Reviewing 2007’s “Great Neighborhood Book”

Bookpic As a “forum for discussing financial issues around placemaking,” the Cents of Place blog cannot fail to remark on this year’s publication of “The Great Neighborhood Book” by Minnesota author Jay Walljasper.  The book covers a range of issues with an approach that is whimsical and populist, and at times reads like a love letter to places that allow for spontaneous and informal interaction.  In the process, Walljasper ignores the economic and financial issues that are in some cases at the core of his evaluation of what makes for great urban neighborhoods.  Perhaps a sequel is in order.

In the introduction, the author mentions the eleven principles of placemaking that have been developed by the book’s publisher, the Project for Public Spaces, and which serve as a framework for the book.  Principle number ten reads:

Money is not the issue.  If you have a spirited community working with you, you’ll find creative ways around financial obstacles.

I admit a bias here:  I believe that whether and how we finance placemaking is a critical issue, not one to be casually dismissed.  Moreover, the suggestion in principle number ten is that neighborhoods stymied by financial obstacles are dispirited, weak or lacking in creativity.  Instead, I suggest rephrasing the principle to read:

Money is not the only issue.  A spirited community and/or local booster can surmount a broad range of financial obstacles through creative problem solving.  Initiatives described in this book have succeeded not only because they offer aesthetic values and are homegrown, but because they enhance community differentiation via unique spaces and hence “pay off” in terms of dollars and quality of life for residents and visitors.  It’s human nature that we like to live in and visit places that are distinct, and we respond by investing our time, money and effort in those places.  If these various forms of investment do not take place, even much-adored places can be jeopardized.

In an October lecture at the national conference of the Trust for Historic Preservation, Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute offered a sound point about community differentiation.  “Why,” he asked, “would anyone be interested in coming to invest themselves in a community that is failing to invest in itself?”  Just as it would be incomplete to ignore the social capital and relationships that support great neighborhoods, the financial component – unsavory as it can be – needs to be addressed.

I enjoyed this book and am hoping for a second edition with a chapter on placemaking finance!