The Wealth of Cities by John Norquist – Book Review
Milwaukee’s former Mayor, John Norquist, in his 1998 book The Wealth of Cities writes up the impacts of U.S. policies on our cities, lays out his foundational beliefs that today form a key plank of the New Urbanism movement, and shares his insight into how he believes cities should be governed.
Covering a bit of history the book explores how a variety of public policies have negatively impacted cities and encouraged the rise of, as he calls it, “the mediocre suburb.” One such example that he points to is how zoning regulations have negatively impacted density in cities, and in turn decreased the number of affordable housing units available in a city. FHA mortgage insurance and home loan programs are another example of public policy that has had a negative impact on cities. He gives the history of how these policies have subsidized single-family home development and suburban sprawl, furthering the decline of the core.
Known for his efforts to remove the Park East Freeway spur (the book was written well before the freeway was removed in Milwaukee), and as a critic of freeway expansion, it is only appropriate that he takes an entire chapter to provide background history regarding freeways in the U.S. In particular he covers how freeways, or as he says U.S. Autobahns, have done damage to the very cities they were supposed to improve. He covers the negative impacts to health and air quality brought on by proximity to freeways, how freeways have divided neighborhoods (sometimes by physically cutting them in half), and how they have blighted urban areas. He uses the removal of the San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway and its redevelopment in to a boulevard as a model for other cities to follow. The removal played a significant role in the improvement of the quality of life for the citizens of San Francisco, without significantly impacting congestion.
Beyond the typical urbanist discussions, he touches on his own personal beliefs and concepts in regards to city governance. As a self-proclaimed “New Democrat” he writes about his long list of cost-saving budget measures, such as avoiding the use of one-time grants as they, in his opinion, lead to future budget holes. The choice school voucher system is another area which he covers, comparing it to the G.I. Bill and Pell Grants, arguing that those programs haven’t hurt public universities, so therefore the choice system should be supported because improving education is vital to a city’s future. The Broken Windows Theory of policing is yet another non-traditional urbanist area that he touches on, arguing that public safety is key to the success of any city, and this model of policing is a strong way to deliver safety. Straying into national politics, he even points out the value of immigration to our cities, saying “Cities are the soil in which commerce grows. One ingredient vital to such growth is people. Immigration has always been a source of strength for cities.”
Often New Urbanism is viewed as a discussion of merely the built environment, and that is a primary focus, but as his writing shows urbanism is about much more than buildings.