This is the fifth in a series of short, superficial book reviews. Toward the Livable City, a gift from my brother last year, is a collection of essays on urbanism, broadly addressing the questions of what is good about cities and how to make them better. Articles range from a personal essay about walking in Cambridge, MA, to a heavily footnoted academic piece laying out a detailed vision for a better affordable housing policy. Many of the essays dealt with a particular American city: Boston, New York, and the Twin Cities were all well-represented. Unfortunately, all I’ve ever seen of Minneapolis is a bit of the airport, and I wasn’t able to get much out of the three pieces that focus on it.
The pieces about Boston and Cambridge were wonderful; I particularly enjoyed Emily Hiestand’s article “The Backside of Civility” about her visits to various infrastructure projects. It was one of several articles that did a wonderful job melding personal experience with broader perspective; it also provided the following wonderful etymology:
The way I am using the word [infrastructure] here, to mean the public works and subservices of an industrial economy, evolved from more specialized meanings. When infrastructure first migrated into English from French, circa 1920, it was used chiefly to describe military installations such as naval bases and cavalry barracks and the like. In American English, the word was quickly applied to the tunnels and culverts of railroad lines, and once it was linked to the railroad, infrastructure was free to travel. Soon it could be found signifying the subparts or underlying system of just about anything[.]
Overall, I recommend the book for the more literary essays; a real wonk might get something out of the technical policy pieces, but they don’t mean so much to the layperson and are less fun to read.