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How Cities Work

How Cities Work
Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken

A hard-hitting, highly readable look at what makes cities work -- or not work.

Series: Constructs Series

January 2001
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272 pages | 6 x 9 1/4 | 20 b&w photos |

Do cities work anymore? How did they get to be such sprawling conglomerations of lookalike subdivisions, megafreeways, and "big box" superstores surrounded by acres of parking lots? And why, most of all, don't they feel like real communities? These are the questions that Alex Marshall tackles in this hard-hitting, highly readable look at what makes cities work.

Marshall argues that urban life has broken down because of our basic ignorance of the real forces that shape cities-transportation systems, industry and business, and political decision making. He explores how these forces have built four very different urban environments-the decentralized sprawl of California's Silicon Valley, the crowded streets of New York City's Jackson Heights neighborhood, the controlled growth of Portland, Oregon, and the stage-set facades of Disney's planned community, Celebration, Florida.

To build better cities, Marshall asserts, we must understand and intelligently direct the forces that shape them. Without prescribing any one solution, he defines the key issues facing all concerned citizens who are trying to control urban sprawl and build real communities. His timely book will be important reading for a wide public and professional audience.

  • Introduction: The Sex of Cities
  • Chapter 1: A Tale of Two Towns: Kissimmee versus Celebration and the New Urbanism
  • Chapter 2: The End of Place
  • Chapter 3: The Deconstructed City: The Silicon Valley
  • Chapter 4: Trading Places: The City and the Suburb
  • Chapter 5: Jackson Heights: An Anachronism Finds Its Way
  • Chapter 6: The Master Hand: The Role of Government in Building Cities
  • Chapter 7: Portland and Oregon: Taming the Forces That Create the Modern Metropolitan Area
  • Chapter 8: No Place Called Home: Community at the Millennium
  • Chapter 9: Conclusion. Getting There: Building Healthy Cities
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Selected References
  • Index

A recent Loeb Fellow at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Alex Marshall is a freelance journalist in New York City, who has written about urban design for the Washington Post, George, Metropolis, Planning, and other national publications.


Children are supposed to turn to their parents at some point and ask innocently, "Daddy [or Mommy], where do babies come from?" Faced with such a basic question, parents then decide how directly to answer it.

I doubt any child has turned to anyone and asked plaintively, "Daddy, where do places come from?" Or, "Daddy, where do cities come from?" But it is these questions that I hope people are asking, even if not consciously, and which I seek to answer in this book.

There's been a lot of talk over the last half-century about our cities, towns, suburbs, and neighborhoods. Through most of it has run a thick current of dissatisfaction with the galloping forces of suburbanization that have characterized the postwar era. People may love their three-bedroom home on the cul-de-sac, but they hate traffic jams, destroyed countryside, pollution, and automobile dependence. But before we start labeling places as good or bad, or attempting to design new ones, we should understand them better. This means asking basic questions. Which are: What forces produce our streets, neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions, and the shape they take? And can we control them? To proceed without understanding is to almost guarantee ill-conceived and unwanted results.

Babies come from sex. Where do places come from? What is the sex of place? What union of people and nature produces our cities, our suburbs, and the environment out of which we make our homes? If some concede the need for more widespread sex education, might I raise the call for more universal place education?

I believe we are mixed up about our cities, our neighborhoods, and the places where we live. We don't understand how they work. We don't understand what produces them. We don't understand what starts them or stops them. We don't know how to change them, even if we wanted to. That is what I hope to do in this book. To explain to myself and to the reader why human settlement occurs, what shapes it, and how it can be shaped. In this book, I discuss the nature of place and how the nature of places has changed. And how we can shape the nature of our places. I do not argue to redesign our cities in a specific way. I have preferences and make them known. But my purpose is to make clear the choices available and the price tag of each. How do we change our world? What levers do we grasp if we want to change how it is constructed?

Much of the book explicitly or implicitly addresses the dualism that has developed between the so-called urban and suburban environments, between the land of the parking lot and the land of the street. These two types of places are seen as representing different ideals, and being governed by different systems. I attempt to find the Rosetta stone that will make understandable the workings of both city and suburb. Although they indeed have stark differences in their everyday life, I contend if we widen the lens, we find both urban and suburban places are governed and created by the same laws of place. If we understand those laws, we come a long way in understanding how places and cities are created and how they function.


Much of the writing and thought going under the banner of New Urbanism is intelligent attempts to move planners, architects, and citizens forward in building more coherent cities and places. Because of that, to some extent, I am a New Urbanist. But what New Urbanism has mostly been on the ground is a way of building suburban subdivisions that are masquerading as something else. It is a stylistic revolution in the suburbs, like changing the hemlines of skirts, and not an actual change of their design. As a way of grappling with our places, New Urbanism has been destructive because it has offered an easy way out of the difficult policy questions that reviving actual urbanism entails. It is politically quite difficult to stop building highways. A huge coalition of home builders, road builders, and politicians is geared up to build them. Growth boundaries, and similar mechanisms like "smart growth" laws, that prohibit the extension of infrastructure represent, if implemented, huge shifts in where the political power of the state lies. With New Urbanism, instead of debating whether to prohibit the conversion of more farmland to houses, we debate whether a private developer should be allowed to build a slightly reconfigured subdivision. It is a far simpler fight than whether to impose a growth boundary around a municipal area, invest more in mass transit, or impose a bigger tax on gasoline.

If there is anything central to this book, it's that real changes in the structure of our places can be both productive and rejuvenating. But that half-measures and window dressings are neither needed nor helpful. Real changes require making real choices. I would be glad if we chose to make them. If not, however, we should recognize that and live with the consequences....



“This is an outstanding book that I hope and expect will make a major contribution to the current debate on cities and suburbs.”
Robert Fishman, author of American Planning Tradition: Culture and Policy and Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia


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