(169) Walking Home [Book review]

Walking Home: the Life and Lessons of a City Builder
Ken Greenberg, Vintage Canada, 2011
384 pages with illustrations

Easily placed on suburban-poverty.com’s “buy this book” list, Walking Home shares the fruits of an enviable career working to help save cities, make them meaningful places.  Greenberg is an architect/planner schooled early in the value of real cities during an era in which they were abused and derided, mainly on behalf of the automobile.  Walkability, mixed uses, respect for historic precedent and the enhancement of the public realm and the taming of the car were the stuff of Greenberg’s career.  His book touches on Amsterdam, Copenhagen, New York, Boston, Paris, Detroit, Washington DC, Saint Paul, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Quebec City, Toronto, Ottawa, Mississauga, and Prince Albert (Saskatchewan) and other places.

Greenberg allied with Jane Jacobs during his time in Toronto, Canada, where he found a progressive city genuinely open to progressive urbanism and enjoying a heyday of liveability and growth.  Like Jacobs, a transplanted American, Greenberg built experience in a number of Canadian cities and in Europe.  The United States proved resistant to progressive urbanism but in time Greenberg built significant experience there with the growth of interest in New Urbanism and the emergence of the sense that all was perhaps not so well with car-centric, zoning-driven suburban sprawl and the neglect of major city centres.  All good and interesting reading at suburban-poverty.com where the link between the physical reality of suburbia, its design and character has been established as a source of its emerging poverty.  Here’s how we resist that poverty – with a maximum application of brain power to our environment.

Because of the slow acceptance of the kind of change advocated by the New Urbanism, smart growth and similar schools of thought, tracing themselves, like Greenberg to the influence of Jane Jacobs, we often encounter improvements to suburbia as nothing more than conceptual schemes, pie-in-the-sky ideas that are attractive enough on paper or in student design charettes but that are scarce-to-non-existant in the real world. The world where we find ourselves driving past the same old strip malls to return a DVD about Peak Oil to a library surrounded by a parking lot.  How good it feels to encounter someone who has actually been making it real out there for decades.

Greenberg’s experiences in Canada were welcome reading.  Greenberg found a laboratory here where he was able to exploit differences in the system and social consciousness of Canadians in the 1970s and 1980s that gave him practical experience.  He laments the changes wrought here with the adoption of miserable and misguided neo-conservative ideology since.  Greenberg’s take on how Toronto lost its position of leadership is depressing reading.  A similar hint of tragedy and the squandering of opportunity was found in a recent posting, a review of Taras Grescoe’s book Strap Hanger.

One of Toronto’s massive suburbs, Mississauga, also appears in Walking Home.  Even there, money and committment are finally being attached to the idea of a better built city.  Also, the home of suburban-poverty.com this is heartening to see.  At one time the old, downtown, preamalgamation City of Toronto offered a positive model to the headless monster of a high growth Mississauga.  We now find both places struggling to do better.  Toronto to keep what it has in terms of new/smart urbanism.  Mississauga to get its hands on some of that magic after decades of unoriginal, low density development.

Without the best possible design human communities will flounder, become unsustainable, unpleasant places where living and doing business will be retarded.  A failure to really grasp how to build proper cities will impoverish their residents as quality of place is a major selling point.  The value of quality of place is undeniable, either as a selling point within a growing global economy or in the retreat from the chaos and disorder of the global economy.  Greenberg’s project work and philosophy offer powerful arguments in support of quality of place.  This book should have very wide appeal to nearly any kind of political view, to voters, citizens, taxpayers, activists and students alike.

One fault, so small in comparison to the rest of the book we hate to bring it up, but…  We wish Walking Home had better illustrations or a URL for a purpose-built web site.  So much of the matter of city-building is visually-driven that the text would have been powerfully complemented by better imagery.  This is the Internet age and the delivery of such material is neither costly nor complicated.

Greenberg Consultants Inc

Ken Greenberg Talks Flexible Urbanism in New Book 
Review on Spacing Toronto site