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September 2, 2013 / Leo Hollis

Review in Indian Express


Leo Hollis’s book is a good romp through the current delights and dilemmas of life in cities. It takes its intellectual cue from the far-sighted Jane Jacobs and her notion of the “ballet of the streets” described in the Death and Life of Great American Cities, written in response to the notorious Robert Moses, New York’s chief planner from the 1940s to 1960s. His desire to rip through her Greenwich Village neighbourhood in the early 1960s brought on a titanic community battle that had to be won. Jacobs was the first to highlight how urban renewal geared to the car destroys more than it creates, since the city, at its core, is a complex amalgam of strong and weak links that in their totality create the fine grain of community.

Greenwich Village was the classic multi-faceted neighbourhood with its network of streets and subtle ecology of relationships and services built up slowly through time. Here, the ordinary became extraordinary as the pleasures and pain of the day-to-day built social capital and community. It is what we now call a resilient place and those take time to create. They are under threat everywhere. The urban engineering paradigm with its focus on physical infrastructure and its hardware-driven approach is the problem.

This approach prefers the ordered to the messy, the sanitised and simplified to the complex, the bland to the locally distinctive, the big comprehensive development to the small and discriminating from which you build the city in parts. It undermines the capacity of its people to build the city from below, to unleash their creative capacity and to co-create solutions together. To use computer language, the best places are those where the hardware, software and orgware mesh well.


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