Urban Planner Alexander Garvin on Four Tenets of Successful Urban Planning

Alex Gavin Yale

I don’t know about you, but when I have to make a pretty vital decision, I try to get as many opinions as possible. As many educated opinions from people far smarter than I. Maybe we need to do this on the Trinity Parkway/Tollway/Parkway?



Thursday night in New York City (where I am attending Inman Connect NYC), I attended a lecture by Alexander Garvin, a noted American urban planner, educator, and author. He has a private architectural practice at Alexander Garvin & Associates in New York City, and is an adjunct professor at the Yale School of Architecture. He also happens to be the man responsible for Atlanta’s greenbelt system. We saw the system in action at NAREE a year and a half ago when the conference was held in Atlanta. Basically, Atlanta had this railroad track running almost a circle around the city, and it was Garvin who suggested turning it into a connected greenbelt. When I told him how we had toured the Ponce City Market (an old Sears Roebuck warehouse turned multi-use foodie nirvana), he was charmed. I told him how I saw joggers utilizing those trails and how they were inspiring private development real estate projects. He, in turn, told me that his book, The Planning Game: Lessons From Great Cities, has a picture of our own Katy Trail in Dallas, which he admires. That too, I told him, is stimulating development.

planning game

Professor Garvin was also behind New York City’s 2012 Olympic Games bid, and oversaw the politically-charged efforts to redevelop lower Manhattan post the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers. 

He has been a commissioner on the New York City Planning Commission, and was New York City’s Deputy Commissioner of Housing and Director of Comprehensive planning, from ’70 to ’80. He spoke about the importance of urban planning, giving us swift biographies of four architects/urban planners profiled in his book, who changed the urban planning world:

Baron George-Eugene Haussmann, who basically built the city of Paris, transforming it from streets that were trenches of filth to an organized street system and a sewer system for sanitation.

David Burnham, the Director of Works for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, who designed half the Windy City’s skyscrapers and made Chicago the great city it is today by re-creating the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Robert Moses who graduated from Yale and had a profound effect on New York City. Often called the “master builder” of mid-20th century New York  metro area,  he was one of the most polarizing figures in the history of U.S. urban planning. He is said to be largely responsible for choosing highways over public transit and helped create the modern suburbs of Long Island, something Prof. Garvin refuted. 

Edmund Bacon, who transformed Philadelphia’s architecture and also actively called himself an urban planner.

A few highlights: Paris was a city of six or seven story buildings because of water pressure and the fact that was as high as women were willing to take strollers — there were no elevators in the 1860’s. Haussmann created more than 90 miles worth of streets in Paris. Streets, said Garvin, which gave people places to hang out once they were no longer cesspools. Without streets in Paris, there would be no cafes; with no cafes, he said, there would be no Paris.

The interstate highway system in the U.S. was created as part of the Defense Highway Act of 1956, he told us, designed for trucks, transport and civil defense. Garvin does not agree with Robert Moses biographer, Robert A. Caro, and Caro’s biting but Pulitzer prize-winning portrayal of the urban planner. He said Moses built on a scale that was unprecedented, planned hundreds of miles of parkway in New York as well as 15 public swimming pools.

“Robert Moses was a townie,” he said, “a Jewish townie at Yale in 1908 on the swim team.”

Moses swam daily, well into his 80s.

“Moses used to say, the average highway engineer’s notion of landscaping would make the angels weep,” said Garvin.

Garvin says Moses had nothing to do with the highways; he built landscaped parkways, pools and playgrounds. He also built 400,000 units of housing in New York as the head of the Department of New York Housing Authority. He is responsible for what is now Lincoln Center, once known as Lincoln Square. Moses cleared 4200 units of dilapidated housing to make way for one of the world’s greatest arts centers. Among bridges and more structures he created with his vast post Depression-era powers, Robert Moses also developed Jones Beach State Park.

According to a Wall Street Journal review of his book, Garvin says Moses thought cars were here forever. He called those who disagreed — like Jane Jacobs — “commies”:

Like most mid-20th-century planners, Moses thought that the automobile would be a permanent and dominant part of city life and that highways had to slash through neighborhoods to accommodate cars and trucks. He also believed in urban renewal, tower-in-the-park development and suburban growth. He didn’t recognize that by the early 1960s large numbers of New Yorkers no longer agreed. Author-activist Jane Jacobs and her motley crew of “disgruntled housewives” and “ersatz bagel makers” (Moses’ terms) had entered the fray and would permanently alter the urban agenda across the country.

The presentation was an interesting look at a man — at all four — who improved major cities by shaping public realm. That is, they created “parks, streets, squares, infrastructure and buildings owned by the people and controlled by government officials. Investing in “our common property,” he argues, makes it easier and cheaper to do business while improving the quality of life for residents.”

Here are the professor’s criteria of successful urban planning — a nice litmus test we might borrow:

-Satisfies the needs of the present

-Stimulates a private market reaction

-Creates a framework for further development

-Accommodates the needs of a future generation.