Archive for the 'reviews' Category

15
Oct
09

Book review: Wrestling with Moses

Hello again, everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, other obligations (namely a certain other publication that I write and edit for)  having taken up a fair amount of my time lately. However, I recently finished reading Anthony Flint‘s Wrestling with Moses, and felt I needed to share my thoughts, as it’s a fascinating read on the roles of both citizen activism and top-down development schemes in North American cities.

Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint. Image copywrite Random House, Inc.

Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint. Cover image copywrite Random House, Inc.

As you can probably tell from the cover, the book has nothing to do with Ottawa in any direct sense, but it’s an interesting read nevertheless. It tells the story of famed urbanist Jane Jacobs‘ battles with urban development czar Robert Moses during the 1950s and 60s in New York City. Jacobs and Moses squared off several times, notably over the redevelopment of Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village, and over the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Flint recounts the history of these conflicts by interweaving biographical details about the lives of both Jacobs and Moses with the details of each of the fights.

The contrast between the two figures is incredible, with Moses epitomizing the auto-centric, developer-friendly attitude that reached its height during the period following the Second World War, and Jacobs the grassroots, community-first urbanist theories which many people—myself included—subscribe to today. Flint is able to tease out how both of these figures came to their influential positions (Moses through careful political maneuvering, Jacobs  through cultivating the support of her fellow city-dwellers) and how their came to their respective beliefs. We’ve seen both these forces act upon the history of Ottawa, as well, with the National Capital Commission taking on a Moses-esque role—witness the destruction of LeBreton Flats, and the vast network of “parkways” that criss-crosses the capital region—and Jacobsian community forces leading to the rise of neighborhoods like the Glebe and Westboro.

What I find truly interesting and refreshing about Flint’s approach to this somewhat-familiar urban conflict is that he does not vilify Moses to any great extreme, nor does he deify Jacobs, both of which are far too easy to do. Instead, he presents them as people—neither was perfect, and neither was entirely right nor wrong. In the case of Moses, Flint makes the interesting point that while it’s easy to focus on his large-scale failures, like the aforementioned battles with Jacobs and the Cross-Bronx Expressway, he also did a lot of good for New York City, opening hundreds of public parks and swimming pools, and it’s impossible to deny that even amidst the backdrop of the Great Depression, he was able to get infrastructure built. Of course, he did so while railroading it past communities and with little regard for things like public transportation, but Flint is still able to elevate the man beyond a two-dimensional cartoonish urban villain.

On the Jacobs side of the equation, while it is impossible to deny her far-ranging influence on urban planning and urbanist thought, Flint still acknowledges some of the weaknesses in her ideas, like the fact that she was never able to truly deal with the problem of gentrification. In addition, he also makes the case that Jacobs-style community activism can sometimes go too far, blocking projects that would otherwise be good for cities and neighborhoods, or neutering them so that their impact is thoroughly mediocre, and neither positive nor negative. Ultimately, Flint argues that the best way to plan cities may be by reconciling the two viewpoints—those in charge of developments need to work with communities, but communities must also work with those in charge to ensure that projects meet and adapt to their own needs.

Overall, Wrestling with Moses is an engaging read, and an excellent history of how Jane Jacobs was able to change the face of urban planning through her work in New York City. Flint’s own viewpoints are mostly unobtrusive until the final chapter, where, his history complete, he allows himself to ruminate on the impact of Jacobs and Moses. If you’re at all interested in the history of urban planning in North America, and are curious how these now 40-year-old ideas apply to the modern city, then I highly recommend picking this one up—you won’t regret it.

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26
Apr
09

Book review: Who’s your city?

I just finished reading the Canadian edition of Richard Florida’s latest book, Who’s Your City? and I thought that I’d give my thoughts on it, since a lot of the ground he covers relates to many of the things I discuss in this blog.

Florida, for those who don’t know, has recently risen to prominence as one of today’s best known urban theorists, even drawing comparisons to the late, great Jane Jacobs. His first book, The Rise of the Creative Class, published in 2002, garner widespread attention for his theories surrounding jobs in the “creative economy”, which includes basically any occupation that involves creative thinking, from health-care and law to science and the arts. He also believes that these new economies are the key to regenerating the urban economies of cities in post-industrial North America, which is where the urbanist side of his arguments comes into play.

With Who’s Your City?, Florida sets out to examine a simple question: Does place matter? If you’re a geographer like me, the answer to that question is of course yes; we spend a lot of time examining place and what exactly it means. In spite of that, though, I still found Florida’s book to be an engaging read, as he goes over what he feels makes place relevant in today’s society.

He begins by wondering why it is we spend so much time going over two fundamental questions about our lives (What we want to do as a career?, and Who do we want to spend it with (as in our life-partners or lack thereof)?) but so little about what is just as fundamental a question: Where do we want to live?

Florida then moves into the meat of his book, three sections on what makes place so important, and a final section in which he details the result of his research into the best places to live. In the first section, “Why place matters”, Florida essentially works to refute the claim that the world is flat—not in the Christopher Columbus sense, but in that many people believe that thanks to modern telecommunications, where you live and work no longer matters, and that you can be equally active in the world’s economy in Yellowknife as you can in Toronto or New York City. What Florida shows, however, is that the world is “spikey”, as he calls it, with economy activity, education and research concentrating in various regions of the world, or mega-regions. Florida looks beyond metropolitan areas to show that major cities tend to form connections with their neighbors, forming a regional economy where all cities in the area feed off one another, even trascending international borders. For instance, Florida puts Ottawa in a region he calls “Tor-Buff-Loo-Mon-Tawa”, stretching from Quebec City to as far south as Ithaca and Syracuse in New York and west to London. Florida thinks these mega-regions are the key to economic growth in the future.

In the second section of his book (“The wealth of place”), Florida details the importance of place in economic opportunity for individuals. Interestingly, he discusses how people will often say how they’re willing to move to where jobs are, but often make predetermined judgements about where to try to find jobs—most people would rather struggle to find work for a time in a place they love than settle into a steady job right off the bat in a place they detest. Florida also brings up some interesting research about how certain types of jobs tend to cluster in certain places. Some of these seem obvious: Washington DC is home to 78% of the United States’ political scientists, and Toronto has 38% of Canada’s financial and investment analysts. Others, however, seem less likely but occur nevertheless, such as Winnipeg, which, despite it’s population of just 630,000, is home to a whopping 12% of Canada’s musicians and singers! Florida makes a very strong case for there being a connection between our careers and where we choose to settle.

The third section of Florida’s book deals with a much more local scale than the other two, titled “The geography of happiness”. Here, he goes over his research into the connection between our happiness and where we live, finding, perhaps surprisingly to some, that on average place is more important to an indivdual’s happiness than personal finances. The rest of this section deals with how the places we live can affect our lives, and how our personalities can even match where we live, as Florida finds a fascinating geographic correlation between various personality types and where people live.

The final section of Florida’s book (“Where we live now”) deals with his research into what the best places to live for a variety of different groups of people (such as singles, retirerees, parents, etc.) are, and how said groups can further be sorted into various kinds of neighborhoods within cities. As well, the final chapter is what amounts to a guide to how to choose a place to live, essentially a self-help chapter.

Overall, if you’re interested in urban issues and where people chose to live (or, indeed, are unsure of why you should carefully consider where you live) Who’s Your City is an entertaining read. The book includes easy to understand statistics and data, and numerous maps and tables break up the text somewhat. Pulling from a variety of sources, including Florida’s own work and the research of others, it’s a comprehensive overview of what it is that makes place so important. Additionally, the Canadian edition does include a lot of information on Canadian cities (and Ottawa fares quite well), so if you’re worried about any information being America-centric, don’t, as the book has plenty to offer to Canadians as well as Americans.




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