The Common Good
April 2004

Breathing Space

by Bethany Spicher Schonberg | April 2004

I came to the capital for a one-year internship, like so many Washingtonians,
believing I'd get my fill of city life and move on to greener pastures, literally.

I came to the capital for a one-year internship, like so many Washingtonians, believing I'd get my fill of city life and move on to greener pastures, literally. Now, three years later, my relatives in rural Pennsylvania fret when I'm home for holidays. "You're not planning to stay there, are you?" Used to be I'd say no. Lately I'm saying maybe.

I love living in a place where pigeons wheel in the intersections, where people ride the metro, where poverty and power collide and snarl, where you're never sure what might happen when you step out on a given morning. And I have this vision: a block of row houses with a common backyard. My friends and I have torn down the fences, plowed up the alley, and there are tomatoes, pole beans, kids and chickens, potlucks and concerts.

Just when I think I'd better pack up my utopia and hit the interstate, along comes Emilie Buchwald's Toward A Livable City. A collection of 15 or so essays from urban planners, professors, and poets, it kicks off with a couple of tributes to gourmet pizza, yoga classes, and, oh, the cacophonous congeniality of the city. Thankfully, the book sobers up (after the obligatory rant against SUVs) and tackles gentrification. Public transportation. Opportunity-based housing. Urban agriculture. Smart growth. Tax reform. Regional planning. By the end, I'm learning from the experts what it takes to truly love and change a city.

It takes a dose of reality. These writers tell it like it is. Seventy-six percent of U.S. Americans are urban or suburban. Center cities, it seems, are either crumbling or gentrifying. Suburbs are fighting each other for freeways and malls. Automobiles are guzzling fossil fuels and leaving us without a sense of "here," as everywhere becomes "there." Low-income people of color are encountering segregated neighborhoods and schools. Toward a Livable City doesn't pretend that bike lanes and community gardens will make it all better, but it does contend that structural change - from affordable housing to zoning laws - goes a long way toward social change.

It takes a heap of tenacity. It took 80 years of fits and starts to develop the Minneapolis riverfront from an industrial zone of railroads and flour mills to a lively mix of residences, businesses, and parks. Why so long? You try getting neighborhood organizations, historical societies, private investors, city councils, state legislators, the federal government, and the Department of Transportation to cooperate on anything. These essayists know what they're up against. Latent history, for one: the centuries of exploitation and corruption that accompanied the rise of cities. And hidden policy, for another: the government subsidies and deductions, for instance, that encourage the spread of subdivisions.

IT TAKES A little bit of eccentricity. These writers walk around their cities reciting the names of trees, listening to the music of construction zones, and getting into extraordinary conversations with passersby. They look at a vacant lot and see a park; an abandoned warehouse and see apartments, shops, offices, and restaurants, with a cherry on top. They gaze across the ocean to Amsterdam, where only 20 percent of trips are made by car. They fly south to Curitaba, Brazil, where there are bus lanes and pedestrian zones and (sigh) flocks of sheep to trim the grass. And then they come back home to distribute fliers, write grants, call meetings, and do right by their town.

And sometimes it takes…! Boston buried a highway to build a park. Cambridge hid a hundred gold shoes to reward pedestrians. Roxbury supplies its farmers' markets with veggies from 150 urban gardens. Lest you think New England has a corner on livable cities, Watsonville, California, convinced its firemen and farmers, entrepreneurs and activists to cooperate on blueprints for a controversial park. Portland, Oregon, enforces an urban-growth boundary: apartments on one side of West Union Road, orchards on the other. Tacoma, Washington, lined a dangerous street with bike lanes and trees, and suddenly everyone honors the speed limit. These are the success stories, mind you. But they are true.

Buchwald's essayists build a livable city of their own with lively, diverse reflections that manage to mix feet-on-the-ground with a little pie-in-the-sky. The book closes surprisingly and appropriately with a crusty diatribe about the imminent end of cheap oil. "If I had one piece of advice to give to the young people who will spend many years of their lives in this long emergency of the 21st century," writes James Howard Kunstler, "I would tell them to prepare to be good neighbors."

It's sound advice. As are Buchwald's introductory questions for good citizens: "What is it about this place that draws us here? What could we add to this place that will keep us here?" This wisdom applies equally to my Pennsylvania hometown and my D.C. neighborhood. Wherever my chickens and I eventually decide to roost, here is a book to keep close at hand.

Bethany Spicher is a legislative assistant at the Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office and a former Sojourners intern.

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