human scale?

Gehl and others’ research on public space sits on the shoulders of many others. “William Whyte, Clare Cooper Marcus, Donald Appleyard, Peter Bosselmann, Allan Jacobs, and Fred Kent all tried to figure out the tools for researching public space.” These researchers were part of various schools, which Svarre defined as the Berkeley, New York, or Copenhagen schools.

 

Svarre said “we know a lot today” because of these people, and their analytical methods still hold water. While new technologies and big data have increased the capacity to collect and analyze data, old-school “observational studies,” which are “cheap and easy to do,” are still important. “Otherwise, you just have lots of data, and then what do you do with that? You can’t replace being there, capturing the nuances.” Svarre said perhaps “we’ve gone from complex back to simple.”

 

Gehl made a point about how a simple observation can reveal much. When one woman who worked at the Danish embassy in Vietnam went to Copenhagen, she told Gehl, “wow, there are so many children.” Gehl was surprised she said that because Denmark is actually shrinking and can’t even maintain its own population. What this woman witnessed was that every parent who had a child brought them out “because it was safe for them to be out.” In contrast, in Vietnam, which actually has a baby boom, “it’s difficult to see children anywhere because it’s not safe for them in the traffic.”

 

Parents in Copenhagen actually get their children on bicycles as early as age four, letting them bike to school. Some 30 percent of families in the city also have “family bikes,” in which all the kids pile in. Gehl said “good, safe bike lanes were a condition for all of this.” Furthermore, this really shows that “if there are many children in the city, it’s a sign of a good quality of life and livability. Same with older people and the handicapped.”

 

bike.jpg?w=500

 

Danish bicyclist with kids / The Times (UK)

 

Read Gehl and Svarre’s latest book, How to Study Public Life, and check out aninterview with Gehl.

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Critic Kimmelman on the unique qualities of public space

 

 

February 5, 2014 | Editor's Pick

 

 

By Colleen Walsh, Harvard Staff Writer

 

 

Michael Kimmelman, longtime chief art critic for The New York Times and now its architecture critic, delivered a talk titled “The Politics of Public Space” at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s Knafel Center. Kimmelman has written widely on issues of public housing, public space, infrastructure, community development, and social responsibility. He spoke with the Gazette about the importance of public space, his role as a critic, and the art and beauty of architecture.

 

 

GAZETTE: Why do you think a public space, which can help bring together thousands of people, can be more influential than the Internet, which can create an online community of millions?

 

 

KIMMELMAN: I think one big lesson of a place like Zuccotti Park in New York City [the base of the Occupy Wall Street protests] is that, while millions of people sign online petitions without anybody really noticing, a few hundred people can make headlines around the world for physically occupying a modest space. That’s because they reveal themselves to everybody. But in so doing they also reveal themselves to each other. There is a kind of abstraction to the virtual space that we share online. But face-to-face, people have to share a much wider and more tangible range of experiences and risks, and they de facto become a community literally sharing common ground.

 

 

It’s interesting to me that many middle-class Brazilians, who do not live in the favelas, only encountered people from the favelas, as it were on common ground, on equal footing, for the first time in the streets during the protests last year. They had seen these people as workers or servants. Now everybody occupied a space of shared interests and grievances. That’s what happened at Tahrir Square in Egypt as well.

 

 

GAZETTE: In recent years we have seen movements taking place in public spaces like the Occupy movement, and protests in Egypt and Turkey. Do you feel any of these movements has led to real change?

 

 

KIMMELMAN: Protest is not an end in itself. In a country like Egypt, power ultimately belongs to those with the tanks and guns. But revolutions take time, sometimes generations. So it may be early to judge Tahrir. I think the effects of Occupy were felt in the recent elections in New York and in a broader discontent in the fact everybody talks about the “1 percent.” The jury’s out in Turkey, but clearly Gezi ended the ruling party’s story about everyone being content.

 

 

GAZETTE: What kind of spaces could be created in places like Egypt that might help bring people together, to encounter one another in a more democratic way?

 

 

KIMMELMAN: There’s an intimate connection between the health of a democracy and the robustness of its public spaces. Cairo is a glaring example of a complete abdication by leadership, over many, many decades, to provide such spaces. There’s almost no green space in Cairo. A lot of places that are run by dictators don’t like to have public spaces because they don’t want places where people feel they can gather. We see throughout parts of the Gulf, for instance, the absence of sidewalks, plazas, and squares.

 

 

GAZETTE: Is there a city in the United States or elsewhere that you think has perfected the art of public space?

 

 

KIMMELMAN: I don’t know that perfection is the goal. Cities are organic, evolving. They should change all the time. But there is in Europe a social compact that says, in return for high taxes and membership in society, the government will provide a functioning and successful mass transit system, parks, health care, and education. I think here too often we regard public spaces as an afterthought and are always scrambling to finance what could and really should be basic goods for people. Nowadays, public-private ventures are popular, and sometimes they work, as with Brooklyn Bridge Park. But they are far from perfect.

 

 

GAZETTE: Do you think public-private partnerships are a good means of developing more public spaces in cities around the country?

 

 

KIMMELMAN: They all depend on whether the project begins with the right question. The right question is: “What public good do we want to achieve, and how best do we use private resources to help get us there?” If it begins the other way around, by asking “What are the profitable possibilities here and how then can we tack on a public component to sweeten that deal for the voters?” — that’s going to fail. The bottom line is that well-conceived public improvements produce better economic results for the private investors. Better public spaces, better infrastructure, and mass transit make for more desirable places for businesses and residents, so in that case it’s a win-win deal.

 

 

GAZETTE: Do you see your role as architecture critic as one in which you engage broadly with questions of civic purpose versus simply reviewing a new building?

 

 

KIMMELMAN: I think the role of an architecture critic is to look at how we live; to me that can’t be answered only by judging buildings singly, but by seeing the built world at large as a network of interests and projects. It seems irresponsible to me — and unfair to architects — not to broaden the conversation from architecture as a formal, material endeavor to a wider discussion of the built world, because architects themselves are [about] more than just making sculptures out of buildings.

 

 

GAZETTE: Has your work as an art critic helped you in any way appreciate the beauty of public space or informed your work as an architecture critic?

 

 

KIMMELMAN: I think growing up in New York City and having a sense of what a neighborhood is, and what a city can and should be like, having those things in my bones has been invaluable to me. Being an art critic enhanced my appreciation for the art of architecture, which I also had since I was a boy, looking around the city at buildings, but making a work of art is very different from making a work of architecture, which entails collaboration, compromise, and all sorts of practical considerations that, in many ways, make successful buildings all the more beautiful.

 

 

GAZETTE: Was there one building that had an impact on you from an early age?

 

 

KIMMELMAN: No. I think I didn’t see buildings quite that way. Are there buildings that stick in my mind from my childhood? Yes, many of them, because they were part of my daily life, and they were beautiful in the way that they functioned as part of the neighborhood, in my memories, and for the people I knew who used them. But it wasn’t as if I saw a spectacular building and suddenly thought “architecture moves me deeply, and this is what it’s about — this building in isolation.” I think I saw beautiful, remarkable buildings as I did people in society, as distinct but part of a network in which everything is connected, in which we are all dependent on one another. The real, the deepest beauty of architecture, comes from that sense of its being, like us, part of this larger system, part of a society of buildings and places.

 

 

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