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. Read more

Gentrification, Density and a New Logan Square High-Rise

2015_4_2LoganTowers

Rendering from Wheeler Kearns

Neighborhoods change, it’s inevitable. The area that was once Cabrini-Green housing project is now populated with big box stores and cookie-cutter yuppie fortresses, while other, once prosperous, (or at least working class) neighborhoods on the west and south side, are losing people and money. UIC has defined 14 Chicago neighborhoods in South and West Chicago as in “severe decline” these neighborhoods “have populations that are, on average, two-thirds African American.” These are the same neighborhoods that have put Chicago in the national news for having high rates of homicide.

For some, gentrification carries benefits, landowners see their properties increase in value and small business may stand to benefit if their customers are more comfortable being out and about in the neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that are richer or more densely populated are often more walkable, and foot traffic on the streets correlates with safety. For other people, gentrification can be devastating. A person learns a neighborhood. Our lives get built around where we shop, send children to school and live from day to day. If your neighborhood gets a rapid infusion of new people from a different background, if the neighborhood businesses no longer cater to you and, most importantly, if it becomes unaffordable in terms of services, parking and rent, that’s going to have a huge impact on your life. Read more