Book Review: The New City
John Lorinc writes about urban issues for major Canadian magazines and newspapers. He has written "The New City", analyzing where we went wrong in Canada, what we can learn from this and presents a vision of how we can build a better future. Richard Florida likes it: "His vision for building safer, cleaner, more creative, more efficient and more democratic cities puts the urban centre at the heart of the debate over our global future, where it rightly belongs". We liked it too. Peter Ustinov once did a TV series on cities around the world and described Toronto admiringly as "New York run by the Swiss". He would not recognize it now. While the downtown is superficially vibrant with new construction everywhere and new cultural facilities opening weekly, the roads are potholed, the schools are crumbling and the government is running on fumes, all the result of a strange anachronistic political system where the cities have little control over their own destiny or tax revenue. Surrounding the core is a ring of poverty and hopelessness where social services and transit are poor because of low suburban densities. The entire first part of the book is devoted to these problems- the Graying City (seniors tripping over broken curbs) the unbounded city (endless suburban sprawl) Divided Cities (crime, poverty, violence) wasteful cities (have we mentioned that we ship our garbage to Michigan?)
Part Two- "Healthy Neighbourhoods, Strong Cities" suggests steps we must take to fix the problems-we need only list the titles: "connecting immigrants and good jobs", "creating senior-friendly cities"- one only has to look at north American demographics to know that over the next twenty years this is going to become one of our biggest problems. My dad once said that he hoped he didn't live to be eighty because he could not imagine not being able to drive and he knew they would take it away from him. Unfortunately he got his wish, but a lot of others won't and how will our cities cope?
Part Three is what puts this book in TreeHugger- It is John Lorinc's vision of where we can go and what we can be if we do it right.
We can live in Autonomous Cities, where the political structure is changed so that the cities have the power to govern themselves. Cities have the votes and if citizens insist, they can have the power.
We can live in Self-Sufficient cities- as Jane Jacobs said, cities are the engines of economic growth. They also are the source of cash for our higher levels of governments, delivering a lot more money upstream than they get back in services.
We can build Compact Cities, where people have good transit and local shopping.
We can create Eco-Cities, where we manage our own waste internally, create much of our own energy and take care of our water and air.
We should create Thinking Cities, recognizing that the arts and the universities and the libraries are those things that attract people to cities, and the ability to meet, talk to and work with others creates the dynamism, creativity and energy that makes new ideas and new businesses happen.
We can look at Beautiful Cities, where there is value placed on doing things well and making architecture important.
Out of the ashes of a social experiment 15 years ago, where the government slashed services, gave control of development to the developers and almost destroyed this city with its downloading of services and amalgamating governments, John Lorinc is able to present a positive vision and roadmap for the future. Let's hope that our citizens and politicians have the intelligence and vision to follow it. While the book is primarily about the Canadian experience, the lessons, and the vision, are applicable everywhere.