walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Retrofitting Suburbia_, Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson

Look, it's a review! Sort of.

First of all, it's a pretty book: pretty cover, atypical size format, color photos in the middle, b&w photos throughout. The authorial voice is consistent and, all things considered, the pacing is good and while I wouldn't say there is, properly speaking, narrative thrust, it moves along. In that sense, it is an enjoyable reading experience.

Unfortunately, the content irritated me constantly in a way that suggests I Am Not the Target Audience. This is a book of Ideas for people who would like to improve the world through directed change in the built environment. It's important to understand that this group has only very limited overlap with, say, people who would like to make people's lives more comfortable, convenient, rewarding -- or even with people who would like to make money through directed change in the built environment. If you think Urban Design and Planning (especially form-based planning) is a reasonable approach to Improving (if not actually Saving) the World, you might well really enjoy this book.

For the rest of us, it's a mess. The authors have no understanding -- at least not one that I could detect -- of how developers actually make money. Which you would think would matter to an UrbDP person, but history suggests otherwise. The result is that they present fantasy-land projects in detail while carping at built projects for comparatively minor aesthetic issues. And not just once.

The crash had already started when they were writing the book, but General Growth had not yet entered BK, with predictable results to the text. But there were so many things that _could_ have been included and yet were not (Northgate Mall redevelopment being the most obvious, since the author(s) bring it up when being interviewed about things related to the book, but it merits a single sentence reference) -- real, built, successful and ongoing development that got skipped over in favor of, well, Cottonwood. I harbor a suspicion that DPZ and/or ZVA participation determined what got included, just judging by the number of times they popped up in the text.

For all that I found the book exasperating, I can't find anything out there that's closer to the book I would like to read. I don't think the kinds of people who make money by developing real estate tend to write books about how to do it; why would they? And asking the leaders of a movement to be reality based -- to only write about the stuff that actually got built and to go back and really understand what didn't work and why it didn't work -- is, well, not reality based.

If you read this, you'll learn things. You'll learn a lot of things that aren't particularly real, but you'll also stumble across a bunch of things that are really kind of interesting, like the "texas donut".


"Above-ground garages can be wrapped with retail, commercial or residential buildings in such a way that one barely notices the garage from the street. Urban planners call this a "Texas donut." It's been successful not only in Texas but also in Arlington, Virginia; Boulder, Colorado; and Cincinnati, Ohio."

Most useful of all is getting a sense of how the charrette process has been deployed by DPZ and others to influence community decision making. I don't think Dunham-Jones and Williamson _intended_ this process to come across as too wacky to be _really_ sinister, but still, a bit sinister, but that was my takeaway. Probably just my allergy to evangelism.

I'm still trying to scrub out of my head the idea that people don't walk a quarter mile-ish for lunch because of things like lack of interesting architectural detail. I read Whyte's _City_. Recently.
Tags: book review
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