What Makes a Great City

What Makes a Great City

by Alexander Garvin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610917575
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 09/08/2016
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 1,151,117
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alex Garvin is currently an adjunct professor at the Yale School of Architecture and President and CEO of AGA Public Realm Strategists, Inc., a planning and design firm in New York City that is responsible for the initial master plans for the Atlanta BeltLine as well as other significant public-realm projects throughout the United States. Between 1996 and 2005 he was managing director for planning at NYC2012, the committee to bring the Summer Olympics to New York in 2012. During 2002–2003, he was Vice President for Planning, Design and Development of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Over the last 46 years, he has held prominent positions in five New York City administrations, including Deputy Commissioner of Housing and City Planning Commissioner. He is the author of numerous books including The American City: What Works and What Doesn’t, now in its third edition.  

Read an Excerpt

What Makes a Great City

By Alexander Garvin


Copyright © 2016 Alexander Garvin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-758-2


The Importance of the Public Realm

Bilbao had become a great city by investing in its streets, squares, parks, and infrastructure. These are the parts of the city that people share in common, occupy together, and use on an everyday basis. They matter to everybody. That's why its occupants had devoted their time, money, and efforts to reconfigure them to meet their latest needs.

Any city's infrastructure (its water, sewer, utility, and transportation systems) is what allows people to live there. The more widespread and comprehensive the infrastructure, the greater the number of people who can use it. But is it part of the public realm? Similarly, the more extensive a city's network of streets, squares, and parks, the easier it is to live there. But does the public realm include anything else?

Defining the Public Realm

With the exception of the transportation network, especially subways, infrastructure is not accessible to everybody, so it may seem to be apart from the public realm. This infrastructure has come to be managed everywhere as a public utility paid for on a fee-for-service basis, rather than from general government revenues. Unlike the rest of a city's infrastructure, however, the public is able to come, go, and circulate within the transportation network in the same fashion as it does in streets, squares, and parks. But it does have to pay for using subways, buses, trains, and other components of the transportation network. Thus, although transportation is not usually available for free, it really is part of a city's public realm.

I already understood that the public realm included everything that was accessible but not in private ownership. I also understood that this included sidewalks, public benches, lighting, signage, vehicular roadways, and everything else within city streets, squares, and parks. But I was overly focused on these three main components of the public realm. I understood that only during a visit to Hvar, a small Croatian city on an island in the Adriatic Sea, late in my quest to determine the importance and characteristics of a great public realm.

I was walking along the city's harbor promenade, which is lined on one side by boats of every size and description and on the other side by hotels, bars, cafés, restaurants, and souvenir vendors. In the distance, the hills sloping down to the harbor were covered with charming, red-roofed, limestone buildings that provide residents with places for business, family life, and community activities. Lots of people were out walking along the promenade, having coffee in the cafés, meeting friends, making new acquaintances, sitting on benches, walking along the beach, tying up boats ... The promenade provided a welcoming part of Hvar's public realm that was easily accessible to all the city's residents. It was not a street with cars and trucks, yet people were using it to get from one place to another; it was not a park, although children were using it to play games and adults were sitting on benches sunning themselves; it was not a square, either, but groups of people were using it as a gathering place.

For me this experience only emphasized that I had to explain the importance of the public realm not just by discussing streets, squares, and parks as the three major components of the public realm, but also by examining the sometimes ordinary, but usually very special places, such as Hvar's waterfront promenade, that are not exactly streets, squares, or parks, but are also very much a part of the public realm.

Streets, Squares, and Parks

Streets, squares, and parks have specific and very different functions. Each component, in turn, complements its core functions with a variety of other activities that make its contributions to the public realm even richer.

As this book will explain, of the three major components, it is a city's streets that contribute most to shaping its character. Their chief function is to provide corridors that allow people, goods, and vehicles to move from points of origin to specific destinations. This may be the core function of streets. But along the way, streets play host to a wide variety of activities, both commercial and recreational, that keep a city energized, interconnected, and socially functional. When streets take the form of limited-access highways, however, they are not entirely "public," as they only are available to motor vehicles and their occupants.

When walking these streets, many people will simply pass through. Others will avail themselves of the streets' special attractions or casually stroll, check out the window displays, and enjoy the buzz. Still others will make their way to destinations located along the street or elsewhere in the city. In fact, the number of people passing through a street usually far exceeds those who are there for a specific reason. Nonetheless, great streets offer passersby the opportunity to stop and shop, rendezvous with friends, sit, or park their bicycle along their way.

City squares, like streets, contribute to the public realm by offering a wide choice of social, political, and business activities designed to attract both individuals and groups. People from all over the city gather in these squares at different times of day, and at different seasons of the year. A myriad of activities take the stage here: celebrations, protests, musical events, political rallies (such as Occupy Wall Street), candlelight vigils, free children's shows, farmers markets, speeches, street performances, art exhibits, and anything else people can think of. But the main function of a city square is to serve as a social and political center that invites participation from all levels of society and that provides a sense of community and unity to those who participate.

Parks offer city dwellers a variety of recreational opportunities, though a great deal more than recreation takes place there. People pass through (and enjoy) public parks on their way to somewhere else, just as they do on city streets. They gather there for public events, just as they do in squares. But because a far greater proportion of the territory occupied by parkland consists of greenery, parks are likely to provide a healthy haven from the surrounding city and contribute to its livability.

Beyond Streets, Squares, and Parks

There are some examples of the public realm that cannot be neatly fit into the category of street, square, or park — places such as the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, the greenways in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia, and subways everywhere. People everywhere use open air malls, skylit arcades, and pedestrian walkways.

They function in the exact same way as streets, squares, and parks do. Yet they are not, strictly speaking, any one of the three. Everybody understands that they are part of the public realm, but we often forget that they require funding for the same maintenance and management personnel that are routinely devoted to the streets, squares, and parks that are conventionally thought of as making up the public realm.

The National Mall in Washington, D.C., for example, connects the Capitol with the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and a dazzling array of great museums; yet it is not a street. It is a national gathering place that has hosted everything from civil rights protests and antiwar demonstrations to concerts for tens of thousands of Washingtonians and millions of television viewers; yet it is not a public square. It includes 309 acres of grass, trees, plants, and walkways; yet it is not a park. But it serves as the most significant part of the public realm of the United States, which the entire nation shares once a year on Independence Day, every four years when a new president is inaugurated, and whenever events of national importance take place.

In Milan, the six-story, glass-roofed cruciform public space known as the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which includes stores and restaurants on the lower floors and offices and residential apartments above, is similarly difficult to categorize. Many Milanese gather here to socialize, but the Galleria is not a square. Others pass through on their way to and from the square in front of the Duomo, Milan's cathedral, or from the square in front of the Scala Opera and other destinations; yet, like the National Mall, it not a street. Still others go to the Galleria to have fun and relax; but it is not a park. Everybody who comes to Milan, however, goes to the Galleria, and its contribution to that city's public realm is as great as any park, square, or street.

Similarly, Society Hill's greenways were cut through the large blocks of the Philadelphia neighborhood during the 1960s and have become a valuable part of that city's public realm. Previously, residents traveling to a destination at the other end of the neighborhood had to walk the long distances between streets before being able to turn a corner to go in another direction. The greenways provide a more convenient route but have become more than a shortcut in the years since their construction. In some places the greenways have become community gathering places; in others they are where children play; but everywhere the greenways have made neighborhood circulation easier.

Indeed, though few would place a city's transit terminals or metro stations in the same category as its parks, the most frequently ignored component of the public realm is the transportation system. Many are hidden from view as underground subways. Smart public officials have long understood that they can be a potential source of revenue from retail rents paid by the stores that cater to the hundreds of thousands of daily riders who pass through places such as Grand Central Terminal, but few recognize their importance as public realm. A great public realm can assist in convincing those riders to do something they had not anticipated when they got there. Indeed, transit stations do not need to be as impressive as Grand Central to be important components of a city's public realm. The London Underground station at Bond Street, for example, presents identifiable displays of merchandize in a space that is easy to use and move around in, inducing people on their way from the subway to the street to purchase items carried by the retailers along their route.

Making Cities Great

All large metropolises start out with an underdeveloped public realm. It takes the work of generations along with wise management and judicious investments to transform that public realm into a place that is convenient, vibrant, attractive, and nurturing. Improvements to the Mall in Washington, D.C., and the Galleria in Milan have been under way since the nineteenth century, when they opened. The twentieth- and twenty-first-century changes to the greenways of Society Hill and many London subway stops are much less obvious. In all four instances, however, the enhancements have strengthened the public realm characteristics introduced in the next chapter. They are what continue to make those cities great.


The Characteristics of a Great Public Realm

London, Paris, and Rome have continued to be great cities for centuries. None of these cities were great from the very beginning. What we see when we look at them or any flourishing contemporary metropolis is a cultural artifact of great complexity that reflects generations of evolutionary growth and adjustments made by residents, property owners, businesses, government agencies, and other — sometimes external — forces. It took those people generations to create a public realm that

1. is open to anybody,

2. offers something for everybody,

3. attracts and retains market demand,

4. provides a framework for successful urbanization,

5. sustains a habitable environment, and

6. nurtures and supports a civil society.

I summarize each of these six characteristics in this chapter. The individual chapters that follow discuss each characteristic in detail.

Remaining a great city depends on people continuing to want to be there, to enjoy being there, and to remain there, and that depends on continuing to make improvements to the public realm — improvements that meet the needs of future generations.

It is a mistake to judge a city's public realm based on the primary purpose of each of its components. Public parks are not just outdoor recreational facilities; public squares are more than places for social interaction; public streets are not mere travel corridors. The activities specifically designed to take place in these parts of the public realm are not the only things that can or should happen, just as cooking is not the only thing that happens in a kitchen. Some activities may take place only at certain times of the day and seasons of the year, just as cooking a turkey is more likely to take place in a kitchen around Thanksgiving than during the middle of summer. For example, on Sundays people pass through Old Town Square in Prague on their way to religious services; on other days they come and go to classical music concerts. During the Christmas season there is a special market in the square. The square does not exist specifically for any of these activities, but rather adapts to each individual use.

Open to Anybody

The public realm of any great city is open to anybody: children and the elderly; residents and visitors; businesses and their customers; pedestrians, bicycles, cars, buses, trucks, and streetcars; revelers and demonstrators; performers and their audience ... It would not be public if it weren't. But is it open to anyone if only a few people use it?

Jane Jacobs, in her powerful book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argued that "a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially ..." will "insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common." She is, of course, describing the land uses and occupancy of the privately owned buildings that open onto the public realm, rather than the public realm itself. Those were the characteristics of Manhattan's West Village during the 1950s, when Jacobs lived there. After six decades of gentrification, however, many of the people who used Hudson Street and the other busy sections of the West Village no longer go to West Street and other places in the West Village because they are too expensive.

In chapter 3, rather than consider the buildings enclosing the public realm, I focus on what makes the public realm itself open to anyone. My approach is as commonsensical as Jacobs'. It argues that for the widest diversity of people to share the public realm it must be overwhelmingly identifiable, accessible, and easy to use. As important, when they get there, people must feel safe and comfortable enough to remain there.

Something for Everybody

A successful public realm must be more than just open to anybody. Nobody would be there unless there were things for them to do and see. In chapter 4 I explain that there must be enough room for all those activities, that people must be able to have fun there, and for it to remain overwhelmingly welcoming, cities must devote adequate resources to its maintenance and management.

Attracting and Retaining Market Demand

London, Paris, and Rome each were very different cities in 1800, 1900, and 2000. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their streets were filled with horses, horse-drawn carts and carriages, and horse droppings; by 2000 they were dominated by motor vehicles. We cannot predict what will dominate them in the twenty-second century. As I explain in chapter 5, they are likely to remain great cities, however, because great cities continually alter their public realm to meet the changing demands of their occupants. That is the reason that during the twentieth century Minneapolis reconfigured Nicollet Avenue, its main street, twice for automobiles and twice for pedestrians, and is currently repeating the process in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Though one could argue that these revisions corrected past mistakes, the reality is that the city adapted to its changing character. Without these changes the public realm would have lost the customers, whether they came on horse, on foot, or in an automobile, bus, or streetcar.

When such changes increase the consumer base, neighboring property owners and real estate developers become the players most likely to renovate or replace nearby buildings and to upgrade surrounding territory. Thus, the public realm is essential in responding to the changes in a city's economy and character.

Providing a Framework for Successful Urbanization

Some locations — waterfronts, for example — are more likely than others to attract market demand. Intelligent investment in the public realm, then, can exploit that market demand to provide a benefit to city dwellers. People in Chicago, for example, have always preferred living and working near Lake Michigan. Once the city began creating its 3,130-acre chain of lakeshore parks, however, people were willing to pay even more to be nearby. Naturally, developers were eager to supply apartments and offices close to those lakeshore parks — as eager as Parisian developers were to supply offices and residences along its broad boulevards, rather than in the sunless neighborhoods with narrow winding streets and alleys. Chapter 6 describes the axial vistas, ring roads, and rectilinear grids that provide a framework around which property owners and developers erect the buildings that make up the city and the importance of ongoing management to the success of that framework. But what elements of that framework are perceived as desirable by property owners and developers? Chapters 7 and 8 explain the importance of a habitable environment and a civil society to retaining the people who have made a city great and to attracting future generations who will make it even greater.


Excerpted from What Makes a Great City by Alexander Garvin. Copyright © 2016 Alexander Garvin. 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

Preface: What Makes a Great City
Chapter 1: The Importance of the Public Realm
Defining the Public Realm
Streets, Squares, and Parks
Beyond Streets, Squares, and Parks
Making Cities Great
Chapter 2: The Characteristics of the Public Realm
Open to Anybody
Something for Everybody
Attracting and Retaining Market Demand
Providing a Framework for Successful Urbanization
Sustaining a Habitable Environment
Nurturing and Supporting a Civil Society
Chapter 3: Open to Anybody
Overwhelmingly Identifiable, Accessible, and Easy to Use
Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Spain
Creating an Identifiable, Accessible, and Easy-to-Use Public Realm
The Paris Metro
Federal Center, Chicago
Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy
The Squares of Savannah
Sixteenth Street, Denver
Keeping the Public Realm Safe
Gran Via, Barcelona
Piet Heinkade, Amsterdam
The Streets of Paris
Feeling Comfortable
Jardin du Palais Royale, Paris
Commonwealth Avenue, Boston
Kungstradgarten, Stockholm
Via dei Condotti, Rome
Via Aquilante, Gubbio, Italy
Worth Avenue, Palm Beach
Levittown, Long Island
Forever Welcoming
Chapter 4: Something for Everybody
A Reason to Return Again and Again
Boulevard des Italiens, Paris
Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris
Washington Park, Chicago
Having Fun
Piazza Navona, Rome
Animating a Multifunctional Public Realm
Market Square and PPG Place, Pittsburgh
A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place
Central Park, New York City
Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona
Reclaiming Bits of the Public Realm for Public Use
Plenty of People
Chapter 5: Attracting and Retaining Market Demand
Using the Public Realm to Trigger Private Development
Place des Vosges, Paris
The Revival of the Place des Vosges
Regent’s Park, London
Avenue Foch, Paris
Enlarging the Public Realm to Accommodate a Growing Market
An Administrative Center for the Modern City of Paris
North Michigan Avenue, Chicago
Responding to Diminishing Market Demand by Repositioning the Public Realm
Kärntner Straße, Vienna
Bryant Park, New York City
Continuing Investment
Chapter 6: Providing a Framework for Successful Urbanization
Alternative Frameworks
Dubrovnik, Croatia
St. Petersburg, Russia
The Paris Street Network
Ringstrasse, Vienna
Radio-Concentric Moscow
Houston’s Highway Rings
The Manhattan Grid
Maintaining the Public Realm Framework
Thirty-Fourth Street, Manhattan
Determining the Location of Market Activity
Chapter 7: Sustaining a Habitable Environment
What Does It Take to Sustain a Habitable Environment?
Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn
Using the Public Realm to Create a Habitable Environment
Boston’s Emerald Necklace
Long Island’s Network of Parks, Beaches, and Parkways
Reconfiguring the Public Realm to Improve Habitability
The Public Squares of Portland, Oregon
New York City’s Greenstreets Program
Transportation Alternatives that Improve Habitability
Union Square, San Francisco
Post Office Square, Boston
Congestion Pricing in London
Congestion Targets in Zurich
An Ever More Habitable Public Realm
The Chicago Lakeshore
Reviving the San Antonio River
Operating the Public Realm
Park Management in New York City
An Ever-Improving Public Realm
Chapter 8: Nurturing and Supporting a Civil Society
The Nurturing Role of the Public Realm
The Streets of Copenhagen
Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad), St. Petersburg
Red Square, Moscow
Ensuring that the Public Realm Continues to Nurture a Civil Society
Times Square, Manhattan
The Public Realm as a Setting for Self-Expression
Chapter 9: Using the Public Realm to Shape Everyday Life
Whose Realm Is It?
Determining the Daily Life of a City
The Squares of London
The Minneapolis Park System
The Madrid Miracle
The Key to Greatness
Chapter 10: Creating a Public Realm for the Twenty-First Century     
The Patient Search for a Better Tomorrow
Place de la République, Paris
Post Oak Boulevard in the Uptown District of Houston
Brooklyn Bridge Park
Atlanta’s BeltLine Emerald Necklace
Waterfront Toronto
What Makes a City Great

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