The Heart of the City

The Heart of the City: Creating Vibrant Downtowns for a New Century
Alexander Garvin
Island Press, May 2019

Paperback | 6 x 9 inches | 264 pages | 100 illustrations | English | ISBN: 9781610919494 | $30.00

Publisher Description:

Downtowns are more than economic engines: they are repositories of knowledge and culture and generators of new ideas, technology, and ventures. They are the heart of the city that drives its future. If we are to have healthy downtowns, we need to understand what downtown is all about; how and why some American downtowns never stopped thriving (such as San Jose and Houston), some have been in decline for half a century (including Detroit and St. Louis), and still others are resurging after temporary decline (many, including Lower Manhattan and Los Angeles). The downtowns that are prospering are those that more easily adapt to changing needs and lifestyles.

In The Heart of the City, distinguished urban planner Alexander Garvin shares lessons on how to plan for a mix of housing, businesses, and attractions; enhance the public realm; improve mobility; and successfully manage downtown services. Garvin opens the book with diagnoses of downtowns across the United States, including the people, businesses, institutions, and public agencies implementing changes. In a review of prescriptions and treatments for any downtown, Garvin shares brief accounts—of both successes and failures—of what individuals with very different objectives have done to change their downtowns. The final chapters look at what is possible for downtowns in the future, closing with suggested national, state, and local legislation to create standard downtown business improvement districts to better manage downtowns.

This book will help public officials, civic organizations, downtown business property owners, and people who care about cities learn from successful recent actions in downtowns across the country, and expand opportunities facing their downtown. Garvin provides recommendations for continuing actions to help any downtown thrive, ensuring a prosperous and thrilling future for the 21st-century American city.

dDAB Commentary:

Alexander Garvin has practiced planning for close to 50 years. In that time American downtowns have changed dramatically, some for the better, some for the worst, and others in barely perceptible ways. Whatever the case, change is constant in such places. In the 1970s, when Garvin was working at New York City’s Department of City Planning and NYC was in the midst of a fiscal crisis, cities were on the wane, with people having moved to the suburbs and the companies employing them starting to follow. In the greed-is-good 1980s, when Garvin was developing private real estate, cities were trying to lure people back downtown by creating faux-nostalgic places like South Street Seaport. In the late 1990s, which could be seen as the start of the resurgence of American dowtowns, Garvin worked at getting the Olympics to come to NYC. At that time, people were moving back to downtowns, changing them from 9-to-5 work-week settings to 24/7 neighborhoods. A case in point is Lower Manhattan, where Garvin worked briefly as Vice President for Planning, Design and Development of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) following 9/11. Although rebuilding of the World Trade Center site focused almost entirely on replacing the lost office and retail space, Garvin became aware of the increasing residents in the that downtown.

The dramatic demographic changes in Lower Manhattan — one of a few downtowns in Manhattan and other parts of NYC (cities don’t have just one) — spurred Garvin to look at downtowns in other parts of the United States and then write a book about creating healthy downtowns. Like his 2016 book What Makes a Great City, which includes numerous examples and anecdotes based on firsthand experience and travels in Europe and North America, Garvin’s latest book stems from his decades of practice and his on-the-ground experiences in American downtowns. To cite one small example, Garvin had heard about Detroit’s “much-discussed downtown revival” but needed to see it firsthand, so he flew there in 2017 and recounts to readers how he rode the People Mover for 20 minutes but only encountered three other people — hardly an indicator of a resurgence. Other cities he discusses — but as success stories and at greater length — include: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Each city provides a lesson or lessons through some sort of tangible project or program (e.g., Dana Crawford’s preservation of buildings on Laramie Street in Denver and, separately, the city’s 16th Street Mall) created by various public or private stakeholders. In essence, the book is like a more sharply defined, compact version of Garvin’s textbook-like The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t, first published in 1996 and now in its third edition. That wide-ranging book looks at many projects and programs in cities and suburbs, while The Heart of the City limits itself to downtowns, the economic and cultural hearts of cities that, as the word “heart” implies, often serve as indicators of the health of the larger city — or even America as a whole.

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Author Bio:

Alexander Garvin has combined a career in urban planning and real estate with teaching, architecture, and public service. He is currently 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, Tessera (a 700-acre new community outside Austin), and Hinton Park in Collierville, Tennessee. Between 1996 and 2005 he was managing director for planning at NYC2012, the committee to bring the Summer Olympics to New York in 2012.

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