The Wealth of Cities: Revitalizing the Centers of American Life by John O. Norquist

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Posted 2005-05-20

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

This book gives valuable insight into the thinking of an urban mayor, who at the time of this book's publication, was serving his third term as mayor of the 18th largest US city. Norquist's main point is that cities are powerful wealth generators if well-meaning but wrong-headed policies are avoided and the urban form itself can shine as a setting for human capital.

Norquist sets the stage by recounting his efforts in Milwaukee to keep increases in city spending below the rate of inflation (p. 44), put more cops on the street (p. 53), reform welfare (p. 79), support school choice (p. 83), as well as address housing and crime.

Ironies are at the heart of Norquist's description of what has harmed cities. It was the Department of Housing and Urban Development that decimated urban housing (p. 112) and the Department of Transportation that decimated urban transportation (p. 153). It was the National League of Cities that "came out against cities" (p. 171). It was zoning that killed off diversity and proximity (p. 107) that are at the heart of urban fabric. Norquist says of this degredation of U.S. cities: "It was planned. Some of our most talented architects and planners knew exactly what was happening" (p. 156).

Norquist solutions for city design point toward New Urbanism, the tenents of which are infused throughout the book. He contrasts Milwaukee's old neighborhoods and human-scale streets like Kinnickinnic Avenue with a suburban highway west of the city, Blue Mound Road, as an exemplar of sprawl. Norquist's advocacy of New Urbanism continued after serving as mayor of Milwaukee from 1988-2003, when he became president of the Congress for the New Urbanism at the start of 2004.

As a personal note, I have consider myself fortunate to live in Milwaukee, having moved back here in 1998 after first being here for graduate school at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee from 1989 to 1991. Milwaukee, to me, offers a place that in many ways reinforces New Urbanist ideals in genuine neighborhoods that were built when urbanism thrived. Milwaukee's first heyday indeed was at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries, when its breweries were so famous that for the next century and perhaps forever, its name became associated with beer, and its port literally fed the world with wheat. The twentieth century was brutal on the city for all the same reasons that the twentieth century was brutal on cities everywhere. Today, it is the energy of the city itself that slowly has made people notice the vistas that are a testament to Norquist's efforts and could be put on a postcard: a lakeside museum, a lakefront being used, a new park, a lively street, reviving neighborhoods, and activities and housing along the river.

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