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Ken Greenberg, author of a new book 'Walking Home' and one of the world's foremost urban designers, shares his passion and methods for rejuvenating neglected cities. He is photographed in Toronto's Kensington Market May 10, 2011.

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder

By Ken Greenberg

Random House, 400 pages, $29.95

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If you're a native of suburbia (and many millions of us are), it's easy to feel that the divide between city and suburb has always been there. But that's not true. With Walking Home, urban designer Ken Greenberg shows how much the North American city has changed just within his lifetime - and why. In plain and modest language, he explains some of the great shifts of the past half-century, from the ravaging of downtowns by "urban renewal" right through the present-day renewals of dead industrial lands in places such as Toronto.

Greenberg is an excellent guide, a lifelong urbanite who's become a consummate insider in the world of urban design. Born a city kid in 1940s Brooklyn, he grew up in "a little universe" along Avenue L, an idyllic spot where he could walk and bike from the handball court to the bakery for some bialys or to visit his schoolteacher aunt at work. In a few short passages, he captures that moment - and the "great collective antsiness" that led his family to the suburbs and then away from New York.

So far, so typical. But young Greenberg got a sample of something different when his family moved to Geneva, an old city that was beautiful and proud to be urbane. He remembers a revelation: "What if older cities weren't bad? What if they could become 'modern' too?"

The rest is history. Greenberg went to architecture school, started working on large-scale projects, and found a fertile lab for his ideas in '60s Toronto. There he befriended fellow Vietnam War refugee Jane Jacobs, and worked on bringing life back to Toronto's aging (but still living) downtown. As a city planner and then a private consultant, he made a very large footprint on that city, and since then he's helped reshape New York, Boston, Paris, Amsterdam and many more.

Walking Home is a career-capping memoir that shows the evolution of Greenberg's ideas together with the changes he has seen and helped bring about. Along the way, a few core ideas emerge. Like most of the generation of planners these days, he remains skeptical of what came out of the 1950s and 1960s: the modernist superblocks and Grand Ideas that created the likes of Toronto's Regent Park. Instead, he believes that change should come gradually and piecemeal. A city, he writes, is "a creation that is always 'becoming' but never 'finished.'" All this is Jane Jacobs-ian orthodoxy, the sort of aversion to broad strokes that has some urban planners today wondering about the purpose of their profession.

Greenberg has an answer. There are many places where bold thinking is required: lifeless inner suburbs, the obsolete highway infrastructure like Boston's Central Artery, site of the Big Dig, and port lands like those in Toronto which are now being redeveloped into walkable, complex neighbourhoods that show the potential of sustainable technology. (And guess who has worked on both projects?) The book is unfortunately a bit thin on the specifics of this work; perhaps in an effort to avoid technicalities, Greenberg and his editors haven't left much personal or physical description to set the scene.

Likewise, Greenberg is a bit reticent about himself and about his accomplishments. Still, a portrait of the man comes through: a powerful intellect, with a deep interest in how ordinary people live and an admiration for what we can create when we band together with our neighbours.

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Alex Bozikovic is an editor at The Globe and Mail. He writes for architecture and design magazines and blogs at nomeancity.net .

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