Where We Want to Live – Review

Where we want to liveRyan Gravel’s Where We Want to Live takes a measured approach to explaining the modern metropolis. He looks at cities through the lens of large-scale infrastructure projects like the New York High Line, the Los Angeles River Project, and especially the Atlanta BeltLine which he has been closely involved with since its inception. Gravel isn’t a fiery preacher of new urbanism, he’s a dedicated student of the city. It’s not enough for him to diagnose what’s wrong with Atlanta (and the book is more concerned with Atlanta than any other city) Gravel needs to get to the root cause. He’s tireless in his investigations of cities’ histories, pulling from the great events of a city’s past as well as his own anecdotal experiences. But Gravel is not writing history for its own sake, he wrings useful information out of the pasts of these cities. The projects he describes are informed by the history of the particular place in which they originate.

The project he explores most deeply is Atlanta’s BeltLine project, envisioned to take abandoned railroad lines that encircle the city of Atlanta and turn them into a 22-mile ring of parks and green space around the city’s center. Gravel knows the project well because it was born out of his own master’s thesis written decades ago where the idea was first proposed.  The history of the BeltLine, built to serve the growing 1900s Atlanta is key to the project. The pride in the city’s past and the diverse communities that have grown up around those train lines (including Martin Luther King’s own church) fuel the reasons for and the rationale behind the project.

The book contains the ironically titled chapter “There’s Nothing Wrong with Sprawl,” a chapter that enumerates in detail the many things that are very wrong with sprawl*. But the chapter also explores why sprawl was, and is, so compelling, how a car-dependent, spread out lifestyle was instrumental in bringing Atlanta to prominence as The Southern City. His defense of the sprawl lifestyle is more perfunctory than full-throated, but he does understand the appeal of bigger, cheaper houses and lawns further from town, not just academically, but as a suburban kid who lived it. It’s that understanding that gives weight to his words.

He is critical of the incentives for sprawl, from zoning laws that legislate cheap parking, to the overbuilt highway system that atomizes the people, to the mortgage-interest deduction that motivates people to live in single family homes, to a hundred other policies. He’s not the-cities-or-nothing type of enthusiast you sometimes encounter. He’s a clear-eyed observer of modern life, making plans for the cities of the future, where property values and urban growth will prove that people want to live in them.

Atlanta BeltLine Photo by Ryan Gravel

Atlanta BeltLine Photo by Ryan Gravel

Gravel’s comfort with complex answers is on display again in a later chapter about economic equity in cities and the paradox of successful infrastructure projects. That is the more popular a city-improvement project is, the more expensive a neighborhood becomes. So while a project may be undertaken in part to save a blighted neighborhood, if the project is “too successful” you may be pushing out the very people you were trying to help. Gravel offers some perspective and solutions to this problem, but he never pretends there’s an easy solution or perfect answer. This and his direct perspective on the issue from dealing with it on the Beltline project, make his answers considered and nuanced.

Ryan Gravel’s credibility is unquestionable on issues of major infrastructure projects. Sometimes he gets lost in his reveries about neighborhoods and the ways of life they could create. At times, I found myself wishing the book were less poetic and more prescriptive. But then, it is maybe dishonest to imagine that there’s some perfect prescription for the ills of the city. This is a book that takes the challenge of building great cities very seriously, and is comfortable raising more questions than it can answer.

*Gravel provides a funny anecdote about the unhealthy nature of sprawl living, when he says the nine months he lived in Paris in college, put him in the best shape of his life. This does not speak favorably of the Atlanta suburbs he grew up in put him in.

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