Book Review

What Makes a Great City

Alexander Garvin

Having been asked the question that gives the book its title, Alexander Garvin decided to embark on a quest to answer it. He travelled through selected cities in North America and Europe, observed, analysed and drew conclusions. His first port of call and seemingly his chosen model was Bilbao and not just because of the Guggenheim Museum. Some of his early conclusions don’t seem very original: that ‘people are what make a city great’ or the fact that cities are not ‘finished’ but evolve constantly. However what makes the book interesting is his approach in describing in detail how people use the public realm in specific places.

The first two chapters outline what the author considers to be the characteristics of the successful public realm: Open to Anybody, Something for Everybody, Attracting and Retaining Market Demand, Providing a Framework for Successful Urbanization, Sustaining a Habitable Environment, and Nurturing and Supporting Civil Society. These themes are developed in the next six chapters that carry the above titles with case studies that exemplify the qualities identified for each one. For example, the author visits Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor at various times of the day and observes the people that visit it and the activities taking place, with reference to the physical elements of the square. He also describes how the Plaza evolved through history to adapt to the requirements of the population.

Early on, the author explains that although a street, a square or a park can be defined as the public realm, a successful one combines as many characteristics as possible from all three: places for gathering, for moving, for recreation; multifunctionality is a basic requirement. Most of his case studies are historic and they are clearly the ones that the author cherishes and that reinforce his case. Occasionally his praise for a particular place seems biased but this is a very personal book (written in the first person).

In chapter 9, the author considers issues of ownership and how this influences the access and use of the public realm and very importantly, its management and maintenance. The final chapter, Creating a Public Realm for the Twenty-First Century, describes schemes that Garvin considers exemplar: Place de la République in Paris, Post Oak Boulevard in Houston, Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York, Atlanta’s Belt Line Emerald Necklace (his own scheme) and Waterfront Toronto. The selection is not entirely convincing and disconcertingly, one of the criteria for the choice seems to be that investors have rushed to the places where these spaces have been created: in other words, gentrification is the objective.

Much of the material here is interesting; it is well illustrated with photographs but frustratingly, there are only a few plans. Most of all the book reads like an extended blog... The same material could have been organised in a different matter, avoiding frequent repetitions, and making it easier to apply lessons from Garvin’s observations. It is worth contrasting it with the other book reviewed on this page by Louise Thomas, which covers some of the similar ground but may be more useful to a practitioner.

URBAN DESIGN 141 Winter 2017 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 141 Winter 2017

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What Makes a Great City Publication Urban Design Group
Island Press
Reviewed By
Sebastian Loew, architect and planner, writer and consultant