A Placemaking Journal

Dhiru’s Encyclopedia of City-Shaping: Reassurance in Uncertain Times

Just about anybody remotely interested in how the world’s most admired places earned their adulation is going to love Dhiru Thadani’s new book: The Language of Towns and Cities. In it, Dhiru subtitles the book “A Visual Dictionary,” but as L.J. Aurbach points out in his blog review, it’s really an encyclopedia. And it couldn’t come at a better time.

What Dhiru offers is an 800-page compilation of our species’ success stories. Here, delivered with the customary Thadani elegance and illustrative efficiency, are the components of placemaking and how they’ve been honed over centuries to achieve interior and exterior spaces that not only appeal to the head and the heart but also represent high-performance design. Here’s proof that some stuff just works. And it works on just about any level we imagine.

The reason that sounds so remarkable is that these are not inspiring times, particularly for those holding onto to dreams of collaborative achievement or even collaborative competence or maybe even collaboration itself. We’re hard at work downsizing expectations and adjusting to the new normal in which less is really less.

A certain amount of that is long overdue. We overindulged the opposite attitude back when times were flush. So it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if we recommitted ourselves to something more basic, such as using the tools of placemaking to enable more health and happiness in community and less gold-plated isolation. We’re trying to encourage that train of thought in this space. See Hazel Borys’ post on planning for happiness here and Amanda Thompson’s related health argument here.

Yet I’m not so sure tweaking our priorities is going to be enough. Some bigger shift appears to be in the works.

As usual, Andres Duany is already out in front of the revolution, storming his own barricades. He helped shape the New Urbanist debating society that’s been bickering over its evolving manifesto for 30 years. Now, with global warming and the persistent recession on his mind, he’s up for a total rewrite. He hinted as much at the last CNU Congress. In 2011, get ready for the full reality-therapy agenda from Andres and from the NextGen crowd, who recently convened in New Orleans and seem to be working on their own plan for a New, New Urbanism.

I expect some of these themes will emerge when the usual suspects gather in Seaside over the weekend of Jan. 28-29 for the annual awarding of the Seaside Prize to a much-revered New Urbanist leader. This year’s honored recipient: Dhiru Thandani.

Couldn’t be a better time to marry glimpes of the potential for our species’ perfectability with the need to face the facts of new era challenges.

–Ben Brown

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