Suburban Nation, Happy City, other book reviews, and owl musings

I read a bunch of books in the past few months, including two in a row about urban planning. Suburban Nation is a classic argument for New Urbanism, published in 2000, that I’d partially read in libraries but now finally got to read cover-to-cover. I followed up with Happy City, which documents the progress of New Urbanism and its impact on human health and experiences up to 2013. And I also read some fiction, a memoir, and a feminist manifesto!

Everything I read to my newly eight-year-old Lydia was a reread, but I thought I was going to review Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, until I searched my own book review index and realized I already reviewed it when I was reading it to Lydia the first time!  That was a new realms of reading experience, her first time to listen to an entire chapter book that doesn’t have a picture on every page.  Like her older brother, whose first chapter book was Little House on the Prairie, she was two and a half years old then, and she repeatedly wanted to hear the scary part again so she could get her head around it, but she was not too young to follow a long story read over the course of several days.  Anyway, I recommend Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and enjoyed reading it again, and I want to share this poignant paragraph:

“I have lived in this tree, in this same hollow,” the owl said, “for more years than anyone can remember.  But now, when the wind blows hard in the winter and rocks the forest, I sit down here in the dark, and from deep down in the bole, down near the roots, I hear a new sound.  It is the sound of strands of wood creaking in the cold and snapping one by one.  The limbs are falling; the tree is old, and it is dying.  Yet I cannot bring myself, after so many years, to leave, to find a new home and move into it, perhaps to fight for it.  I, too, have grown old.  One of these days, one of these years, the tree will fall, and when it does, if I am still alive, I will fall with it.”

Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck

Why is so much of Earth covered in strip-malls with huge parking lots, multi-lane roads without sidewalks, and tangles of twisty roads lined with garage-snouted houses each set in a big lawn? This book explains how that happened and what we can do differently to create places more suitable to human habitation. The authors are two architects who realized they had to think bigger than individual buildings by designing whole towns/neighborhoods and starting the Congress for the New Urbanism to get others on board and advocate for saner zoning laws, and an art historian who became their director of town planning. (Jeff Speck also is the author of Walkable City, another great book.)

The basic goal of New Urbanism is to create places where people, not cars, set the scale and aesthetics of the environment; where we can live, work, and shop in a cozy community like the towns people used to build before World War II. (See In the Country of the Young for insightful explanation of the near-psychopathy behind the postwar shift in priorities!)  This book explains how zoning codes isolate homes from services and workplaces, how limited-access roads actually increase traffic congestion, how parking-lot-centered shopping plazas are bad for business, and why the green spaces in suburbia are often unused.  It explains the importance of diversity in dwelling size and price, the effect of road layout on pedestrian safety and firefighting efficacy and cultural civility, and the strains on family life when children under sixteen are unable to go anywhere alone.  Throughout the chapters telling us what’s wrong, there are tips about what’s right, and then the last half of the book is mostly about how to do things better.  Reading it two decades after it was published, I recognized how some of these ideas had been implemented in many newly-built or redesigned places I’ve been.

It all comes down to making every neighborhood kind of like mine (which was built in 1900-1930): Every residence is within a short walk of a mixed-use business district, a park, and a stop/station for public transit to other neighborhoods.  I agree, this is a great place to live!!!–and I know because I grew up in a more sprawling place and, as an adult, have had two jobs in suburbs where the absence of thriving neighborhood was a daily disadvantage.

But I advocate getting out of the car wherever you are, and that’s why this paragraph hit me so hard:

Pedestrian activity in such an environment [suburban office park] is a fantasy.  It feels unsafe because there is no layer of parked cars or landscape to protect the pedestrian, physically and psychologically, from the onrush of traffic.  Also, it is an incredibly boring place to walk, as the only distraction is provided by the grilles of the cars in the parking lot.  Most important, it is a good bet that the pedestrian is not within easy walking distance of any destination worth walking to.

On one hand: I knoooww, right?!  It sucks so bad!  Looking at the pictures gave me flashbacks to many horrible places I’ve walked.

On the other hand: If you think walking there is a “fantasy,” you are a privileged jerk who did not see me and does not see the people who do walk in such an environment.  Yes, it feels unsafe.  Yes, it is boring, although you’ll see occasional interesting plants or intriguing abandoned artifacts.  Yes, it’s a long walk to anywhere, and a lot of the places you can get to are bland franchised businesses.  But it is a reality in which I’ve walked many miles!  I prefer to walk in nice places, but when this is the reality, I’ll still walk if it’s not convenient to use a car, because getting places and getting outdoor exercise are still things I need and want to do!

Happy City by Charles Montgomery

This book, subtitled Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, is what I expected to find (but didn’t) in Home from Nowhere: a thorough exploration of how and why to improve the built environment, with only enough explanation of “what’s wrong with it” to provide context.  Happy City gives many detailed examples of how New Urbanism and similar philosophies have improved neighborhoods around the world, and it also gets into detail about how these improvements correlate with better physical, mental, social, and economic health.  Here are just a few striking examples:

  • Research comparing teenagers who live in affluent suburbs with those who live in inner cities found that the suburban teens experience more anxiety and depression and use more tobacco, alcohol, and hard drugs.
  • A housing project in Chicago had some apartments whose windows faced grass and trees, some whose windows faced barren concrete courtyards.  People played and socialized in the green yards but spent as little time as possible in the concrete yards.  Buildings with green views had half as much violent crime as buildings with concrete views.
  • A comparison of two dormitories at the same university found that students whose rooms opened off a long, featureless corridor felt more stressed and crowded, had fewer friends in their dorm, and were less helpful to strangers in other contexts than those who lived in a dorm made up of suites with some semi-private spaces.  (Not discussed in the text but notable in the floor plans shown and in my experience living in both types of dorm: Suite entrances have more distinctive locations along the main hall, so you can more easily find your way home without reading room numbers; you feel less anonymous or institutionalized.)

Examples in this book are not just from the United States; many are from Vancouver, Canada (where the author lives) or Bogota, Colombia, which began a revolutionary urban redesign during the late-1990s administration of Enrique Peñalosa, who prioritized well-designed and attractive pedestrian paths and bicycle lanes, a new transit system with shiny red buses, and improved public schools and libraries–diverting spending from car-related infrastructure.  The goal is to redistribute the advantages of city living so that people without cars can get places quickly and safely while feeling respected and comfortable–and having fewer cars on the roads makes driving quicker and safer, too.  Meanwhile, in Vancouver, humane design of high-rise apartment buildings atop townhouses atop retail shops creates “vertical villages” where diverse residents interact peacefully–and one neighborhood heats homes and water with thermal energy from wastewater.  Cool!!

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore

At a New Year’s Eve party, preparing to celebrate her nineteenth birthday on January 1, 1983, Oona faints…and awakens as herself at age fifty-one, with a friendly companion who knows her although she doesn’t know him.  He explains that every year from now on, Oona will awaken in a different year of her life.  This idea is shockingly new to her now, but in the chronological past, her experientially older selves left her some advice.

This very interesting and entertaining novel is only getting started, following Oona’s journey to the 26th year of her life experience.  Although a major plot arc was resolved satisfyingly, I really wanted to go on finding out what Oona learned as she continued her strange life!  I hope there will be sequels!  (So far, the author has written two other novels, but they’re unrelated.)  The difficulties of acting your age when that’s really not your age, of continuing relationships with people you’ve never met, of mourning someone you just learned has been dead for years, and of the possibility of parenthood in such a life, all are very well written.  It’s similar to Nora’s struggles in The Midnight Library, but Oona is a stronger character.

The author was born in Ukraine, which doesn’t make any difference to the book that I noticed, but if you want to appreciate the work of Ukrainian authors by way of sending Ukraine your good vibes in this difficult time, that’s another reason to pick up this book!

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This pocket-sized book is easily read in a couple of hours, but it’s packed with good ideas expressed clearly.  The author is a feminist speaker and writer in Nigeria who had done a lot of watching, listening to, and thinking about children as she helped care for the children of friends and relatives, so when her old friend Ijeawele had a newborn daughter, she asked how she could raise her to be a feminist. The answer took the form of a long letter, eventually adapted into this book.

This is excellent advice!  Some of it references ideas and sayings that apparently are common in Nigeria but not in the United States, or struggles with African-texture hair, but the core ideas will work anywhere for people of any race, and all of them will work for raising a little boy to believe in and practice gender equality, too.  I think this part is especially well phrased:

Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive.  It is misogynistic to suggest that they are.  Sadly, women have learned to be ashamed and apologetic about pursuits that are seen as traditionally female, such as fashion and makeup.  But our society does not expect men to feel ashamed of pursuits considered generally male.

One problem with the way feminism has played out over the past century or so, at least in the United States, is that in career and hobby choices, as well as appearance, our culture often suggests that traditionally masculine pursuits (being a lawyer or scientist or soldier, fixing cars, grilling meat) are acceptable and even empowering for women, but traditionally feminine pursuits (being a teacher or nurse or homemaker, making quilts, baking cookies) are “sissy” things that women shouldn’t want to do if they have any “ambitions” in life.  We need to recognize both feminine and masculine endeavors and tastes as valid options for respectable adults.

The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen

Lisa Jura was a fourteen-year-old musical prodigy in Vienna when her piano teacher sadly told her he was now forbidden to teach Jewish students.  Soon afterward, Hitler’s army began smashing windows and attacking Jews in their neighborhood.  Lisa’s parents managed to get her a ticket on the Kindertransport, the train that brought Jewish refugee children to England.  Upon arrival, Lisa found out that she would not be able to live with the relatives who had sponsored her immigration.  After a short stint as a maid in a country manor, she moved to the hostel on Willesden Lane where 32 children age 10 to 17 lived with a housemother and a cook.  Lisa worked hard sewing military uniforms in a factory but managed to keep practicing piano at night, later becoming a hotel lounge pianist and eventually a concert pianist.

This is a fascinating true story of life in wartime, finding the things that sustain you in dark times, working with the people and situations you have rather than those you wish you had, and finding little moments of hope: “In the spring of 1941, the crocuses came up in strange places; they poked their leaves between sandbags, from under piles of bricks, from anywhere their corms had been blasted by the force of the bombs.”  I won’t spoil the suspense about what happens to Lisa and her family, except to say that author Mona Golabek is her daughter, and I’m glad she shared her family’s story.

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Libby was adopted as a baby.  On her twenty-fifth birthday, she receives a letter informing her of the identity of her biological parents and that she’s inherited their home in London’s expensive Chelsea neighborhood, which is worth millions even though it’s been abandoned since her parents were murdered.  Libby learns that the police found her as the only living person in the house with three dead bodies dressed in black robes, but neighbors said that several older children and possibly more adults were living in the house, but they were very reclusive….

Scenes from Libby’s perspective are interspersed with first-person flashbacks from someone who was a child in that house when the other family moved into the top-floor bedrooms and slowly changed their ordinary home life into something very different.  There are also scenes from the perspective of a homeless mother of two young children in the south of France.  How are they all connected, and who did the murders, and how many victims were there really?

This is a pretty good mystery/suspense novel that kept me reading, but parts of it are unrealistic or are transparently manipulative of the reader or just don’t quite make sense in terms of what’s supposed to be unforgivable vs. acceptable behavior–like the standards are different for “good” characters vs. “evil” ones.

Read other writers’ book reviews at Quick Lit and Show Us Your Books!  Note that this is the final edition of Show Us Your Books, after almost eight years–I’ll really miss it, but all of the old linkups are still there for browsing, and the great thing about books is that old ones are still good!  And speaking of great linkups to browse, you’ll find a whole variety of tips and reviews and travelogues and recipes at Hearth & Soul!

3 thoughts on “Suburban Nation, Happy City, other book reviews, and owl musings

  1. Pingback: What I’m Reading in 2022 | The Earthling's Handbook

  2. You’ve read so much recently, Becca! Many of the books sound very thought-provoking. I remember loving Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh when I was a kid. I must revisit it. Suburban Nation looks like it raises some important points. I use a car so much when we visit the US – I definitely don’t feel as comfortable walking in urban areas as when I am at home – however it is so very convenient to have so many shops and restaurants so close by. All thought provoking stuff! Thank you for sharing and for being a part of Hearth and Soul.

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