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Friday, August 16, 2013

Book Talk and Review: A Country of Cities

A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America by Vishaan Chakrabarti
Metropolis Books, 2013
Hardcover, 252 pages

On Monday, Vishaan Chakrabarti gave a book talk at the Center for Architecture on A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America, published by Metropolis Books. The SHoP Architects partner and Columbia University professor presented the major arguments from the self-described manifesto, accompanied by illustrations from the book. Those in the full-house crowd left with a fairly good understanding of what Chakrabarti envisions for America: dense urban environments served by local and regional rail infrastructure. The basic treatise of the book is "it's all about density," based on the assertion that environmental sustainability and economic opportunities are greater in cities.

[Photo courtesy of Center for Architecture]

For a city dweller, like me, who won't need much convincing that cities are better (healthier, more diverse, more interesting) places than suburbs, the book's value lies in how it convinces others of urban benefits and what it proposes for shifting the focus of American development, infrastructure, and subsidies from the sprawling suburbs and exurbs to compact cities. Attempts at convincing can be found in how Chakrabarti writes the book: "economics, environmentalism, joy; all under one umbrella that laypeople can understand" (to paraphrase what he said in the book talk). The accessibility of the text can be found in now only how he writes, but in what he references to help people understand his position.

Most memorable is a discussion of an episode of Bob the Builder, which pits Bob and his 1-house-per-4-acre plan against an architect's city of towers for Sunflower Valley. Bob's winning scheme says a lot about what Chakrabarti calls the "American Scheme," in which the "American Dream" of opportunity has been replaced by that of home ownership and inefficient land use. Another way that the book is geared toward laypeople is through the illustrations. These are quantitative visualizations in most cases, yet many of the diagrams are more polemical (the sprawl-vs-city illustration below is a good example)—all of them do a good job of paralleling the text and explaining often complex concepts.

[Photo via Design Observer]

So what does Chakrabarti propose for enabling the shift from what he calls a country of "highways, houses, and hedges" to one of "trains, towers, and trees"? Following from his desire to make things understandable to a wide audience, he gives one of his proposals an acronym, ASIA (American Smart Infrastructure Act). (The irony of referring to the continent that is fast becoming the world's largest polluter is not lost on Chakrabarti, especially considering they are the most innovative corner of the globe when it comes to infrastructure.) His basic proposal reorients the subsidies that now are funneled into the suburbs so they serve cities.

In order to achieve the magic density of 30 dwelling units per acre (what he considers the baseline for sustaining a subway), cities require decent public transportation, which in turn require subsidies; they also need affordable housing, not mortgage interest deductions for single-family houses. These are big ideas and bigger plans that require substantial political and economic muscle to implement. It's understandable that one reviewer interprets the book by the architect/academic/one-time developer/former director of city planning as "the groundwork for another career switch, into New York City politics."

Speaking of NYC, underlying the whole book is the notion that the city, Chakrabarti's home, is the model for an American "country of cities." This arises from the numerous examples used throughout the book (many by SHoP Architects, like Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the East River Esplanade near the South Street Seaport) and the way many of the ideas seem rooted in the city's built environment and infrastructure. As someone who also lives in NYC—in Queens, rather than Manhattan—I can appreciate the positive qualities of the city, but I also find the massive inequalities and catering to the rich to be characteristics of the current NYC not worth replicating.

That said, the core of Chakrabarti's book—that "hyper-dense" cities are environmentally sustainable, rich in economic opportunity, and full of joy—and the way he explains how to "make a good city" are general lessons that need to be told. Through his accessible text and illustrations the arguments for density go down easy and convincingly—good medicine for a sustainable and equitable future.

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