Book review by Robert Behre

From Charleston Neighborhood Post & Courier
By Robert Behre
BOOK REVIEW: How Cities Work, By Alex Marshall

Journalist Alex Marshall shows how to end sprawl; the only question is, do we want to listen?

Are we bothered enough to make the tough decisions needed to change things? Make no mistake – they are tough decisions. Take the automobile (please!). Marshall notes that cities always developed according to the transportation of the day. Older downtowns feel different because they were built for pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages; Wal-Marts and post-World War II subdivisions were built for the car.

Marshall cites three steps needed to change the growth patterns found in most U.S. cities, including larger Charleston: recognition that residents have the right to direct growth.

While not dismissing property rights, Marshall notes that growth stems from public spending on sewer lines, schools and (mostly) transportation. If it’s our money, we should be able to say where it goes.

There needs to be recognition that we need to support other ways of getting around, especially within the city. He notes a trade-off: With more mass transit, bike lanes and sidewalks, you will have the option of not using a car. But to get this option, you have to accept that using a car will be more difficult, a recognition that growth control is not simply a local matter.

A city can tinker with its zoning laws, but today’s growth often leapfrogs past city limits and county lines. Only a regional approach – with the state’s backing – will work.

As the accompanying review by Rosemary Michaud rightly notes, Marshall’s solutions have had few serious takers.

But where she sees this as a lack of vision on Marshall’s part, there is an alternative view: seeing it as underscoring the difficulty of the task. ‘The problem for contemporary Americans is that enhancing social cohesion (and limiting sprawl) may mean giving up some things we really like, like personal mobility, low taxes, and a footloose economic structure,’ Marshall writes. ‘We have not figured out yet that creating wealth is not the same as creating community.’

Perhaps most importantly, Marshall explodes the outdated thinking that cities’ older downtown areas are different than the mid- to late-20th century development that rings them. To him, it’s all one big city. ‘The suburban world of highways, shopping centers, and office parks is now a place of blind market forces and impersonality – exactly what the city represented in the past,’ he says. Older downtowns have become cherished because we realize they’re a past art form that won’t be built anew. The question is where we go from here. We can pursue Marshall’s solutions or simply wait for personal jetpacks or flying cars.

‘Actual shaping of cities requires making choices. More of this, less of that. Some people lose, some people win,’ he writes.

‘What we are starting to see in Portland (Ore.) is a city that recognizes you can have easy suburban growth with big homes on large lots, or a coherent city with a vital mass transit system, but not both.’

Robert Behreis the editor of The Post and Courier Neighborhood Editions and a columnist on preservation.

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