Cut To The Chase

Great cities

A month before his death in 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke of the importance of the beauty and balance of cities, "I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our past and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future."

Around the same time, The New York Times editorialized, "Any city gets what it admires, will pay for and ultimately deserves."

I found both these quotes in a book entitled "Preserving the World's Great Cities" by Anthony Tung, which tells the stories of how 20 great metropolises have approached growth and renewal since their inception.

What makes a city great? How is greatness created, maintained, destroyed or restored over time? In an intellectual and historical tour de force, Tung guides us through war and natural disasters, political and civic leadership, charting the course of the rise and fall of cities -- and the greatness or lack thereof in how they deal with growth: physical, economic and cultural.

The title -- with the emphasis on preserving -- does a great disservice to the expansive scope of this book. But it's understandable given the overall lessons to be learned from the tales of great cities: Greatness, if you're lucky enough to achieve it to begin with, is regularly dismantled over time, and therefore needs to be regularly defended and created.

The main lessons for greatness, and the importance of preservation, are: What is lost is gone forever. What is saved is only saved through the "citizen sentinel." Great builders and politicians come and go, but consistently in every city, it's the citizens who rise to save what remains of value in a great city, and to challenge how growth is designed and incorporated for the good of all.

"Property value in cities is created by public investment in infrastructure -- water supply, sewage removal, electrical power, telephone systems, and the circulation network -- in the maintenance of mass transport, and in the provision of police and fire protection, sanitation, schools, cultural institutions, hospitals and public parks. Value is further accrued through an infinite number of acts of environmental husbandry by the city's inhabitants: by every homeowner who maintains his or her house, by people who tend their front gardens and sweep their sidewalks, by landlords who upgrade their buildings, and by companies that maintain their properties well. Collectively, these myriad separate contributions increase the value of land in the City."

Tung also illuminates the questions: why cities, what cities are for, and what brings people together in a city and keeps a city vital.

He cites Athens as one of the most revealing examples of the city's role in civilization, "Cities were the means for societies to gather talented individual specialists, in one place, to stimulate the exchange and growth of ideas. Cities were -- and are -- the vehicles by which the intellectual power of human society is marshaled."

"Cities are engines for the advancement of civilization. Their positive chemistry is based on the free flow of ideas stimulated by face-to-face exchanges that occur when people of different talents live and work in close proximity."

When civic culture is drowned out by the politics of the day, great destruction happens.

Tung looks at the good, the bad and ugly in cities -- and there's plenty of ugly. Yet he persists in understanding and telling the stories of beauty in the face of ugliness and determining how and why beauty and culture and economic prosperity can persist. Through the vagaries of both natural and unnatural devastations over centuries, and particularly dealing with the growth of modern industry, he reveals all the complex interrelationships of planning and politics, and each culture's response.

Tung observes the importance of process to any city, "because cities are much more than the physical containers we invent to hold our lives; they are also the living social culture of their inhabitants."

Rational planning "might seem a matter of common sense, but in reality it is very unusual. It is extremely rare for government politics to reflect the best thinking of the most educated minds. In almost all societies, the integrity of expert thinking is compromised by special interest and politics."

The renewal of a city is dependent upon creativity and invention. "Problems of urban conservation, urban revitalization and urban social housing can be reconciled by being solved simultaneously."

"The public spaces serve not only those living along and around them, but the entire city, and the municipality must not give permission to something that is in conflict with the universal laws of beauty."

But we do this routinely. And the sad fact is that it's mostly out of ignorance, because Tung clearly makes the case that those who approach planning with the holistic integration of culture, history, housing, environment, transportation and economic development will indeed achieve a level of greatness for their cities.

"Human settlement is a product of the human mind. And the destruction or conservation of the mysterious beauty of our urban areas is in the final analysis a matter of choice, a reflection of our propensity to destroy and our propensity to create."

Since San Diego is embarking upon a new era of growth, these lessons are of critical importance. This illuminating book should be required reading for all planners, politicians, developers and citizens concerned with how cities grow over time -- how they advance and decline, how they become great and how their greatness fades or is reborn.

Chase is editor of San Diego Earth Times and chair of the mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. E-mail her at

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