Intown Living: A Different American Dream By Ann Breen and Dick Rigby

Island Press, 2005, 304 pp., paperback $29.95. Ann Breen and Dick Rigby run the Waterfront Center, a nonprofit Washington, DC-based organization they founded in 1981 to promote the best possible redevelopment of urban waterfronts. They travel a lot, and they’re highly attentive observers — two factors that help explain why Intown Living surpasses most other books about the revival or re-creation of urban neighborhoods. Breen and Rigby provide candid, detail-rich chapters about eight cities: Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Memphis, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Most of those cities had few people living in or near downtown until several years ago, but now residential life is flourishing, at least in portions of the central areas. “What’s going on today is not a ‘back-to-the-city’ movement by aging baby boomers, but rather a ‘forget about it’ movement driven principally by people under 40 for whom the suburbs hold no appeal,” Breen and Rigby write. The under-40 population, they note, is buttressed by gays of all ages, by divorcees “for whom an urban neighborhood with a nightlife offers a chance to meet new people,” and by suburbanites and out-of-town visitors wanting a weekend place or a second home. The authors had expected to find considerable residential growth occurring in downtown proper, but instead they discovered more of it taking place just beyond, in areas like Midtown Atlanta, Uptown Dallas, and the Mill Quarter in Minneapolis. “Underlying this is land cost,” they report. “Downtown land is priced for commercial development, often putting it out of reach for residential projects.” Until an economic decline reduces downtown land prices, the answer in cities seeking a downtown residential population would seem to be subsidies, they suggest. As of 2002, 21 states offered a historic tax credit or were thinking of it. Breen and Rigby argue that other states and localities should follow their lead. Based on their on-site examinations as well as other research, they make numerous recommendations. Here are a few: • Cities must “put the car in its place and make the area pedestrian-friendly,” the authors say. “It’s hard to tame the car in North America, but for the sake of our cities, it has to be done.” Good public transit must be provided — especially trolleys, streetcars, and trains. Though bus rapid transit, called “BRT,” is increasingly being touted around the country, Breen and Rigby think a new middle-class population will not find buses very attractive. • Panhandling and homelessness must be dealt with, or else many people will avoid the public sidewalks. Although crime in cities is down from a decade ago, Breen and Rigby warn that “panhandling and homeless are reminders of social ills — a situation out of control — with maybe a hint of danger, and it makes people edgy.” • Cities must reform their zoning codes, increasing allowable densities so that there will be enough residents to support lively commerce and transit. “Codes in many places effectively have to be urbanized,” they emphasize. Breen and Rigby do a fine job of exploring cities and explaining, in an easy-to-read style, how they can be made attractive places to live.