Normally, my book reviews are limited to amazon.com (unless they are long enough for a scholarly publication). But the publishers of a recent book asked me to spread the word about it, so below are my thoughts.
The book is What We See (published by New Village Press), a collection of essays based loosely on the work of Jane Jacobs (most known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, although she wrote numerous other books).
Many of the essays are quite unimpressive, stringing together clichés or telling me what I already knew. However, a few are noteworthy. I was engaged by:
*Ray Suarez’s overview of suburban sprawl. Suarez points out that parents often move to suburbia for the benefit of children, but in some ways this experiment has failed, as suburbs “required more adult oversight, not less … scrubbing the environment of outsiders heightened stranger anxiety rather than alleviating it.”
*Robert Sirman’s essay is one of the better examples of how Jacobs’ views can be applied in unfamiliar contexts. Sirman helped expand a ballet school in Toronto; rather than turning the school inward, away from the street, Sirman sought to revitalize the street- for example by supporting a nearby restaurant’s attempt to open an outdoor patio, on the grounds that it would provide “eyes on the street” and thus make it seem less deserted.
*Hillary Brown’s discussion of how “mixed use” can be applied to unfamiliar contexts- not just putting apartments above shops, but also adding various types of infrastructure together (for example, a Dutch bridge that accommodates not only pedestrian and vehicle traffic, but tramlines and utilities).
*Clare Cooper Marcus’s discussion of attempts to combine the advantages of cul-de-sacs with the advantages of grids. (This essay was, however, far too pro-cul-de-sac for my taste, downplaying the reduced walkability of cul-de-sacs by seemingly taking it for granted that children would have no place to walk to outside their own block).
*Saskia Sassen’s discussion of regional economic diversity, in which she suggests that cities’ economic specializations are deeply rooted in their early 20th-century history, and thus seeks to explain why (for example) New York is more dependent on finance than Chicago. (This essay, I thought, could have benefited from more data).