Adam's Reviews > City Life: Urban Expectations In A New World

City Life by Witold Rybczynski
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's review
Sep 05, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: cities-and-planning
Read in September, 2009

Rybczynski sets out with the task to create a description of what makes American cities American. He begins with a premise that there is a sort of American exceptionalism—that American cities are distinct. At the book's outset he posits that our cities are unlike the cities from which the builders of American cities came: Europe. While the author principally contrasts America to Europe, he also devotes a number of pages of exploring pre-conquest cities of Native Americans.

By “traditional” (ie: European) definitions, American cities may not be considered cities at all. “At least they are not real cities if one assumes that real cities have cathedrals and outdoor plazas, not parking garages and indoor shopping malls, that they have sidewalk cafes, not drive -through Pizza Huts, and movie theaters, not cineplexes, that real cities are beautiful, ordered, and high-minded, not raucus, unfinished, and commercial” (32).

But they're cities nonetheless, and it's clear that R. loves them. Some interesting American urban innovations and trends: the grid pattern (fore expediency), the “broad, tree-lined street,” the importance of green space (leading to the garden suburbs), and the primacy of the residence. Some of his ideas about the particularity of American cities is not surprising—for example, that so-called “market forces” play just an active role (if not more so) than actual urban planning in the design and evolution of the city. More poignant is the observation that the dominance of the market, added to a a notion of mobility, drives American cities to change more so that European counterparts. That is, it can be said that trends or “fashions,” change the development of American cities more so: “Eternal change is certainly the hallmark of American urban history” (34).

Like Kunstler, R. has a talent for uncovering the historical roots of today's development patterns. A good example is his explaining how the independent spirit of 17th century American settlements (due to the long distances between settlements, and their autonomous food production) carries on to day in the form of American cities being largely responsible for their own policy-making (and a lack of a federal urban policy).

Some complaints: R. glosses over the issue of sprawl and doesn't sufficiently problemitize it. Instead, he meditates on the “blurring boundary of city and suburb.” But there certainly is something Americana about sprawl—a discussion of it would have strengthened the book. Also, I had to laugh aloud (and the book's previous owner had written “Oh boy!” in the margin) when I read his rant, while discussing the virtues of shopping malls, “the right not to be subjected to outlandish conduct, not to be assaulted and intimidated by boorish adolescents, noisy drunks, and aggressive panhandlers. It does not seem much to ask” (210), and elsewhere, his complaint about “weird looking teenagers.”

Ultimately, R.'s concluding section is a bit flat, when he talks about the small places with urban attributes as approximating some ideal for American living. More interesting is his sections on the history of specific cities (Charleston, Savannah, Chicago) and movements (city beautiful, garden suburb).
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