Ryan Gravel’s book about “Where we Want to Live” is primarily a local story centered on Atlanta. It is a story about one person’s dream to transform an area within that city by reclaiming its infrastructure.
So what is “infrastructure”? Put three people in a room and you’ll get three different answers. Put three city planners in a room and you’ll get six.
To many people, that word immediately brings forth visions of high speed interstates. And most recently it brings into mind the deteriorating nature of much of that infrastructure. Streets with potholes, aging bridges, highways choked with cars, crumbling sidewalks, outdated sewer systems and more.
Part of the magic behind Ryan’s vision is a perspective of revolution – of considering that deteriorating infrastructure as an opportunity – an opportunity to create something radically new. At least new for this country. An important distinction because much of what we are only starting here is already integral to the built environment of many European cities.
But this is about more than “livable cities” with nice sidewalks, safe bikeways and improved transit. In three consecutive chapters, Ryan talks about an infrastructure for “health and well-being”, for “economic prosperity”, and for “equity”. And rather than trying to encompass the full scope of this book as many reviewers have done, I want to focus on these three areas.
Health and Well-Being:
Right now a movement is taking place in Wyandotte County for the evolution of complete streets, walkable neighborhoods, natural trails and greenways, and safe co-coexistence of pedestrians, cyclists and drivers in the same place. The interesting thing is that this is being led substantially by Healthy Communities Wyandotte – a program within the Health Department of Wyandotte County.
This is exactly the kind of movement that is discussed in Ryan’s book – change that “will be led by visionary health practitioners who see their job as providing more than just a cure for disease” in a collaboration with “city planners, designers, vocal citizens, and politicians”.
I have previously referred to sitting as the new smoking, with a more sedentary life style as one of the primary factors in declining national health. This new infrastructure, says Ryan, needs to be designed in such a way as to “promote healthy behavior” including “general walkability, transit service, and access to jobs and fresh food”.
However, this does not come easy. It will take determination to break out of ordinary ways of looking at transportation in our cities and to make physical changes that will inherently be lengthy and expensive. Among other things, this will require a long term effort of community advocacy to build and sustain a vision and a commitment that will not be lost as each political administration changes.
The vision of prosperity in this chapter is a vision of shared prosperity. He describes the kind of changes that can result in attracting new businesses to urban communities. The job flight that took place to the suburbs needs to be reversed in order for our cities to not only survive, but hopefully thrive.
Such changes will not take place without detractors. As communities improve, almost inevitably rents and prices for home ownership increase, and worries of gentrification are heard. But the alternative is for these communities to continue to spiral downward.
What must be clear to the leaders who can provide guidance for this movement is that the desire is not to turn our cities into suburbs. Rather, it is to create a places where diverse people and businesses can connect with each other and grow together.
A strong sense of community is one of the side-effects of many of these changes. A side-effect that has the potential to cure the disease of disconnectedness. And if you are lucky enough to be a city with a truly diverse population, there can be added strength through that diversity. Which inevitably brings us to questions of equity.
The truth is that the so-called infrastructure of many of our urban centers is itself one of the social determinants of health in our society. Ryan focuses on differences in various areas of Atlanta. Differences I am very aware of from the time that I lived in Atlanta in the late 80’s. But although the book has Atlanta as its star “character”, the truth is that Atlanta can play the role of “every city”. Across our nation, these inequities are self-evident. Simply by driving through areas you can see the difference. But if you want to do more than see – if you want to feel those differences between neighborhoods – walk the sidewalks (if there are any) and the streets.
Ryan also makes a strong case for community engagement in these discussions. Although others may consider themselves experts in engineering, the people that live in the community provide a very different and crucially important expertise. An expanded public dialogue must take place that brings new voices and vision into the meeting rooms of city hall and the state house. And community engagement in such public advocacy is crucial.
The key is to breaking down the us-and-them mentally between public officials and the community. It is crucial that the two camps combine into a team that can work together, rather than continuing to have a “status quo” team versus a “change” team.
Part of Ryan’s vision is to transform the old cliché about people being from opposite sides of the tracks. For him, those tracks should not separate people into different classes. Rather, they should connect people in these communities.
I must confess to having put a lot of my own biases and passions into this review. This is not a subject with which I can be objective. I doubt that I have hidden my belief that the future of our cities, and more importantly the residents of those cities, may depend on radical and creative changes in our built environment. It is not a perfect book (but then I have read very few of those). It is an important book and one that I think you will find both informational and inspiring.