My Kind of City: Collected Essays of Hank Dittmar

My Kind of City: Collected Essays of Hank Dittmar

by Hank Dittmar


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"Hank lived by the credo 'first listen, then design.'"
—Scott Bernstein, Founder and Chief Strategy + Innovation Officer, Center for Neighborhood Technology
Hank Dittmar was a globally recognized urban planner, advocate, and policy advisor. He wrote extensively on a wide range of topics, including architectural criticism, community planning, and transportation policy over his long and storied career.
In My Kind of City, Dittmar has organized his selected writings into ten sections with original introductions. His observations range on scale from local ("My Favorite Street: Seven Dials, Covent Garden, London") to national ("Post Truth Architecture in the Age of Trump") and global ("Architects are Critical to Adapting our Cities to Climate Change"). Andrés Duany writes of Hank in the book foreword, "He has continued to search for ways to engage place, community and history in order to avoid the tempting formalism of plans."
The range of topics covered in My Kind of City reflects the breadth of Dittmar's experience in working for better cities for people. Common themes emerge in the engaging prose including Dittmar's belief that improving our cities should not be left to the "experts"; his appreciation for the beautiful and the messy; and his rare combination of deep expertise and modesty. As Lynn Richards, CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism expresses in the preface, "Hank's writing is smart without being elitist, witty and poetic, succinct and often surprising."

My Kind of City captures a visionary planner's spirit, eye for beauty, and love for the places where we live.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781642830361
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 08/20/2019
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Hank Dittmar (1956-2018) was the founding principal of Hank Dittmar Associates, an international urban planning firm. Before that, he was chief executive of The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, founding president and CEO of Reconnecting America, and executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. His long, varied career included service as a regional planner, airport director, policy advisor, and outreach worker with street gangs in Chicago. He published extensively on planning, urban design, and architecture.  

Read an Excerpt


My Kind of Town

These few pieces are appreciations of cities, written after visits or as commissions. Some cities I have loved deeply over a long period of time, exploring their history and seeking out forgotten places and famous ones. Los Angeles and London certainly fit into that category, and articles remain to be written about northern New Mexico, Chicago, and Austin, Texas.

Other cities I have loved as a visitor, returning again and again, and often seeking out the same favorite places. Of these, New Orleans tops the list for its architecture, its food, its music, and its dysfunction. I didn't expect to fall for Auckland in New Zealand, having long heard it compared unfavorably to Wellington. But Auckland surprised me.

New Orleans Is My Kind of Town

Architecture Today

February 2, 2010

The United States has often been described as a melting pot, but it is really more of a stew, composed of many distinct ingredients with their own flavour blended into a whole. In New Orleans such a stew is called a gumbo, and there are many different kinds of gumbo.

This kind of cultural adaptation in architecture and urbanism can be seen all over the United States, from cities which borrowed English town building traditions like Charleston and Savannah to the modification of the Mediterranean courtyard house to multifamily housing in Southern California. For my money, the most exciting places are those where a variety of cultural and building traditions come together, colliding, mingling and overlaying in ways that create distinct new traditions.

The best American example is New Orleans, renowned as the birthplace of jazz and infamous as the place which was damaged first by Hurricane Katrina and then by the indifference of the government.

New Orleans brings together Spanish, French, English, and American frontier traditions alongside the Indian, Caribbean and African to create a rich mix of influences in food and music, known worldwide.

This "gumbo" can also be found in architecture and urban design. New Orleans was first a French settlement, and the plan of the French Quarter and its riverfront square reflects French ideas about town planning. The architecture of the French Quarter reflects Spanish building codes, interpreted by American and French architects, with thick-walled courtyard buildings, iron balconies and arcades and building to the lot line. The result, after two centuries of use and reuse of these highly adaptable buildings in a hot moist climate, is an amazing patina and an astonishing diversity that somehow retains its charm despite the onslaught of tourists. The same influences can be found in the nearby and less touristy Fauborg Marigny.

Later districts, such as the Garden District, the Irish Channel and the downtown, mix Caribbean building traditions with classical and Victorian influences, modified by the climate and the culture. Local building types, such as townhouses with galleries on the ground and first floor, and centre hall villas with arcades and side yard entrances, draw upon developing craft and gardening traditions.

Vernacular building types such as the room-on-room shotgun and double shotgun house enabled generations of families to attain homeownership at low cost. This owner-built and -occupied housing has in turn enabled the regional art and cuisine to flourish, for the arts works best in a place where one can live cheaply and well. It was not unusual to learn that carpenters were also musicians, in pre-Katrina New Orleans.

The Cuban-American town planner Andres Duany has said that New Orleans is not the least functional American city, as it was often portrayed in the dark days after the 2005 hurricane, but the most functional Caribbean city. In a 2007 article for Metropolis magazine, Duany said, "It was possible to sustain the unique culture of New Orleans because housing costs were minimal, liberating people from debt. One did not have to work a great deal to get by."

This has been one of the great challenges after Katrina, and it is a challenge that Brad Pitt's Make It Right houses, all designed to the highest standards by talented architects, were not designed to answer.

These houses — a valuable addition to New Orleans building culture — rely upon substantial donations to make them affordable, and thus address affordability in a different way. By contrast, the Katrina cottages, of which Marianne Cusato's won the People's Choice Design Awards, is the most well-known, could provide attractive, tiny, low-cost manufactured housing.

Clearly another part of the answer must be the revival of a local building tradition, and the training of local craftspeople in both vernacular crafts and in green building.

This is the piece of the challenge that The Prince's Foundation has chosen to address, in partnership with a local trade college and the Preservation Resource Center. We are training young men and women from damaged neighbourhoods in vernacular building, both through a foundation course that teaches drawing, geometry and proportion, and through practical placements that repair damaged houses in the Ninth Ward.

We're finding that the unique culture that is New Orleans is alive and well in these young people, and that their lives are transformed by a programme that reconnects them with the special nature of their city and its architecture. Increasingly it is becoming clear that post Katrina New Orleans will be smaller, different but still a rich and tasty gumbo of a place.

Auckland: At Water's Edge

As a native Californian, I had always heard Auckland and Wellington compared to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. I think the stereotype was mainly about auto dependency. When I visited, I didn't see it. Auckland is an archipelago, much more than Los Angeles, with its vast coastal plain and gridded streets.

The Auckland plan recognizes this essential nature of the city, noting that "urban Auckland is characterized by its outstanding coastal and harbor settings, its narrow isthmus." Coastal settings are emphasized in Auckland through the Waterfront Plan, as are its principles of being public, working, green-blue, connected, and livable. Indeed the spectacularly successful urban design efforts along Auckland's waterfront have been appreciated by the public and the market alike.

The Auckland Plan recognizes that the Auckland metropolitan area is in transition, from the low-density, suburban city surrounding a central business district (CBD) to a more sustainable, twenty-first century model. This model recognizes the active, healthy, and outdoorsy nature of those who live in Auckland, but also their desire for a public life, for lively centers, and for the benefits of urban diversity. So the plan calls for a quality, compact urban form, for walkability and mixed use, and the fruits of this strategy are beginning to be seen with the lane ways, cultural districts, and urban villages popping up around the region, and with a public transport strategy.

I have been struck by the fact that the Auckland Plan's recognition of the region's outstanding coastal setting only finds expression in the Auckland CBD's waterfront, and not in enhancing the region's coastline and waterfront as a whole, as a place to live, work, and play. An astonishing 56 percent of Aucklanders live within one kilometer of the coast, and 97 percent within five kilometers. This stands to reason, when one thinks about the extent of the 3,100 kilometer coastline and its beauty.

This poses a number of challenges, as it helps to scatter the population, increasing driving and making public transport more challenging. Population dispersal along the coast also creates tensions when a working waterfront comes into contact with living and playing. The desire to live near the water becomes harder and harder to satisfy as more land is protected and land values near the coast increase. While statistics are not available specifically for Auckland, New Zealand-wide figures show that people living within one kilometer of the coast are generally both older and wealthier than those living further inland.

Increasing access and housing near the water thus becomes an issue of intensification in certain areas, and the attractiveness of this strategy has already been demonstrated with the successful redevelopment of the Viaduct area into apartments and offices. The Auckland Plan's development strategy does direct more growth along the coastline, but most emphasis seems to be on the Auckland Waterfront, and not on intensification in other key sub-regional centers and waterfront neighborhoods.

As an advocate of TOD, or public Transport-Oriented Development, I am pleased to see that Auckland is developing lively, mixed neighborhoods around its rail system. I think Auckland also needs COD, or Coastal-Oriented Development (not the delicious fish!), that combines mixed-use, multifamily neighborhoods — both apartments and terraces — near selected waterfronts with a gradual strategy of improving waterborne transportation, aka ferry service. Such a strategy could both develop selected new communities at densities that would support ferry service and amenities, such as at Hobsonville Point and Scott Point, and identify coastal brownfield sites near urban centers for infill development of multifamily, mixed neighborhoods.

Concentrating development reduces coastal-zone impact, creates more affordability, and makes ferry service more viable.

Good planning builds upon the advantages a region already has, and what struck me about Auckland was both its beautiful landscape and its intimate relationship with the sea. This is already reflected in the lifestyle of its residents, and planning and development strategies that enhance this identity and character will only increase Auckland's attractiveness and competitiveness globally. That's why I think Auckland needs more COD.

I Could Learn to Love LA All Over Again

Planetizen, 2005

It was fitting that the 13th Congress for the New Urbanism, "Examining the Polycentric City," should be held in Pasadena, California. Southern California, long seen as the epitome of the car-borne culture, has been attempting to remake itself. It reflects how cities all over the world, including London, are confronting new waves of growth, and its effect in both physical and economic terms on the existing city. A number of British urbanists made the trip to Pasadena, continuing the ongoing dialogue between UK urbanists and the American New Urbanists.

Southern California is a land of myths: home of the movie industry, the land of "fruits and nuts," birthplace of surfing, and epicenter of the car culture. These myths have been exported worldwide. Acclaimed theorists from Reyner Banham to Baudrillard have heralded Southern California as the harbinger of a rootless, transitory, antihistoric life, and in the process have contributed to an expectation about cities of the future.

A few of those myths were exploded at the Pasadena event. It emerged that, far from springing up around the car, Southern California was actually built around a network of streetcar routes. The notion that density doesn't exist in the region is equally untrue. The great central plain of Los Angeles has a density-per-mile that is equal to San Francisco, in an area twice the size. Hollywood and Koreatown are as dense as Paris.

However, it was the coming of the freeway which broke up the streetcar grid and led to the biggest Southern California myth of all: that of untrammelled mobility. People were encouraged to believe that the freeways enabled longer commutes at high rates of speed, and more and more traffic was channelled onto a small set of roadways. This hasn't worked, as the iron law of traffic is that building-more roads encourages more driving, and more auto-centred development.

Southern California now has a network of commuter rail, light rail and rapid bus routes to network the region, after spending billions of dollars in the process.

British-born New Urbanist Peter Calthorpe presented to the Congress a regional plan for accommodating the region's dramatic growth with high-density nodes of mixed use along public transport corridors.

While the reintroduction of mass transit helps give a skeleton to the new polycentric city, the true heart of Southern California lies in the towns and neighbourhoods that make its many centres. Santa Monica and Pasadena began a trend in reclaiming town centres from in-town malls by reopening streets — clearly a lesson in the way retail may go in future.

Decreasing freeway speeds are forcing busy families to shop and play in their local communities, and those communities are seeking to recapture vitality and active street life.

Most of Southern California is auto-centred sprawl, and most of its residents live in the spaces between the walkable mixed-use centres that are now emerging. That's why reforming national street standards to be context-sensitive, and creating "green" standards for neighbourhood development are so important: they represent fundamental change to the planning and delivery systems for growth.

It's also the CNU's lesson for the UK, struggling with challenges of growth in the Southeast and the problem of uneven development. Southern California's transformation isn't about marketing and rebranding. It marks the rediscovery of the essential qualities of each place by those in the front line: councillors, business groups, environmentalists and immigrants.

My Favorite Street: Seven Dials, Covent Garden, London, England

From Street Design by Victor Dover and John Massengale, 2014

But what involutions can compare with those of Seven Dials? Where is there such another maze of streets, courts, lanes, and alleys? ... The stranger who finds himself in "The Dials" for the first time, and stands Belzoni-like, at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity and attention awake for no inconsiderable time. From the irregular square into which he has plunged, the streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapor which hangs over the house-tops.

— Charles Dickens, Sketches, 1843

My favorite London street is actually the confluence of seven streets near London's Covent Garden into a circular space called the Seven Dials. At the center of the Dials stands an obelisk with six sundials (not seven) donated by the Worshipful Company of Mercers — one of London's guilds, and the owner of the area — in the 1690s.

Designed by Thomas Neale, a speculator who took the area on a lease from the Mercers Company, the area has certainly seen its ups and downs. In Dickens's time, it was part of the infamous St. Giles Rookery, an overcrowded slum famous for violence, prostitution, and brawls between the Irish and the English. With the redevelopment of the Covent Garden Market as an attraction in the 1970s, Seven Dials has grown in popularity, and today is loved by residents and tourists alike.

Over the past two years, the clutter has been removed from nearby streets, granite pavers have been restored in the pavement, and the monument has been cleaned and restored. In traffic-engineering terms, the junction operates as a shared space, with the monument serving as a pedestrian haven and the junction itself used equally by cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. Each of the seven streets is similarly a shared space, and the surrounding area boasts one of London's best coffee roasters; a back court called Neal's Yard with London's best fromagerie; and many delightfully individual cafes and shops, with wares ranging from rare books to secondhand designer clothing. Each street has its own character (one with market stalls), and no matter where one sets out to go, one ends up in an interesting place.

Incidentally, not two blocks away is Central St. Giles — a celebrated new building covering a city block and designed by Renzo Piano — that is the opposite of Seven Dials. The buildings are made of steel and brightly colored glass, and the public space is internal, irrigated neither by cars nor pedestrians. As a result, the retail is struggling — less than a year after Central St. Giles opened to acclaim from some design critics for its contribution to the civic realm.

Comparing the two areas is instructive, for it reveals what makes Seven Dials special. It is part of a densely connected network of small streets, bounded by three- to six-story buildings, with continuous retail, mostly on the small side. While there is a traditional delineation between street and pavement, it is made with paving materials and curbs — and without either the bright colors or railings that have become the default positions of the shared spacers and the engineers, respectively. The monument at the center has an inviting shelf upon which to sit and people-watch; and to get there, pedestrians have to walk across the intersection. Finally, the area is managed for a mix of small unique shops and larger brands, with residential space above and office space nearby.


Excerpted from "My Kind of City"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Henry Eric Dittmar.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Note from the Publisher
Foreword by Andrés Duany
Preface by Lynn Richards

Part 1. My Kind of Town
New Orleans is My Kind of Town, Architecture Today
Auckland: At Water’s Edge
I Could Learn to Love LA All Over Again, “Planetizen”
My Favorite Street: Seven Dials, Covent Garden, London, From Victor Dover and John Massengale, Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns by John Massengale and Victor Dover
Part 2. The Cavaliers vs. the Roundheads
Style Wars are Irrelevant when Architecture is Reduced to Floor-plate Cladding, “Building Design”
Southbank Scheme isn’t Wrong, it’s Just Bland, “Building Design”
When Will Stirling laureates be allowed to quote from Wren?, “Building Design”
People in Glass Houses, “Building Design”
Continuity or Contrast: Take Your Pick, “Building Design”
Three Classicists: Classicism in an Era of Pluralism, From Three Classicists, by Ben Pentreath, George Saumarez Smith, and Francis Terry 

Part 3. Continuity and Context
Continuity and Context in Urbanism and Architecture: the Honesty of a Living Tradition, “Conservation Bulletin 59”
Linking Lincoln: Legacy, Ecology and Commerce, from “Pienza: Legacy, Continuity and Tradition”, Seaside Pienza Institute

Part 4. Bouquets and Brickbats
London’s Skyscraper Designers Should Aim High Like Chicago, “Building Design”
An Urbanist’s View of the Stirling Shortlist, “Building Design” Don’t Students Need Proper Housing?, “Building Design” 
The Urbanists’ Stirling Prize, “Building Design” Location Dictates the Success of Monument Design, “Building Design”
It’s Time for a New Serpentine Pavilion Design Brief, “Building Design”

Part 5. Sustainability and Tradition
Sustainability and Tradition

Part 6. On Christopher Alexander’s Athena Award
Part 7. Urbanism in Late Stage Capitalism
Post Truth Architecture in the Age of Trump, “Building Design”  
Finally Some Smart Thinking About Garden Cities, “Building Design”
Garden Towns Need Some Garden City Thinking to Succeed, “Building Design”
Here’s the Detail That’s Missing from All the Manifestos, “Building Design”
Letter to Edward Glaeser in Response to “Two Green Visions: the Prince and the Mayor,” in Triumph of the City
Can Smart Urban Design Tackle the Rise of Nationalism? “Building Design”
“2011 Founders Forum on the New Urbanism at Seaside, Florida”, Contribution to an Unpublished Book
Architects are Critical to Adapting our Cities to Climate Change, “Building Design”
You’ve Got to Hand it to Post-Modernism, “Building Design”
Part 8. Lean Urbanism: Making Small Possible
A Lean Urbanism for England: Making Small Possible and Localism Real,
Pink Zones Can Lighten Planning Red Tape, “Building Design”
Big Ideas Don’t Often Produce Great Architecture, “Building Design”
Riding the Railroad to Revival, “Building Design”
Urban Recycling and Doubling Up: How Cities Really Respond to Growth, “Building Design”
How to Diversify Housing Delivery with Some Help from Architects, “Building Design”
Seeing Empty Homes as an Asset, Not a Liability, “Building Design”

Part 9. About London
London’s Tall Buildings Bloopers, “Building Design”
A Towering Mess that the Government has the Power—But not the Will—to Address, “Building Design”
Just Because the Powell & Moya Site is Available doesn’t mean it’s the right place for a Concert Hall, “Building Design”
Old Street Will Need More than Money, “Building Design”
We Need Real Homes, not Ivory Towers, “Building Design”
Bigging up Battersea: A Progress Report, “Building Design”
Are We Serious About Estate Regeneration?, “Building Design”London’s Housing Problems are Beyond the Power of Market Forces to Solve, “Building Design”

Part 10. From Place to Place
A Greener, More Pleasant Vision for Travel and Transport, The Ecologist
Why We Can’t Afford to Miss the Train, “Building Design”  
Beauty isn’t a Dirty Word, “Building Design”  
Highway Capital and Economic Productivity, Reconnecting America
Testimony before US Senate Commerce Committee in Air and Rail, 2003, U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, Amtrak
Sprawl: The Automobile and Affording the American Dream, in Sustainable Planet, by Juliet Schor and Betsy Taylor
Why We Need to Get Beyond the Automated Highway System, Presentation to the National Automated Highway System Assessment Committee, National Academy of Sciences
Thinking Like a System: Operationalizing Sustainability Through Transportation Technologies, ITS World Congress

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