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City LimitsIn February, when urban planner and veteran City Hall insider Alexander Garvin was tapped to oversee the rebuilding of lower Manhattan, all the local papers hit the same historical note. "Not since Robert Moses imposed his single-minded mark on the region decades ago," the Daily News wrote, "has an individual been asked to lead the re-creation of such a crucial swath of real estate."
Ah, the ghost of New York's "master builder." There's no purging him, is there? Even as clean-up workers were still unearthing human remains from Ground Zero, pressure was building on Garvin to hurry up and deliver a master reconstruction plan in a New York minute — long-term consequences be damned.
This month, just as Garvin plunges forward with a design that will remake Manhattan on a Moses-like scale, McGraw-Hill is reissuing a newly updated version of his critically acclaimed 1995 book, The American City: What Works, What Doesn't. If Garvin's blueprint for a revitalized downtown reflects the urban philosophy he's sketched out in his book, New Yorkers need not fret the second coming of Robert Moses.
Garvin's credo is straightforward: "Only when a project also has a beneficial impact on the surrounding community can it be considered successful planning." For him, there is no singular, shining model of urban planning that can be carbon-copied; a particular region, city, or neighborhood has its own distinct features and assets that need to be capitalized on by a given project.
Encyclopedic in scale, The American City is a sweeping survey of more than 250 urban and suburban revitalization projects in America. To fine-tune his recipe for a successful formula, Garvin casts his eye over the last hundred years. He cites Chicago's creation of a lakeshore network of parks in the early 1900s — which spurred a residential housing boom — as one successful example. Historic preservation, as it was pioneered by Charleston and New Orleans in the mid-20th Century, is another kind.
Portland's recent rebirth also embodies, to Garvin, another successful model — and on a much larger and fuller scale. After the city invested in a riverfront park, mass transit (a light-rail system), and walkable streets, the business community responded in kind, resulting in a boomlet of retail stores, office buildings, hotels, and apartment houses.
"Thus," Garvin concludes, "urban planning should be defined as public action that will produce a sustained and widespread private market reaction." In particular, he indicts Moses' brand of redevelopment as producing the opposite effect, because many of his colossal structures — such as the recently razed New York Coliseum and the superblock housing projects — resulted in a form of de facto segregation, in which residents in the area were effectively cut off from their neighbors. "This separation," Garvin writes, prevents any redevelopment benefits from "spilling over into surrounding neighborhoods and thus stimulating further private activity."
A well-respected professor of planning and architecture at Yale University, Garvin's ethos is part Frederick Law Olmsted, part Jane Jacobs: he's passionate about parks and open space but he's also an ardent proponent of mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. The dapper academic, who favors bowties, is also no ivory-tower theorist; he's been a member of the New York City Planning Commission for the last seven years, and from 1970 to 1980, he served in city government as deputy commissioner of housing and director of comprehensive planning. Perhaps most importantly, nothing in Garvin's book or career suggests he is about to turn into a 21st century public works despot a la Moses.