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Suburbs of Survival, and the Democracy of Placemaking

Those of us who style ourselves as "urbanists" -- myself included, much of the time - tend to get a bit snobbish and condescending about, you know, ordinary people.
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Those of us who style ourselves as "urbanists" -- myself included, much of the time - tend to get a bit snobbish and condescending about, you know, ordinary people: folks who live in suburbs, drive cars out of some combination of necessity and choice, and haven't the slightest interest in what the "creative class" might be. I'm not sure that we're even aware of it. But the problem with our condescension, intentional or not, is that we remove ourselves from the sympathies of much of America. We see suburbs as things to reform and drivers as, well, the enemy. (See, for example, "The War on Cars is Winnable," which appeared recently in the generally excellent urbanist online journal Next City.)

I have come to believe that our lack of inclusiveness is a problem, strategically for sure, and possibly ethically as well.

And that is one of the big reasons why I find the new book by Kristen Jeffers, A Black Urbanist - Essays (vol. 1), so welcome and refreshing. There is not a condescending or pretentious paragraph in it. Instead, there is a lot of real-world candor about living in the suburbs as a matter of financial necessity and about how we urbanists can find many of the elements that we associate with our cause - community and placemaking to name two - in the suburbs if we put ourselves to the task.

Indeed Jeffers, although she identifies herself as an urbanist, sees "urbanism" as a privilege not everyone can afford, and she sees suburbs as places of survival and even opportunity. Instead of a "hierarchy" of categorized cities, suburbs and towns, she sees "a network of places" of many types, including the "wealth building" of home ownership in the suburbs, a matter of particular importance for African Americans.

As the book was written Jeffers, a Millennial in her late 20s, lived unapologetically with her mother in a car-dependent suburb of Greensboro, North Carolina:

"What if the only house you could live in at the present moment was not a shack, but had running water and electricity and a loving parent to make sure you wake up every morning even though your routine is currently more flexible? Oh, and that house wasn't in a walkable neighborhood, but instead in a newish low-density area with free parking? And the cherry: the fact that your family has possession of it proves that black folks, even in the age of bad mortgages, foreclosures and economic inequality, can in fact own and maintain a house?

"This is my suburb, and it's a suburb of survival."

Jeffers certainly does not reject inner cities or the kind of urbanism that many of us typically advocate. But for her and some of her Millennial friends many of those concepts remain aspirational for the time being. The message is to make the most of what we have.

This brings me to "the democracy of placemaking," another of the big ideas in A Black Urbanist. I've been thinking a lot lately about the meaning of the word "placemaking," not least because I just joined a firm with PlaceMakers as its name. I believe it's about more than improving public spaces, though that is indeed a big component; and it's about more than the physical design of a place, though design also can make a huge contribution. Ultimately it's about creating community rooted in a geographical location.

Jeffers believes that any of us can engage in placemaking wherever we are, and that it is a democratic process in the sense that it can occur in a suburb as well as a city, in a community of friends as well as in a well-designed group of buildings and public spaces. It shouldn't be limited by architectural or city-planning precepts. "Anybody can make something of their community," Jeffers told me when I asked her to elaborate on the concept. "Placemaking values not just how a building is built, but values the idea that a person can make something out of nothing. All people have a seat at the table of creating their ideal community, one that balances the interests of all parties involved. The idea is not tied up to a particular building type, which may or may not be affordable to the general populace."

In her book she puts it this way:

"Placemaking does require an address, but it's not necessarily an address in demand. Place can be made from old-line suburbia, where each neighbor can decide to grow a different vegetable and then teach the community how to clean and cook those vegetables, in order to eat healthier . . .

"Sustainable placemaking concepts must not be limited to downtown areas. There are clear health and economic benefits from building services into suburban neighborhoods. The density I want to start seeing begins with making sure more things are within walking distance, in both urban and suburban places, rather than focusing on putting more luxury high-rises in downtown arts and entertainment districts. We should give everyone a chance to have the home that they need and want, while being able to enjoy walking access to the commercial corridors that define neighborhoods and offer places -- be they parks or libraries or coffee shops, casual eateries or corner stores -- where communities come together, and that make possible a sense of shared wealth, to accompany the private wealth that suburbs symbolize."

I love it.

There's a lot more in the book, too, in such provocatively titled chapters as "Does it matter who owns the corner store?" and "Don't sleep on the mall." She writes about neighborhood-level governance, with some good suggestions for how neighborhood associations might spend their time more productively than they often do now, and even about how voting rights and matters of place intersect. One of my favorite sections runs down a list of indicators that suggest whether one has an actual town, rather than just a hodgepodge of development and occupants.

A Black Urbanist is not a deep or particularly lengthy book, and I mean that in the most complimentary of ways. Its lack of pretense and easy accessibility are two of the best things about it. The lack of doctrinaire thinking is another; Jeffers speaks for herself. The book is a first-person narrative, written from the heart in a conversational tone, with an immensely engaging perspective about concepts all of us can relate to. It's the kind of book that makes you glad it has "volume 1" in the title, offering the hope that eventually there will be more like it on the way.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in the national media. Kaid's latest book, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, is available from booksellers nationwide.

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