Book review by John-Henry Doucette

Published: SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2001
Section: COMMENTARY , page J1
Source: BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

For a book that isn’t about Norfolk, there’s a lot of Norfolk in ”How Cities Work” by Alex Marshall.

And for a book that isn’t per se a criticism of New Urbanism, a design movement that attempts to incorporate urban ideals into suburban development, it misses no opportunity to knock the movement.

Marshall’s opinions of New Urbanism have been stingingly vocal, and among Hampton Roads planning and city officials his notoriety lives on.

A Virginian-Pilot reporter from 1988 to 1997, Marshall comes from a long line of Norfolkians. His great-grandfather, Albert Grandy, was the first publisher of The Virginian-Pilot.

Marshall was a Loeb Fellow in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University last year, and later moved to New York City. ”How Cities Work” was published last month (University of Texas Press, 288 pp., $50 hardcover; $24.95 paperback).

I recently sat down with Marshall in the basement cafeteria of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to talk about his book. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.

Q: Did you want to write this book when you were a reporter in Norfolk?

A: Yes. I’d been writing about cities for almost 10 years for the newspaper. I was constantly asking myself: How does this all fit together? Or what is making this all go?

Then, when I started writing for national magazines, I kind of had that same spirit. I guess in the course of these past eight or nine years I came up with some things that had not been said much.

Q: Such as?

A: I went to Europe on a fellowship in 1994, and it made me realize that suburban sprawl is not just a product of American bad taste. I really love traditional urban cities but you sort of have to examine your love.

Q: So. New Urbanism?

A: I started out as a big fan of New Urbanism and I ended up as a big critic. At first it seemed to offer a very coherent solution to urban sprawl. It seemed to say that we could have these really nice cities and places where people walk, where people do not rely on cars so much, if we just design things a little differently.

Q: In the book, you talk about designing the trappings of a city, but there’s no foundation.

A: Right – there’s no there there. A lot of it was going to Europe, which made me realize transportation is really a fundamental driver of development and of the type of development.

And, secondly, just visiting these New Urban places. If you pull away your starry-eyedness, you see these places as essentially charades or mirages. . . . just another isolated subdivision in the middle of a cornfield, not that much different from the isolated subdivision down the street.

Q: I thought your best argument was for transportation. Thing is, the car exists. People like their cars.

A: I’m not sure people realize how significant it was to have built those highways into Norfolk in the 1960s, that they destroyed Norfolk as much as they helped it.

The highway is as much of a knife into it as a helpful artery. Without the highway, arguably, Norfolk would have thrived more because, rather than fleeing into the suburbs, people would have stayed closer to the downtown, which would have kept more of the traditional downtown.

Q: How does Norfolk, which has the big mall and a highway running into the downtown, stay vital?

A: That’s the million-dollar question. It’s very easy to criticize. It’s much more difficult to work with what’s there. I think the mall is a very good thing, even if it’s horribly designed.

You could do a couple of things – though some of these proposals are outlandish. One, get the highway engineers out of downtown Norfolk. The new streets being built downtown are too much like suburban highways. They should be designing traditional city streets.

More radical things? Tear down some highways. Norfolk should have a Tear Down Highways contest. What would Norfolk lose? If they made it more difficult for commuters to reach their jobs at the naval base or medical center, so what? It just means people would move back to Norfolk. Other cities have done it with pretty big results.

More outlandish: Examine reviving the streetcar system. No city in the country I know of has done this, so maybe this means it’s a good idea. Most of the main streets in Norfolk have street line tracks buried under the asphalt.

Q: How important is it to have people live downtown? Or at least close by?

A: I think that’s a good thing. A lot of it is having a vision of what Norfolk should look like. My vision might be a dense, compact city where people can walk, bicycle, take the streetcar, bus or drive to a lot of different places. That has neighborhood business centers that are alternatives to the more standard neighborhood shopping mall model.

Q: Do you see MacArthur Center in that tradition?

A: My view on MacArthur Center is kind of nuanced. I think it’s a good thing it was built. Right now it’s helping downtown. I would have voted for it if I were on City Council.

But it’s fatally flawed in its design, which in the long run will probably hurt both the mall and the city. To repeat an old charge, it’s built like a hermetically sealed box, which limits how much the mall can help the rest of downtown – and which also limits how much the rest of downtown can help the mall.

If Granby Street continues to take off, it’s going to be very difficult for people to casually walk from Granby Street to the mall. It’s not impossible, but difficult. The mall lives and dies by itself too much.

Q: What are some of the good things that have happened downtown?

A: The Collins housing (a relatively new development along Boush Street) is very good but it’s also built too much as a suburban housing complex. The electric bus system is good.

All the cities in Hampton Roads have an unofficial policy of not allowing poor people to live there. It’s immoral, un-Christian and wrong. For all its strengths, the ward system has still not allowed Norfolk to treat all its residents as citizens.

Q: So if all that money spend in the 1950s and 1960s on redevelopment and transportation had been spent on a public transportation system, say, and not slum clearance or a highway that dumps into downtown, Norfolk would be a better city?

A: It would have required stunning 20/20 foresight, but in hindsight, yes. In the book, I talk about money, government and transportation, and all three are connected. On the business side, (people) should look at how they can change the region’s economic vantages. They should look at their key transportation link to the outside world.

Politically, if we can have more of a regional government and more state growth control and more regional land use plan, we would have less sprawl, more prosperous neighborhoods, and a more livable region. That would make us more attractive to businesses.

On the smaller-mode transportation, we should make our neighborhoods more livable and make car travel less of a priority. Using a car is a personal decision, but building highways is a public decision.

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