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Yale 62

Heart and “Sole”…

Walking Around Cities is Essential

By Alexander Garvin

I learned why my professional career is based on walking when I was visiting friends in Palo Alto. Every time I visited, they wanted me to join them on a morning walk around town. One year, I asked them why they wanted me along. Astonished, they informed me that I always noticed things of which they were unaware. It was then that I understood both that I needed to walk around a place in order to perceive what was happening, and that I had a diagnostic skill most people observing cities did not have.

Alex Garvin

Alex Garvin

Years later, I was employed by the County Commission of DeKalb County, outside Atlanta. My first walk around the area, for which I had been asked to make recommendations was, as always, revealing. The sidewalks were the problem. I came back to New York and told my staff we were going to be fired. They were incredulous, “Why?” they asked. I replied, “The sidewalks are discontinuous and, where they exist, they are crumbling. When I tell the residents of this suburban Georgia community that they need to install sidewalks, they will demand our ouster.” The staff urged me not to tell them that. I replied that no community would trust me if I did not tell them exactly what I thought. Moreover, I couldn’t help them, if they did not accept my conclusions. When I went back for my second meeting with 300 people in the DeKalb County high school, I told them that they needed sidewalks. There was a 20-second pause, followed by a standing ovation. What I had not known was that this community included the largest concentrations of Orthodox Jews in the United States. They walked to synagogue on the Sabbath and, of course, understood the need for sidewalks.

I wrote my last book because I could not explain What Makes a Great City. To find out, I decided to visit some of the world’s greatest cities. The first one I went to was Bilbao, which I’d heard had become a “great” city when the Guggenheim Museum opened its branch there. Within five minutes of arriving there, I went for a walk along the riverfront. By the time I reached the Guggenheim, I knew that the museum was not the reason.

My new book, The Heart of the City: Creating vibrant Downtown for a New Century, was a product of another walk… in lower Manhattan. As a lifelong New Yorker, I had understood that lower Manhattan had been losing customers for decades to Midtown and downtowns in Westchester, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

The Heart of the CityDowntowns are The Heart of the City. As long as downtowns thrive, we can be certain of a prosperous and thrilling future for the American city. Some downtowns, including Uptown Houston and Atlanta’s Buckhead, have never stopped thriving. Others, such as downtown Detroit, have been in decline for half a century. A third trajectory includes downtowns such as lower Manhattan and downtown Los Angeles that were once on the decline and are now resurgent. Why are some downtowns in trouble while others are thriving? And what does it take to ensure a healthy future for the heart of America’s cities?

During the 15 months after 9/11, when I had the job of rebuilding the World Trade Center, I was determined to reverse its decline and was sure I had failed. For the next fifteen years every time I went there for a meeting, I paid little attention to a district I thought was still in decline. Then, a couple of years ago, I decided to walk around the entire district. To my amazement it was thriving. When I realized that the same thing was occurring in downtown Los Angeles, downtown Cincinnati, and other downtowns, I decided to write a book explaining how and why downtown America was changing and what citizen activists could do to ensure that the changes were for the better.

The Heart of the City opens with a diagnosis of downtowns across the United States, including how and why they are changing. Examples range from preservationists restoring downtown Denver, to artists generating downtown revival in New York’s SoHo district, to the role of immigrants in downtown Miami. I draw lessons from New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Boston that embody exemplary efforts to improve twenty-first century downtowns.

If you want to know how and why downtown America is changing and what you can do to be sure the changes are for the better, rush to purchase The Heart of the City: Creating Vibrant Downtown for a New Century. It is readily available on Amazon.

I look forward to chatting with you about it at our next class event.



Please comment below.

3 comments to Walking Around Cities is Essential

  • George Cleary

    Well, how fascinating. I’ve been fleeing cities since I was born (in NY!). What I walk around is the country – the fewer people the better. But I have reached the same conclusion: if you walk around anywhere (not just downtown) and just look, you see things no one else does. Would love to get in touch and interchange ideas. Remember me? George Cleary

  • George:

    Of course, I remember. I would love to get together and catch up on the last 57 years. Do you have any plans to come to NYC? Please, contact me via my e-mail address (

  • Martin Ressinger

    The September/October 2016 Class of 1962 Alumni Notes quoted you describing our village of Martel, France, as “the dream town of every urban designer”. Could you tell me and other classmates familiar with Martel what prompted such superlatives? Thanks, Martin Ressinger