Though written twelve years ago, “How Cities Work” by Alex Marshall is still highly applicable to cities around the world today. Marshall, a journalist by training, observes cities and shares his findings, oftentimes adding in remarks from famous urban planning giants such as Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses.
The introduction poses a question that serves as the theme throughout the entire book: ‘Where do cities come from?’ Marshall ultimately breaks it down into three categories that equally shape the way cities were built and how they continue to operate in today’s world. Those three are politics, economics, and transportation.
Each chapter features one of four places: the community of Celebration, Florida; Jackson Heights, an immigrant neighborhood in New York City; the Silicon Valley in California; and the city of Portland, Oregon. These cities were chosen because they are extremely unique from one another, yet all share a common bond of economic success. Throughout the book, Marshall spends time divulging the details of whether or not they are actually sustainable and practical.
Celebration is a wealthy community designed by Disney to look like an old fashioned small-town. The cute town is flooded with tourists and visitors that Disney pumps in, spending hundreds of dollars at the downtown restaurants and specialty stores. Meanwhile, a nearby historic community called Kissimmee suffers from population decline. Based on the design philosophy of “New Urbanism,” Marshall chastises Celebration for being a ‘wanna-be Kissimmee.’ Houses in Kissimmee are available for a fraction of the cost of the smallest available unit in Celebration. The two places are attempting to be the same thing, but only Celebration succeeds. The Disney empire is economically stable enough to produce a fake town that appears successful, though it lacks true town structure and government.
Jackson Heights, in New York City, is a historic neighborhood that is full of diversity. Though it was not always the thriving neighborhood that it is today, as it faced issues in the late 1800s before the garden city movement. The area was able to survive the building of the highway over top of it and continues to thrive with its unique culture. Marshall notes that this area is not as dependent on cars as most other places, due to the fact that many immigrants do not have cars. They walk to work, to pick their children up from school and even to get groceries from their local shops. In a high-density place such as New York, most residents aren’t relying on cars, but the subway or bus system, which has flourished.
The Silicon Valley in California is very unique. What began as farms and orchards many decades ago is now a series of technology-based companies with their business parks and campuses. Marshall explores the alternate reality of a different design for the area- including well thought out placement of residential and business districts. This alternate Silicon Valley includes mixed-use developments with well-designed transportation systems instead of the seemingly sporadic sprawl of commercial California. Though, with any area, politics plays into the shape of how an area is developed, Marshall notes how most residential areas lay outside of the valley, reserving the area for commercial businesses and office parks. The zoning and regulative aspects of place-making relate to the elected officials and how involved they are in those types of issues.
Portland, Oregon is doing all the right things. In Marshall’s eyes, the urban growth boundaries and heavily used transit systems are making the city well designed and well thought out. He classifies the metropolitan area into three different rings and describes the relationships between them. Transportation is not an issue in Portland; people walk, ride their bikes, or take the light rail into the city. The light rail is used by people of all ages- allowing those who work downtown a place to read on their commute and providing teenagers a route to shopping destinations in the city’s unique districts.
Each of the four areas showcases their success in different ways. By showcasing vastly different places in America, Marshall has detailed how cities can be successful in a distinct fashion. Celebration plays up their small-town façade with financial help from Disney. Jackson Heights proudly provides a home for a diverse group of people, including immigrants and minorities. The Silicon Valley is a world-famous empire for technology and innovation. Portland utilizes its strong public transit system to reinforce its unique city culture.
Overall, I recommend adding this book to your library. Marshall asks all the right questions and challenges the reader to think about how cities came to be and how they could have been different. He discusses the causes and characteristics of urban sprawl, and how that affects different places. Marshall leaves the reader with three pieces of advice for shaping places, revolving around the three themes mentioned previously: politics, economics, and transportation. It is important to keep in mind that the book is over ten years old and may be a little outdated in hard facts, but the themes and ideas Marshall expresses are still on point.
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