Off the Shelf: Triumph of the City
Reviewing Edward Glaeser's own urban triumph, and revisiting the science of social spaces with William H Whyte. The global love of sitting down, and social space in Manchester.
Triumph of the City is one of those books that I've been so excited to read that I purposefully left myself in a perpetual state of anticipation staring at it on the shelf, rather than actually pick it up for fear I would be let down. I think perhaps my boyfriend would rather I left it that way than instead having to endure me peering up from behind it every 40 seconds and say: "Hey, did you know that...?" More annoyingly is the frequency in which you'll ask yourself "why is my city making these mistakes?" and "why isn't this enforced reading for planners?"
How Urban Spaces Make Us Human
How Glaeser ever found time to compile quite so many city-centric gleanings of interest, and to package it all up so that it isn't heavily academic is a wonder.
My effusiveness is not to say that everything Glaeser argues is correct, but he argues a fine point. For instance, the captivatingly simplistic manner in which the author reinforces his seemingly radical viewpoint that urban poverty is an indicator of a city's progress. Cities attract poor people, they don't make people poor.
But there are points that ring alarm bells close to home, certainly in relation to the redevelopments planned for Greater Manchester, especially the justification that we should build high rise hotels at Cornbrook because "the area around Cornbrook is in the top-10 most deprived parts of the country". The geographical definition of "the area" they are referring to is murky at best, and in Triumph of the City Glaeser informs us that:
"Too many officials in troubled cities wrongly imagine that they can lead their city back to its former glories with some massive construction project...." and "With very few exceptions, no public policy can stem the tidal forces of urban change" suggesting that "Public policy should help poor people, not poor places." He goes on:
"Shiny new real estate may dress up a declining city, but it doesn't solve it's underlying problems. The hallmark of declining cities is that they have too much housing and infrastructure relative to strength of their economies."
"The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren't structures; cities are people."
The book look at why cities decline. In the case of Detroit: its economic reliance on a single corporation (General Motors) led to the squeezing out of independent firms so that there was no one there to pick up the pieces when GM collapsed.
Glaeser asks compelling questions about education, skyscrapers, garden cities, suburbia, traffic, and delves into the favelas and ghettos of international cities.
The overarching theme of the book is concrete and flesh - urban spaces and humankind. Investing in skills, he argues, is one of the best moves a city can make and presents compelling figures which conclude as much.
Despite the fact this is written by an economics professor this book is for anybody with an interest in cities, however broad that interest may be. The only mistake Glaeser made in this enlightening book was allowing the turgid accolade of 'business book of the year 2011' to be emblazoned across its cover.
Reading Triumph of the City it's impossible not to be reminded of a similarly captivating work by William H Whyte.
The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.
Whyte's study, although a written one, is best enjoyed in his recording of it from 1980. Both terribly dated and yet remarkably relevant, this study of social spaces has all the innocent charm of a Pathe news reel, only crammed with robust and intriguing findings on human interaction with public plazas and parks.
The study was to ascertain why some public spaces succeed when others don't. An incentive building policy in New York allowed private developers to build additional floors if they agreed to provide public space, but failing spaces were a cause of concern and Whyte was commissioned to investigate why and if successful to set a model for future spaces.
Using simple observational methods, Whyte and his team made some striking yet obvious discoveries.
"One major finding began to shine through, and I will now share it with you…”
People looking at people looking at people.
"The number one activity is people looking at other people. A point overlooked in many designs".
In Manchester it's people watching that has always been the obvious draw towards the landmark Cornerhouse cafe with its spectacular location, physical dimensions and floor to ceiling windows looking out onto a busy street. In a city with a woeful lack of adequate central parks and public spaces, certainly ones that also intersect with bustling streets at least, to many the Cornerhouse has been reclaimed as a substitute for an outdoor plaza. It's arguably the driving force behind the Save Cornerhouse campaign (when the tenants relocate to First Street in 2015) - in my opinion this is not a heritage campaign but a social one. It's vital then that the newly redeveloped space close by at St Peter's Square should aspire to meet the findings in Whyte's report; time will tell.
The film discovers the importance of incidental ledges as seating and meeting points, and the accidental success of architectural features including a lip surrounding a pool of water:
"The architects purposefully made it narrow, they didn’t want people to be tempted to use the ledge and perhaps fall off. They didn’t make it quite narrow enough. One can negotiate it….
Younger people find it a definite challenge.
The ledge has become one of the most popular of spots."
Environmental factors are investigated - and despite the obvious propensity of people to follow the sun's trajectory, surprisingly the most successful spaces of all aren't affected by availability of direct sunlight.
We also discover the curious loop of the moveable chair.
If a chair moves a person will move it. In one scene we see men moving chairs around a plaza to suit their individual preferences - into sunlight or facing away from someone sat too close, and so on. By the end of scene, within just minutes, all the chairs have made their way back to their original locations.
The film's commentary is charming and funny with Whyte himself narrating everything that the camera captures "Look at this fella here! Most unusual." The humanness of the narration is what makes the film incredibly engaging, which is why I recommend watching as well as reading Whyte's fascinating prospect for public spaces.