The Art of Building Cities by Camillo Sitte

My family has come to know that I love to read books, especially if they are related to planning. So this past Christmas, my sister-in-law gave me the Art of Building Cities by Camillo Sitte. I am surprised I have yet to come across this book, especially when I was conducting research for my public square paper last summer. This book was written and published in 1896, but the teachings within are still relevant today. Some however will be very difficult to implement given the rigid grid we chose to lay our cities out with.

Towards the end of the book Sitte talks in great length about the way engineers and lawyers shaped the way our cities look and feel. The engineers used their equipment in the most efficient manner possible, laying out straight lines and rectangular lots. They bulldozed through wetlands, bluffs, and other topological features to keep the grid as straight as possible. This not only has created boring suburban developments, but has wreaked havoc on our natural environment. The result is less green space and more opportunity for natural disasters like wildfire to spread.

It also means we interact with each other less. In the early 1900's the square land development pattern began as a way to pack in as many buildings as possible in the urban cores. We expanded that concept with larger lots in the 1950's to make room for large single family homes and pared it with new zoning codes that kept residential uses far from commercial and retail uses, requiring the use of cars.

The Pausanias wrote "A city without public edifices and squares is not worthy of its name." Applied today, almost no city in America is worthy of its name. We have squares and public buildings, but we lack public squares that anyone wants to spend more than a few minutes eating their lunch. As Sitte stated "Surging throngs no longer circulate on market days before our City Halls. In brief, activity is lacking precisely in those places where, in ancient times, it was most intense--near public structures. Thus, to a great extent, we have lost that which contributed to the splendor of public squares."

The public square was an integral part of life, where festivals took place, where people went for air and light, to break the monotony of houses, to watch the theater of everyday life, to buy goods at the market place and most important for government. I suspect there was a much higher participation rate in government activities back in ancient times than there is today. If only we could recreate the environment of the plaza in our cities to make it an integral part of daily life for most citizens we could better connect them with their government.

What Sitte describes as a good model of the public square was achieved first in the Middle Ages, when art was a key component of city building. They laid out their building sites according to views and space, how the pedestrian would feel within the space. This allowed for more organic layouts, with buildings tucked closely together, slightly off axis, to create pockets of land for the piazzas or plazas. Looking at a birds eye view, it appears haphazard, but instead of catering towards the vehicle, it caters towards the pedestrian, the user of the public square. 

We may think there is no way to avoid laying out spaces in a grid fashion with streets running at right angles in today's world, but we have tools that can overcome this. We just tend to use these tools in the same way and never achieve a unique result. Planned Unit Developments or Cluster Developments still get treated like a normal subdivision with straight lines and leftover squares for public space. Why not instead use these tools to redesign a large plot of land to cluster buildings together in a way that provides a unique pedestrian experience intended to give citizens the public life they have been missing? I would love to see a developer think outside the code and come up with an exciting new plan that learns from the old cities of Europe and breaks the rigid grid we laid out hundreds of years ago. Then maybe we could say we made a real effort at bringing society together and planning for the citizen not the car.

Route 66 by Jim Hinckley

Route 66 by Jim Hinckley

Anytime I hear the name Route 66 I immediately think of the animated movie Cars. Little did I know that those cartoon vehicles were based on real people and the town is a compilation of real cities along the highway that stretches from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. Route 66 was established in 1926 and takes up much of the National Old Trails Highway which was the primary way to travel during the early 1900's. Route 66 officially ceased to be recognized as part of the official highway system in 1984. It was replaced by the Interstate Highway System started in 1956. 

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Divided Highways by Tom Lewis

Divided Highways by Tom Lewis

No single act of congress has so drastically changed the American landscape like the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act signed by President Eisenhower. Originally expected to cost $25 billion and take 12 years to create the Interstate System, it was not completed until 1992 at a cost of $114 billion. It is easy to look back now and see the glaring problems of the system and criticize the engineers of the 1950's and 1960's, but they were just trying to solve the transportation system lying in front of them. Their failure came when they ignored the socioeconomic and environmental problems created by the system.

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City of Parks by David C. Smith

City of Parks by David C. Smith

I read the City of Parks by David C. Smith shortly after moving to the Twin Cities. I had visited a few of the parks, but was fascinated by the rich history that encompassed the Minneapolis park system. Until reading the book, I did not know that an independent board of elected representatives ran the park system instead of a city department. It was not easy however to get the park board established. 

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The Exploding Metropolis

The Exploding Metropolis

Despite what it may appear, back in the 1950's when the car was starting to take over the city, there were people concerned. William Whyte Jr., along with Francis Bello, Symour Freedgood, Daniel Seligman, and the infamous Jane Jacobs each wrote a chapter to contribute to the book The Exploding Metropolis. Their topics ranged from designing downtown's from the pedestrian, not architectural perspective view, slum creation, urban sprawl, and the strength and power of government officials.

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Milwaukee Avenue by Robert Roscoe

Milwaukee Avenue by Robert Roscoe

When we first moved to Minneapolis, my husband and I relied heavily on our friends to navigate us as we biked around the city. On one of these early excursions, they took us on what seemed like a peculiar shortcut through the middle of a residential block. It was a wide sidewalk with Victorian-style houses along both sides, their front porches within feet of the path. I remembered thinking that these homes must have been part of the urban planning movements of the early 1900's. I had no idea until reading Milwaukee Avenue: Community Renewal in Minneapolis the incredible history that this neighborhood had.

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The Chessboard and the Web by Anne-Marie Slaughter

The Chessboard and the Web by Anne-Marie Slaughter

While reading the Chessboard and the Web: strategies of connection in a networked world, it became evident just how connected the world has become. It is easy to spot the personal connections we have thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and every other social media website, but networks exist in the private sector, nonprofit groups, in social movements, and even in government agencies. The most successful enterprises are those that have realized the value of networking beyond their typical circle. 

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Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson

Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson

A friend of mine recently suggested I read Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health by Jo Robinson. I found the book fascinating and overwhelmed my husband with the facts and figures about nutritional content and history of fruits and vegetables. Anyone interested in choosing the most nutritious varieties to get the most from their meals should read this book. It has also inspired me to redesigning my garden for next spring to include a berry bush and quite possibly an apple tree (there may not be space for the tree though). 

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How to Kill a City by Peter Moskowitz

How to Kill a City by Peter Moskowitz

In cities across America we are seeing the negative effects of gentrification and how it has the potential to destroy culture, heritage, and displace long time residents. People are being priced out of homes, forced to "drive until they qualify." This phenomenon may seem relegated to high population centers like New York City and the tech hubs in California, but it lies in struggling communities like Detroit and New Orleans as well. No city is protected from the results of increased investment and spending.

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Mega Tech: Technology in 2050

Mega Tech: Technology in 2050

Bullets that can move around objects in air, self driving vehicles, drones filling the sky, a neural interface connecting your mind with the internet, and farm equipment that can be sent out to work your field while you are on vacation. These all seem like ideas from a fiction novel, but many of them will be realized by the year 2050. As a planner, I often look twenty years in the future to make predictions and make plans for the best possible growth patterns. The book, Mega Tech edited by Daniel Franklin, looks out more than thirty years to suggest what the future could hold.

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Design with Nature by Ian McHarg

Design with Nature by Ian McHarg

Cities all across the world are realizing their mistake in covering up natural features to construct bigger and better communities. After decades of building over rivers and streams, dredging wetlands for lakes, and sprawling across prime agricultural land, we are finally seeing the devastating impacts. The solutions to these problems are already being implemented, quicker in some municipalities than others, but they have at least started to make progress unearthing the natural features that have long been suppressed under the concrete jungle.

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Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

As a city planner working with a rental licensing program I found Evicted by Matthew Desmond to be an eye opening and insightful book on the life of both renters and landlords. Desmond tells the story of the rental climate of Milwaukee in 2008 and 2009, just after the housing market collapsed and rents soared through the roof. While the situations Desmond wrote about in the book occurred almost ten years ago, they still proliferate throughout the U.S. today. 

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Genius of the European Square by Suzanne H Crowhurt Lennard and Henry L Lennard

Genius of the European Square by Suzanne H Crowhurt Lennard and Henry L Lennard

Imagine yourself seated on a patio overlooking a large public square. You are enjoying evening drinks with some friends before you run a few errands on the plaza on your way home for the evening. While you are seated, an old acquaintance happens by on their way to pick up a few groceries. They sit down and join in the conversation for a little while, watching their child play at the fountain a short distance away. As the sun sets everyone pays their tab, says their good byes, and heads off in different directions. 

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If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

As a result of a recent preservation battle to save a 117 year old house in Minneapolis I began looking into the life of a former local author, Brenda Ueland. She was born in Minneapolis in 1891 and passed away at the age of 94 while residing at 2622 West 44th Street. It was this home that caused a controversy because the new owner set his sights on demolition in favor of more dense residential construction. The neighborhood was outraged that the City would let the last remaining tie to Ueland go, altering the area in a significant way. The City Council voted for the developer, against the decision of the Heritage Preservation Commission.

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The Permaculture City by Toby Henemway

The Permaculture City by Toby Henemway

To those like myself who did not know what permaculture was before coming across this book I will give a quick summary. Permaculture principles include both natural and human ecosystems. While it tends to be thought of as a system for designing gardens, it can be applied to a range of human activities that are both physical and non-physical. The permaculture flower is composed of ten human needs: water, shelter, waste, health, spirit, community, justice, livelihood, food, and energy. The flower, and the cities it represents, function properly when the relationships and connections between the parts is considered. Most strategies look at the sum of the parts only and loose the valuable connections that underlay the system.

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