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Book Review of "The American City: What Works, What Does...

Book Review of "The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t" by Alexander Garvin

As cities grow and redevelop, community leaders are constantly imagining new ideas to improve their businesses and neighborhoods. But who is keeping track of all these new sustainability programs, zoning policies, and preservation programs? Evaluating past and existing practices can help avoid repeated mistakes and spur innovative partnerships. However, the volume and diversity of urban

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As cities grow and redevelop, community leaders are constantly imagining new ideas to improve their businesses and neighborhoods. But who is keeping track of all these new sustainability programs, zoning policies, and preservation programs? Evaluating past and existing practices can help avoid repeated mistakes and spur innovative partnerships. However, the volume and diversity of urban activity are enough to intimidate even the greatest of urban enthusiasts. Where to begin?

Fortunately, Alexander Garvin’s "The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t" acts as an encyclopedia for urban projects and programs that have been implemented across America. In 2013, Garvin revealed the third edition of his book, which expands the already comprehensive publication to include over 350 initiatives in 150 cities.

The first two editions of "The American City," published in 1996 and 2002 respectively, review the many attempts to fix broken cities across America. Garvin gives the reader a toolbox of strategies to choose for their own city by 1) explaining the context of the initiatives, 2) providing case studies, and 3) identifying what worked and what did not. Garvin follows the same structure in the third edition and incorporates emerging urban trends, such as business improvement districts and public space planning.

"The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t" by Alexander Garvin

What makes this book especially unique and useful is the author’s engaging and authoritative tone. Alexander Garvin has a long track record of prominent urban planning and real estate positions, including former City Planning Commissioner of New York City, president of the Forum for Urban Design, and president of AGA Public Realm Strategists, Inc. Garvin’s belief in private, public, and community partnership led him to identify six key ingredients of project success:

  1. Market,
  2. Location,
  3. Design,
  4. Financing,
  5. Time, and
  6. Entrepreneurship.

Each of these ingredients, along with case studies, is applied to the book's seventeen urban topics. The hundreds of photographs, maps, and diagrams throughout the book draw in its readers. Each illustration helps the reader visualize the outcome and better understand the project’s implications.

Are there any particular lessons from America's past that we should be considering in more depth when planning for the future? What lessons does your city focus on? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.

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Credits: Creative Commons images courtesy of FWStudio and CGP Grey. Updated December 10, 2017.

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Lynn Coppedge graduated from Arizona State University's Master of Urban and Environmental Planning program Currently working as a Sustainability Planner for the City of Lakewood in Colorado, Lynn aspires to advance sustainability in the community of...

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