Review: The Next American Metropolis by Peter Calthorpe

Cover courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

I’ve been on a bit of an urbanism kick recently, and of the books I’ve read this one seems like the best introduction for anyone just getting into the topic. The Next American Metropolis opens with a long essay about the failures of planning (or rather, the failures of no planning, or piecemeal planning) in America, how this has negatively impacted the American city and the American citizen, and the solution: transit-oriented development. Next comes a set of guidelines and definitions for the various components of transit-oriented development and how to plan it, from the regional scale all the way down to regulations for individual lots. The final section is a kind of portfolio of projects that Calthorpe and his firm designed, with full-page color diagrams and maps, and accompanying text explaining how these plans embody different aspects of the preceding sections. So although you can read it straight through, and it is organized for you to do that, the book also functions as a reference book, or even an art book where you can flip to any page in the latter half and find some wonderfully rendered architectural sketches or zoning plans.

As I said, the book is a great introduction to urbanism, and particularly New Urbanism—though Calthorpe doesn’t really use that phrase, instead focusing on “transit-oriented development.” The two are part and parcel. The idea is to build things to a human scale, not (just) a car scale. The idea is that single-use zoning (e.g. vast blocks of homogenous residential, downtowns composed of just office towers) are poison to the life of a city, as is any automobile-oriented development. The freedom to get anywhere in a car isn’t freedom at all, it’s dependence. It means anyone without a car in these residential suburbs is stranded. It means the people getting around in cars live their lives entirely in closed-off, private spaces—their home, their office, the supermarket, their car—and never mingle with their neighbors and fellow citizens on the streets or in public parks and plazas. It means that pedestrians are unsafe and uncomfortable, forced to walk down long blocks with a low-density of street connections, or cross enormous unshaded parking lots when shopping for necessities.

There’s a lot more to New Urbanism, but that’s the basic idea—we’ve built for the car and thus created inefficient, pollutant, and unpleasant cities; the solution is to build for pedestrians. You may be familiar with New Urbanism in some form already: if you’ve heard about neighborhoods or cities being “walkable,” well, that’s a principal of New Urbanism. This book was written in 1993, but the ideas are super relevant today because it has taken so long for cities to actually put them into practice. So if you’ve been wondering what exactly “walkable” means, or if this brief summary has piqued your interest, read this book! In the opening essay, Calthorpe provides great statistics about the growth of car-dependence, lengthening commutes, and some of the factors that drove mass suburbanization. He does just as good a job laying out the ideas and ideals of transit-oriented development, which are essentially timeless. The thing about New Urbanism is, it isn’t really new. It’s sort of how things were done in the era of streetcars, just before the mass proliferation of personal cars in America. This type of design works, and we’ve known it works for decades, and this 30-year-old book may as well have been published yesterday.

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Review: Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Hi! It’s been a while since I reviewed a book, or really posted anything on this website. I’ve been reading a ton of books recently though, and writing reviews is about all I can manage to write these days, so look forward to more of these over the next few months! Should be one each week, posted every Friday, just like the old days.

Cover courtesy of The New Press

Lower Ed is a non-fiction book about the rise of a new class of for-profit colleges—distinct from the old “mom and pop” for-profits—which operate as major investment vehicles and seek to capitalize on the ever-increasing demand for credentials, and the inability of American higher education or employers to meet it. There are a couple dominant narratives around for-profit colleges, which Tressie McMillan Cottom outlines. A) They are predatory institutions which exploit disadvantaged students (part and parcel with this is a view that these students are dupes); or B) They are a savvy, private response to the failure of public institutions to train workers for our modern labor market. McMillan Cottom avoids both of these oversimplifications, instead examining the ways in which all of these institutions and economic entities—the labor market, public universities, and for-profits—are contributing to a precarity, a risk shift, which is profitable for damn near everyone involved except the students/workers.

I will move past summary eventually, I swear, but these are some complex, rich ideas, so I’ve got to explain a bit more. “Risk shift” is something McMillan Cottom talks about a lot. Over the past few decades, risk has shifted away from the government and private employers, and onto individuals. What risk? Well, say you want to be a lawyer. You are taking a risk in going to law school, investing time and money that may not be returned to you (if, for example, no one hires you.) Say you’re an employer, looking for someone to be a barista. If you hire someone with no experience, and train them, you are risking that that time and pay will not return to you (say, for example, they leave the instant they get good at baristaing.) In the past, employers were more willing to take on that risk, providing on-the-job training and investing resources in keeping their employees by providing them advancement and, potentially, further education. This is less and less the case. While a café may still take you on with no experience, more desirable jobs are likely to require experience up front. If they do take you on and spend time training you, they’ll minimize their risk by not paying you—hence that hateful practice, the unpaid internship. Our government has also, more and more, foisted risk onto individuals (perhaps in the belief that the job market is what it was in the 60s, with employers willing to share risk with their employees.) State and federal funding for higher education has not kept pace with demand, and so tuition costs have ballooned. Total student loan debt has increased by 389.5% since 2003, now over $1,500,000,000,000. $1 trillion and $500 billion, to be clear. That is risk shift.

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Review: Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson

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Cover of the first German edition, courtesy of Campus Fachbuch

I heard about this book around the time I was starting to form my own ideas about why people identify themselves as Americans, Porteños, Quebecois—and why other people don’t. Essentially, what does it take to convince people that they belong to a group? Why did US citizens identify more with their states than their nation, in the early 19th century? When does state building fail, and when does it succeed? Imagined Communities does not examine those specific questions, but it effectively answers them, and provides a whole bunch of tools for understanding nationalism, and, I ‘unno, separatist movements like the one that is happening right now. Might be worth picking up now for that reason.

The central conceit of Imagined Communities is that nationalism, even the concept of clearly delineated nations as the ultimate form of legitimacy, is recent, and that it was only possible with the rise of print capitalism. When reading newspapers based in Venezuela, inhabitants of the country could imagine other “Venezuelans” reading the same text as them, reading about the same political appointments, the same market changes, the same marriages of nobility. This “imagined community” is the nation. Of course, there are other imagined communities (Anderson describes religious community as the greatest precursor to national community), but because of the insularity of nations, and a host of other factors which he delineates in the book, this imagined community becomes one that people are willing to die for.Read More »