Alexander Garvin on what makes a city great

Alexander Garvin is a longtime city planner, teaches at Yale University and has written acclaimed books on American cities, urban planning and public parks. But a few years ago, when a friend asked him a seemingly simple question — “What makes a great city?” — Garvin was stumped.

He had no ready answer to pull out of his pocket. No quick and easy way to articulate what separates a good city from a great one.

The question sent Garvin on a journey that became his most recent book, What Makes A Great City, which came out this month. Garvin traveled to numerous cities across North America and Europe, and spent lots of time walking, observing and taking pictures. He combined his first-hand observations with original research and what he already knew about city planning to come up with an answer to his friend’s question. 

I spoke with Garvin by phone last week to find out what he’d learned in writing the book. We spoke about the six most important features of the public realm, some examples of cities that do it right and wrong, and the value of observing the life of cities first-hand. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Christopher Swope: Why was it so hard initially to answer your friend’s question: ”What makes a city great”?

Alexander Garvin: Because I’d never really thought about it. I have feelings about it. I understood a great deal about it. And, in fact, the next couple of years that I spent going around Europe and the United States, looking at great and terrible examples of cities, I confirmed a lot of the things that I already knew.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what made a great city, it was that I couldn’t answer this as a simple question. And the answer is very simple — it’s one word: people.

People make a great city.

The question then comes up, how do you get them to come there and to keep coming? The book provides the answer. And the answer is: a great public realm.

Most people don’t know what the phrase “public realm” means. It’s what they own, it’s what they use every day, it’s what matters to them. It’s streets and squares and parks. And then there are things that are midway between streets and squares, like The Mall in Washington, D. C. Is it a roadway to go from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial? Or is it a place for people to demonstrate? Or is it a park? Or is it a gathering place? It’s many of those things, and that’s what’s true of a great public realm. It’s those places which attract people and keep them coming.

Q: Can every city be a great city?

A: Sure. Any city can be a great city. But it needs to have a great public realm to be a great city.

I’ll give you an example of something that keeps a city from being great. In Moscow, they decided to make the city accessible to large quantities of motor vehicles — the way it happened in every American city. They took the main shopping street of Moscow, Tverskaya Ulitsa, and they have eight lanes of traffic that goes through that. You cannot cross this street except at underpasses every half-mile (one kilometer) or so. Obviously, the stores that used to have great business along the sidewalk on that street no longer have the customers that they had before. The street is not as pleasant as it was. It’s got lots of traffic. That means noise, it means exhaust fumes. It’s not a pleasant place to be.

I’ll give you an example of a place that changed that: Denver. In Denver, on 16th Street, they had lots of traffic in 1980. They closed down access to anything but a free bus that runs up and down 16th Street. They pedestrianized it. They created places for people to sit. They planted trees. They expanded the public realm so that people could drive to parking garages in downtown Denver, get out, get on the bus and go to work, go shopping, or go home if they had an apartment there. Now, 16th Street is the center of all activity in downtown Denver.

There are lots of ways that you can do things of this sort but you have to be inventive about doing them.

Q: Aren’t there other ways of defining “great”? I think about U. S. cities like Nashville or Austin, that when people say these are great cities it’s maybe more because they’ve got a cool music scene or great restaurants or it’s a good sports town.

A: You’ve got to ask yourself, where does that activity take place? If you take Austin, for example, the river in Austin is a recreation facility. That’s where everybody wants to go jogging. There are certain streets where you have the bars that people want to go to. It’s not an accident.

I’m not talking about great cities as an abstraction. I’m talking about what makes a city great. What makes a city great are the great public places. The places that people want to be, the places they go to do those things, the places that they think make it a great place to be.

Denver’s 16th Street Mall (Amy Alethela Cahill/flickr/cc)

Further, it isn’t enough to do it once — you have to keep at it. One of my favorite examples is the Place de la République in Paris. Anybody who’s seen the demonstrations after the bombings in Paris or Charlie Hebdo, those all took place at the Place de la République. It would not have been possible 12 years ago. There’s a sculpture in the middle of the Place de la République, and back then, there was swirling vehicular traffic all around it. This wasn’t a place that had enough room for people. Today, it’s one of the largest public gathering places in Paris. All created within the last five years. Was it a Place de la République before? Yes. Was it as good as it is now? No.

Q: Who are you trying to reach with this book and what do you hope that they do with it?

A: Everybody. The community leaders that make decisions in the city are the most important, and they are anybody. We have to decide all the time about these things, and I want to get through to ordinary people who have to decide what’s going to happen to their street or what’s going to happen to the local park. I want them to understand some of the criteria that make a great public realm. In the book, I lay out six different aspects that make a great public realm.

Q: What are those six elements of a great public realm?

A: First, it must be open to anybody. If you can’t get there, it doesn’t do any good. If, when you get there, there’s no room for you because it’s all filled with things that disperse you, things that you don’t want, you won’t go there. 

The second ingredient is it must provide something for everybody. Not just one group of people — just taxi drivers, or just children. It’s got to be there for everybody. If you look at any of the great boulevards in Paris, they’re filled with people of every age doing everything from shopping to going to work, and that takes place at the same time.

The third characteristic is that you’ve got to be able to keep attracting those people. That means making changes to make it more usable. Look at Times Square, for example. Times Square, 20 years ago, did not have the number of people that are there now. The reason is we reclaimed Broadway — it’s now entirely filled up with pedestrians. We’ve taken it away from motor vehicles and we’ve created an entirely new kind of place where there’s much more room for people.

We also attracted them in another way. We changed the zoning in 1988, I believe. That required anybody who built in Times Square, for every 50 linear feet (15 meters) of frontage on Times Square, you had to have 1,000 square feet (93 square meters) of illuminated signage. It’s not an accident that when you go to Times Square today there’s even more neon and even more electric signs than 50 years ago. What’s interesting is the property owners make money by renting out the space. This helps the economy all the way around and it brings more people.

New York’s Times Square (Marco Rubino / Shutterstock.com)

The fourth aspect of it is you have to have a habitable environment. If this isn’t a comfortable place to be, you’re not going to be there. If it’s too loud, too noisy, or there’s air pollution, you won’t be there.

The fifth thing is that you have to provide a framework for urbanization. That is to say, things are going to keep changing. Again, I give the example of Times Square. Because we have changed the character of the place itself, through investments in the ground lanes, through the zoning, and through an incentive that says if you put in a new theater, we’ll let you build a bigger building. That, all together, creates a framework for the further development of the city.

The last thing is sustaining a civil society. You go to Central Park and everybody there gets along with everybody else. There are no wars going on in Central Park. Somebody’s playing ball, somebody else is throwing a Frisbee, somebody else is sitting in the park, reading a book, lying in the grass, taking a model sailboat on the lake, rowing a boat, having a sandwich. Endless quantities of things are going on there. They go on in a way in which people are interacting with one another without doing harm to anybody.

Those are the six ingredients that I discuss in the book and there’s a chapter on each of them.

Q: You’re citing lots of examples of cities that have made themselves better by restricting cars and giving more space to people. However, facilitating auto traffic remains paramount in most cities today. What should be the role of cars in cities?

A: I think that you have to accommodate cars and you have to accommodate people. You have to do it in a way which improves the access and the use of each.

I’ll go back to Times Square to give you an example. All the intersections that Broadway made with the east-west streets and 7th Avenue meant that there were three intersections that had to be crossed. Which meant that a traffic light could only operate 20 seconds out of a minute in one direction, and then 20 seconds in another direction, and 20 seconds in the third direction. When we closed Broadway between 42nd Street and roughly 47th Street, we eliminated one of those traffic signals, which meant that now, the red light appeared only every 30 seconds.

The result is, the traffic moves faster today in Times Square than it did before. That is improving the flow of vehicular traffic. At the same time, we increased the space available for pedestrians and reduced the number of people hit by automobiles. That’s an example of improving both. I would argue that the same thing is true in many places, that you can improve the flow of traffic and, at the same time, improve the character of the pedestrian environment.

Q: You say in the book that streets contribute the most to shaping a city’s character. Could you elaborate on that?

A: I have a chapter where I take three cities that I believe have been radically changed by the character of the public realm.

My first example is London — London has 400 squares. That’s more than any other city. Many of those squares are usable only by the people who live or work around them because they have keys to get in. But many of them have been turned over to the public: Leicester Square, Berkeley Square. And in some sections of London, like Islington, they’re all public. The life that goes on in those squares, including picnics and ping pong and you name it, has changed the character of daily life in London.

The second example I have in there is parks, and I use Minneapolis, which I think has the finest parks system anywhere. A park is accessible to anybody within five minutes. Minneapolis has large parks, it has 22 lakes, it’s got a tremendous number of small playing areas. And if you don’t have in your neighborhood a swimming pool, you can get on a bike and go along a trail and get to another part of the system where they do have a swimming pool, or a skating rink, or a tennis court. The result is that the number of people living in one-family homes of a suburban character in downtown Minneapolis is enormous. They didn’t all flee to the suburbs because they have everything — probably better than many of the suburban areas that don’t have any parks at all.

The third example is streets, which is what you asked about. The odd example I came up with is Madrid. Not because  Madrid’s streets are better than the streets of Paris but because traffic management became so important. Everything was helter skelter — triple parking, nobody paying attention to where they’re supposed to keep a car, or a truck, or a delivery vehicle. The city started creating a new method of managing the traffic which set aside places for delivery vans, for bicycles, motorcycles, parking areas for vehicles, and areas where the pedestrian wouldn’t need to worry about a car driving up onto the sidewalk because there are bollards in the way. The result is that today, the streets of Madrid are glorious, whether you go there for shopping, or for strolling, or get on a bike and go to the park.

Q: Stay in Spain for a minute. You mention in the book the renaissance of Bilbao, which most people associate with the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry. But you say the “Bilbao Effect” is about much more than a museum. Why?

A: When I started my quest, I decided I would go to Bilbao because everybody told me that the museum had turned the city around. I thought to myself, that’s unlikely but it’s possible.

Bilbao had reached a nadir around 1980. That was the peak population, the unemployment rate was 25 percent, and the city needed to do something. They started to conceive of a plan of what to do in order to turn the city around. They came up with a series of things that they thought would make a difference.

First of all, the river that went through the city, the Nervión River, was polluted and they decided to get rid of the pollution. Not only by decontaminating it but by physically reconstructing large areas along the river. These were maritime port facilities that were no longer used. They decided to redevelop them.

Bilbao’s Nervión riverfront. (M. V. Photography/Shutterstock)

They also decided they needed a subway system, so they ran an international competition years before the Guggenheim Museum. It was Norman Foster, the great English architect, who won a design competition for that. In addition to the subway, they put in a light-rail system. And they started fixing up the streets and the squares in time for the Guggenheim Museum to open.

If they hadn’t invested in fixing the public realm, creating a five-mile (eight-kilometer) promenade along the riverfront, if they hadn’t invested in a subway system, a light-rail system, and fixing the squares and the parks, I don’t believe that the city would have turned around. The Guggenheim Museum wasn’t enough. It certainly made a difference, but it wasn’t the only thing.

Q: Let’s talk about equity. Some of the places you’re referring to in New York or Paris or London, the places we immediately think of when we think of great public spaces, also happen to be in rich areas. How can we ensure that the poor have the same access to that quality public space, that quality public realm, that the rich do?

A: Let me ask you a question. Are there only wealthy people who are in Central Park? Do they all live on Fifth Avenue? The answer: no. Are the people in Brooklyn Bridge Park — and there are tens of thousands of them on a Saturday — are they all from Brooklyn Heights? No, they come from all over Brooklyn.

I think that you have to make it open to anyone. That means making sure that it’s accessible to people who do not have a lot of money. It doesn’t mean just doing something for people who do not have a lot of money, it means doing something for everyone. More important yet, is that they be able to interact with people of every age and every description and every income level, and not be segregated into places for only poor people.

Q: You’ve been working as a planner and writing about cities for a long time. Does anything surprise you anymore when you visit cities at this stage in your career, or have you seen it all by now?

A: Oh no, I’m constantly surprised. I was in Berlin recently, and I went to see something that I had thought was going to be awful.

It’s called Stalinallee. It is an overly wide boulevard built by the Communist government to demonstrate the superiority of communism over capitalism. They built these enormous apartment blocks along it. I thought it was going to be absolutely disastrous, and I had been in Berlin 15 years before and I thought of it as a disaster. This time I went walking there and, over the last 15 years, they have made changes to it. There’s now daycare centers there, there’s small schools, the play equipment is contemporary. That surprises me.

I went to Moscow three years ago, and there’s a playground in Moscow that I would never have guessed would be there. It’s an inflated balloon-like structure that looks like a miniature village, a castle, with mushrooms. It’s a wonderful thing for kids, and unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

In Paris, in the Place de la République, I saw something I’ve never seen anywhere else: a toy lending library. There is a small structure, and children and their parents come there and they borrow toys for an hour or two. 

Paris’ Place de la République after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January of 2015 (arenysam / Shutterstock.com)

I’m forever being stunned by things that I’ve never seen before. We keep inventing new things.

It’s important to understand that cities are constantly changing. It’s the only permanent characteristic of them and we have to be continuously looking for new ways of improving the public realm so that our cities can be even greater.

Q: A lot of this book is based on your own travels and time you’ve spent walking city streets or sitting in parks. What do you get from observing cities in action?

A: I was in Berlin for four days, and also four days in Budapest. And I walked between six and eight hours a day, with my camera.

When I was a senior in college, my roommate gave me a Christmas gift of a new book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. It was an unknown book at that point. It changed my life and the life of most people interested in cities. In it, she said that people are uncurious, they don’t go out to see what works and what doesn’t. I decided I would do that, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I love to do this. And I not only go to see a place once, I keep going back to see: Has it changed? Is it different?

Q: You say you don’t talk or write about places you haven’t been. Why?

A: There’s a reason for that. When I was a young architect, just beginning my career — I gave up architecture and became a full-time planner — I worked with Philip Johnson. And on the next drafting table to mine they were designing the IDS Center in Minneapolis. I thought: I get it, he’s gone past the simple Mies van der Rohe rectangular cubes.

Ten years later, I went to Minneapolis for the first time, rented a car, and started driving downtown. And oh my god, the biggest building downtown is this building that was designed on the next drafting table.

I stayed a week in Minneapolis, and the building kept changing. From different angles it looked different. When the light was different, it had a different color. The most important thing I learned about it was that it dropped two and a quarter million square feet of office place smack in the middle of downtown Minneapolis. Which meant more than 10,000 people went in and out of the building every day. It became a major attraction to the city. It was connected by skyways, these bridges, to the two main department stores downtown. It had, in the middle of it, what Johnson called a Crystal Court. It had restaurants and retail stores. This had become, in effect, the center of town. And I realized I didn’t understand anything about this building and I thought I knew everything about it. This was, I think, around 1978. And from that point on, I never again talked about places I hadn’t been.

When I wrote my first book, The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t, one of the places I decided to write about was a planned suburb by Frederick Law Olmsted outside of Baltimore called Sudbrook. All the writings repeated the same phrase — “This is a flat, undifferentiated landscape in which Olmsted has put in curvilinear roads in order to enliven the boring topography.” I went to see it, and when I got there, everything I had read about it was wrong. This was rolling horse country. There’s a 200-foot drop in elevation from one end of this small subdivision to the other. I keep finding if you go by what somebody has written you can’t be sure it’s right. That’s why I always go.

Q: If there was one street you could be walking along, and one park you could be doing something in, what would it be?

A: The park is easy. I grew up in Central Park. I was a resident of Manhattan. When I was just beginning to speak, I thought the word ‘park’ meant Central Park. I didn’t know there were any other parks. Central Park is the greatest park anywhere in the world. It was designed by two men who had never worked together, who had no idea what a public park was — because, in the United States, there weren’t any. There were greens and town commons but no public park that had ever been acquired and designed for recreational purposes. They had no team to work on this. If you ran an RFP (request for proposal) today, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux couldn’t win the RFP because they wouldn’t meet the criteria. And they made the greatest park ever.

When it comes to streets, it’s the boulevards of Paris, running away. Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who was the chief executive officer of Paris from 1853-1870 changed Paris forever and turned it into this extraordinary place. Those boulevards — everybody is there. You can do anything you want there. Buy a newspaper, have a glass of wine, go window shopping, park your car, drive your bicycle, go to the library. It’s an amazing series of places.

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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