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How Cities Work : Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken Paperback – January, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Marshall criticizes New Urbanism for being more about style than substance, but he acknowledges that the more it recognizes the hard truths of regional planning, the more it can become a positive force. A journalist by trade, Marshall writes with wit, reason, and style, effectively driving home his well-researched premise that cities exist and evolve based on transportation systems, the building of wealth, and government guidance or misguidance. He offers few solutions to current urban problems, setting his sights on enlightening the reader about why and how cities evolve. Marshall cites the human craving for simple solutions to complex problems and makes it clear that when people come together to plan a regional city consciously, as they have in Portland, OR, difficult choices must be made. [...] How Cities Work is very strongly recommended for both academic and public libraries as an excellent resource on the history and future of American cities. Drew Harrington, Pacific Univ., Forest Grove, OR
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"This is an outstanding book that I hope and expect will make a major contribution to the current debate on cities and suburbs." (Robert Fishman, author of American Planning Tradition: Culture and Policy and Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia)

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Product Details

  • Series: Constructs Series
  • Paperback: 269 pages
  • Publisher: University of Texas Press; 1st edition (January 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0292752407
  • ISBN-13: 978-0292752405
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #893,252 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

A long time ago now, I was driving past some old shacks in rural Virginia, in the western part of the state, and I wondered how the people in them were living. And suddenly it hit me. I wanted to find out, and I wanted to write about it. I wanted to be a writer. So starting in that moment, I took steps to do just that. I started freelance writing, and eventually went to Columbia Journalism School, and then I became a newspaper reporter. I became a journalist, a profession that suits me because my inquiring nature is an asset rather than a liability, which it had been before then.

I'm still a journalist, still a writer, though I don't work for a daily newspaper anymore. I still am trying to figure out how the world works, and tell about it. I have a perhaps a naive belief that if people understand how the world works, they will seek to use that information to make it better.

Some basic bio information about me. I'm the author of three books, the latest being The Surprising Design of Market Economies, which is my opus of sorts. I'm a native of Norfolk, Virginia, being born there on May 7, 1959. I live in Brooklyn now. Before addressing economies, I wrote a lot about urban planning, which explains why I'm a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association, an esteemed urban planning group in New York City. I still write a lot about urban planning.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Patrick J. Caraher on April 12, 2002
Format: Paperback
Many recently published books have been devoted to the plight of Urban sprawl. How Cities Work is a recommended addition. Clear, concise and to the point it establishes a solid perspective from which to view the choices that we have made in how we choose to live.
The book begins by asserting that the factors that shape any city are a combination of its Transportation, Economics and Politics. After creating a framework for understanding these factors the book presents a critique of the so-called "New Urbanism". Marshall chooses none other than Disney's Celebration in Orlando Florida as his case study for the New Urbanism movement. Contrasting the Potemkin-like Celebration with neighboring Kissimmee, Marshall examines the forces that shaped each. The history of Kissimmee, complete with its ups and downs, demonstrates the workings of an authentic city. Celebration, in comparison, shows itself to be all style and little substance.

Cities don't "just happen". It wasn't the simply the car or modern technology that shaped how we live today. Rather, it was the integration of the three forces of Transportation, Economics and Politics. The car is only as good as the roads that get built through government funding and a city's growth is shaped by the politics of zoning boards. The history of the last 50 years has shown that we have chosen a centrifugal direction for these forces. From general neglect of mass transportation to the emergence of restrictive covenants, we've chosen a path that has lead us to the creation of communities that serve to segment and isolate rather than bring together.

While Marshall's remedies, especially his penchant for generally left-wing approaches to social policy, may sometimes miss the mark, his book offers an excellent framework from which to approach the task of remaking our cities into much more livable places.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I have been interested in the New Urbanism philosophy for a while now. Living in a walkable community is important to me. In this book, Alex Marshall opened my eyes to different factors involved in maintaining a "traditional city". It challenged my assumptions and changed my opinions. In some ways, Alex is against New Urbanism, saying that usually New Urbanism simply results in buidling new suburban developments. It is not as simple as building houses with front porches within walking distance of a small commercial street. Maintaining a community and a healthy urban core involves transportation, regional government, and politics. Interestingly, Alex challenges that increasing parking and freeway access to a downtown area can kill a City rather than help it. Some people do not like WalMart's because they take business away from smaller community stores. The problems is, this started with the advent of the automobile. If you have a car, you can't blame WalMart. Many people would rather drive to a large box-retail-store to save money than try to find parking at a local small store and pay higher prices. Granted, you might get to know the owner of the local store and meet some neighbors. Gas is cheap and freeways are plentiful. Sadly, there are few alternatives to the car anymore. The minority that would rather live in a "community" and shop at local stores have limited options. As soon as you say "growth restrictions" someone else says you are taking away their right to a new home on 1/2 an acre close to the new freeway paid for and maintained by your tax dollars. What about your right to enjoy a local neighborhood?Read more ›
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 20, 2002
Format: Paperback
A previous reviewer faulted the author for poor analysis. I don't think we read the same book.
Throughout the book, the author repeatedly explains issues of economy, transportation, and the power of governmental choice in the formation of cities. He points out, as few new urbanists do, that cities exist for the economic advantage of its citizens, that government makes real decisions about what kind of transportation system is to be utilized, and that it is the transportation system that ultimately determines the form of regions.
He effectively articulates that the functions of a city are innate and independent of the forms that city might take. To the author's credit, he clearly identifies his personal preferences for a developmental form that is transit oriented and dominated by urbanist forms.
The book is easy to read, and its theories are clearly and repeatedly stated. Is the book correct? Who knows. The author, very ambitiously, attempts to get at the very basics of the existence of the city form, and I think he proffers thoughtful and compelling arguments.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By J Kevin Doyle on March 4, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is a fine read, with humor and deep feeling, showing the plight of the modern city and therefore the modern soul.
Marshall argues convincingly that the unmittigated promotion of the automobile has robbed us of both community and even the convenience it was ostensibly designed to promote, turning our cities into isolated cul-de-sacs and sad little strip malls, with the "city" itself often either blighted or turned into a theme park for tourists.
This loss of place, he argues, is not ammended by most of the "new urbanism" that's in vogue, which he claims is simply the same old suburb dressed up in a sentimental veneer. Neither is simply building more roads a viable solution.
Marshall looks to government, in its best sense, as a public institution as the beginning to working with this dilema. The easy answer of a market driven laizze-faire approach is no answer at all. Instead he argues that we need to first understand how cities function and how good design can be both practical and pleasing. Individuals shouldn't be the ones driving growth around their own short term benefit- communities should be looking towards the long term good. We all need to get involved, and make some tough choices.
I was taken on an interesting ride by this book, with intimate, street level looks at some of the most soulful and souless communities around- Copanhagen, Silicon Valley, Jackson Heights among others. I speak of soul here, because even though the book is crisp and articulate, I could sense that the author had a real relationship with these places and invites us to deepen our own, looking at the quality of our lives, and how that relates to the cities, towns, and burbs we live in.
Not only an important book, but also an enjoyable one.
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