Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Couple of Book Reviews

If you're like me and you really REALLY care about the health of the planet, as well as the health of its citizens, then I recommend a couple of books that I recently read.

One is Happy City by Charles Montgomery. It's subtitled: "Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design," and the premise is that if we create the right places, people will naturally flock to them. Methods of transformation include changing pedestrian activity, but also the places -- apartments and homes -- where we live. Montgomery uses examples from all over the world to drive his point home; and that is, people are too isolated and sedentary. It's killing us and it's killing the planet. He is especially hard on Americans (rightfully so) for our gas-guzzling habits.

The second is Walkable City; How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck. Interestingly, both books use a lot of the same examples and have pretty much the same thesis, though they approach the subject from slightly different perspectives.

I found Montgomery's book to be inspirational, with its vivid examples of how people's lives are transformed by the form their communities take. In one chapter, he tells the melancholy story of suburban homeowners who believe they are buying the American Dream when they snag the big house in the suburbs, only to find that they have such long commutes that they barely get to enjoy their new acquisitions. Their social lives have been reduced to the fringes of their days. Montgomery makes a strong case for how valuable those accidental interactions are that take place on the urban street. Suburban commuters miss out on all that.

On the other hand, Speck writes from the experience of an urban planner. His book seems more research- and experience-driven. He's worked with communities first-hand and understands where they go wrong. Speck gives precise details about street width and sidewalk depth. He discusses how traffic engineers view trees as a dangerous impediment while studies show that trees slow traffic down, resulting in fewer accidents. It's the kind of information you can take to a council meeting in hopes of amending city ordinances.

Both books are richly researched and full of good information, it's just that Montgomery's takes a more human approach, and Speck seems slightly more analytic. I liked them both, and though neither of them told me anything earth-shattering, they've inspired me to start making the case more emphatically to the communities with whom I work to take substantive steps toward creating more connected and walkable environments. This is not just about economic development, though that is a strong incentive. It's also about making us all healthier. It's about cutting our fossil fuel consumption, and working toward a healthier planet.

Now go read something.

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