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book review

High-rise tower-houses made of rammed earth in Sana’a, Yemen, are one indication of the infinite resourcefulness of city-dwellers.Rex Features

Reviewed here: WALKABLE CITY: HOW DOWNTOWN CAN SAVE AMERICA, ONE STEP AT A TIME, by Jeff Speck (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux); CITY: A GUIDEBOOK FOR THE URBAN AGE, by P.D. Smith (Bloomsbury)

Hark, Canada, to the sound of the Great Flush of 2012.

The rumbling began with the resignations of the mayors of Quebec's two largest cities, following allegations of systemic corruption cynical enough to turn – temporarily at least – my anger into amazement. (To give you an idea: After a senior city engineer could no longer find any more room to hide wads of banknotes in his home, he took to gambling away his kickbacks at the Casino de Montréal. "It was my way of putting this money back into the coffers of the state," he explained to the Charbonneau Commission.)

It continued this week with the burbling of Rob Ford, mayor of this nation's economic and demographic powerhouse, being washed out of office, perhaps permanently, following conflict-of-interest charges. The whirlpool may yet overwhelm the mayor of London, Ont., who faces conflict-of-interest charges of his own, and Winnipeg's Sam Katz, who is set to go to court next year for allegations of fraud. The risk, of course, is that not even a cloaca maxima will be able to handle the outflow. Decades of neglect means that, in the case of my hometown of Montreal, the sewers are so rotten that most of our municipal effluvia leaches directly into the earth.

What did our cities do to deserve the kind of leaders that I, personally, wouldn't trust to oversee a crosswalk in Cape Breton? The problem is partly a made-in-Canada one, going back to British North America Act, which made cities relatively powerless, and chronically underfunded, vassals of the provinces – meaning that, since 1867, political talent has been more likely to gravitate toward provincial or federal office. It is also, alas, a problem that afflicts all of North America, where intellectuals and opinion-leaders for too long turned their back on thinking seriously about the city and its future.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. In the last decades of the 20th century, downtowns and inner suburbs across the continent were abandoned to their fate, like quivering urchins dropped on a Tenderloin curb, by policies that favoured freeways and sprawl. The few voices defending the intrinsic virtues of fine-grained urbanism – notably William H. Whyte in New York and Jane Jacobs of Greenwich Village, and later Toronto's Annex – were overwhelmed by a chorus of suburban triumphalism. In Edge City (1991), Joel Garreau trumpeted the emergence of the highway-interchange non-place of office parks and subdivisions as the millennium's quintessential metropolitan form. In The New Geography (2001), Joel Kotkin dismissed such pre-automobile cities as New York and Paris as moribund relics, touting the loop-and-lollipop street plans of car-dependent subdivisions as the natural choice of the American consumer. And in a 2002 article in the Atlantic, conservative columnist David Brooks heralded the emergence of a "paradoxical and inexplicable condition: suburban greatness."

What a difference a decade (and a Great Recession) can make. In the United States, the suburban poor now outnumber the urban poor, and the last census revealed the residential populations of once-shrinking downtowns have, on average, swollen by 13 per cent in only 10 years. Canada's three largest cities – which never underwent the kind of decline that hollowed out American urban centres – are experiencing an unprecedented (and, in the case of Toronto, probably unsustainable) surge in downtown condo building, and city-themed magazines like Spacing are providing a much-needed corrective to the self-image of a nation that (pace the small-town iconography of Tim Hortons ads) is overwhelmingly urban.

As the Millennial generation recolonizes such given-up-for-dead urban nabes as Brooklyn's Red Hook, Montreal's Saint-Henri and Philadelphia's Northern Liberties, and their boomer parents downsize from ranch-styles to walk-ups in walkable neighbourhoods, North America may be crossing into a dangerous zone. The pro-urban discourse of the new champions of the city may soon rival their 'burb-loving predecessors for overweening hyperbole.

For the time being, though, I'm enjoying the literary swaggering of the new city gang. Standing up for the skyscraper, there's Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, whose Triumph of the City makes a tough case against overzealous historic preservation as an impediment to a manifest urban destiny. There's New Yorker essayist David Owen, whose Green Metropolis provides strong evidence for the environmental benefits of dense urban living (and a stinging takedown of back-to-the-land greens, whose VW vans and wood stoves make them profligate carbon emitters).

And then there's über-urbanist Richard Florida – now Toronto-based, but raised on the mean streets of Newark and Pittsburgh – author of The Rise of the Creative Class and, more recently, The Great Reset. Florida's energetically argued case for attracting a "super-creative core" of scientists, artists and academics to cities has lately generated a backlash against those who see the current urban renaissance as so much pernicious gentrification.

It's time to add a new name to the roll call of the city gang. Jeff Speck's urbanist cred goes back a long way: Since the 1980s, he has worked on 75 plans for cities, towns and villages, and in 2002 co-wrote Suburban Nation with Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the Miami-based duo who pioneered New Urbanism.

In Walkable City – not to be confused with Montrealer Mary Soderstrom's lively book of the same name – Speck strikes out on his own, building a strong case for neighbourhood walkability as the summum bonum for the car-challenged cities of North America. Making a strong case against "fattened roads, emaciated sidewalks, deleted trees, fry-pit drive-thrus, and ten-acre parking lots," he walks readers through the benefits of high-density, mixed-use, transit-served neighbourhoods, without succumbing to extremism. For Speck, bike riders, public-transport users, pedestrians and, yes, drivers, are all key to complete streets and healthy cities. "Specialists," he observes, "are the enemy of the city, which by definition is a general enterprise."

Too many of the urbanists I've read have a penchant for jargon, and an anti-talent for anecdote, which can make reading their prose feel like an uphill slog through mud. Speck is a welcome exception. Making it clear that he walks the walkability walk, he writes of his move from Miami's South Beach to Washington, D.C., where he met his future wife on a mass-transit platform and struggled, successfully, to turn his home's zoning-mandated parking space into a garden.

And I thought I had heard everything hearable about vehicles and the city, but, as I read, I found myself jotting down – and tweeting – quotes, statistics and factoids that had somehow escaped my attention. Intersections in Miami's suburbs are incredibly broad, Speck writes, because the firefighters' union once struck a deal that permitted only four-man teams to be sent out on calls – meaning that entire residential neighbourhoods had to be built to cater to the turning radius of hook-and-ladder trucks. I also learned that, at any one time, there are half a billion empty parking spaces in the United States, and that every minute, Americans send $612,500 overseas to support their automotive lifestyle.

If Walkable City has something of the PowerPoint about it – the bulk of the text is devoted to 10 prescriptions for promoting walkability, from Plant Trees to my favourite, Let Transit Work – that's not necessarily a bad thing; as Speck points out, the founding cris de coeur against city-wrecking modernism and car culture have already been written (think Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or James Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere). It turns out to be exactly the right time for a down-and-dirty, step-by-step seminar on city repair – especially one conducted by as genial a presenter as Speck.

Equally propitious in its timing is City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, by English author P.D. Smith. Organized on the lines of a travel guide, with sections on Arrival, Customs and Where to Stay, it is reminiscent of Norman Davies's excellent 1998 history of Europe: A one-volume overview of a potentially daunting subject, made readable, and even gripping, through fine writing and magazine-like sidebars (in Smith's case, on subjects as diverse as red-light districts and urban food carts). Effortlessly flitting from the surprisingly modern grid plans of ancient Chinese cities to the hauntingly timeless-looking ruins of contemporary Detroit, City represents a pain-free – in fact, joyful – survey course on nine millennia (at least) of urban history.

Obviously aware that his panoptic approach to global cities risks alienating some readers, Smith advises us to wander and drift through the text. The spectacular colour photo spreads and crisp street plans dotted through the pages of City – which reminded me of the Time-Life books I devoured in my youth – tempted me to do just that. But I must be a fool for urbanism, because I read all 339 pages up to the endnotes, and gleaned something new from almost every one. I had no idea, for example, that, long before the heyday of Chicago's Loop, tightly serried skyscrapers rose in the sands of Yemen (the 11-storey mud buildings still stand in Shibam, the "Manhattan of the Desert"). And I'm grateful to Smith for alerting me to the existence of the Street Observation Science Society, established in 1986, a group of flâneurs committed to docu- menting what remains of old Tokyo, and whose symbol is an all-seeing eye on the sole of a shoe.

"Cities," Smith avers, "are our greatest creation," and this crash course in urban civilization is a reminder of the complexity, cosmopolitanism and creativity that are engendered, and encouraged, by living and working cheek by jowl. (Indeed, for some commentators, urbanity, by definition, is proximity. "Cities," Ed Glaeser proposes in The Triumph of the City, "are the absence of physical space between people and companies." Which makes a Mumbai commuter train at rush hour the most civilized of places.)

Smith's survey is a reminder that urban history goes back very far indeed – at least to 7,000 BC, in the Neolithic artisans' settlement of Çatalhöyük in what is now Turkey – and, with the exception of the postwar drift into decentralization and automobile-driven sprawl (the city that Lewis Mumford called "the anti-city"), they have always been walkable.

I figure Speck, Smith and other members of the city gang (I consider myself an affiliate) have earned the right to a little cockiness. There is reason, after all, to strut: The city survived the worst the 20th century could throw at it, including carpet bombing, urban freeways and Le Corbusier. There are signs, too, that Canadian cities, at least in the West, are catching up: Mayors such as Calgary's Naheed Nenshi and Vancouver's Gregor Robertson are paying attention to the latest international currents in urbanism and sustainability, and the Great Flush of 2012 may clear the pipes for some new talent in Eastern and Central Canada. But I also figure the time for triumphalism will soon be over, and we'd better get on with making the best of the sometimes vexing, sometimes thrilling, experience of being in the city. Something that is best done, in my opinion, the good old way.

On foot.

Taras Grescoe is the author of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. He can be followed on Twitter @grescoe.

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