On the Page: Urban Planning Edition

Building-Home-coverGiven our familiarity with the terrors of the housing crisis, it can be hard to read about the evolution of mortgage finance and the conflation of home ownership and the American Dream with anything other than a sense of dread.

Building Home (University of California Press, 368 pp., $34.95), which tells the story of Howard Ahmanson Sr. and the savings-and-loan empire he built in Southern California, is a prequel to the housing horror movie that we have watched play out these last few years, and it reads like the expository scenes of a scary movie: the sunny front yard, the family packing the station wagon, the kids joking, with no clue of what looms on the horizon.

But for all our cringing, the crisis never hits in this economic history, although its off-screen presence is what gives the book much wider relevance than it would otherwise have. Building Home, which starts with Mr. Ahmanson’s birth in 1906 and concludes shortly after his death in 1968, chronicles a time when collaborations between the government and corporations actually worked to the public benefit and a man like Mr. Ahmanson could amass a vast personal fortune in the savings-and-loan industry while contributing to the growth and prosperity of the greater Los Angeles area.

The decision to focus on a single character, albeit one who remains largely enigmatic beyond his business life (extensive material documenting Mr. Ahmanson’s personal life simply did not exist), was a wise one: despite the nation’s now-reluctant familiarity with mortgage finance, it can be a hard topic to warm up to.

Reading Building Home, one not only warms to the subject, but also to the argument that big businesses and the government can work together for the public benefit. As Mr. Abrahamson writes, while Mr. Ahmanson remained unsentimental about the shortcomings of government bureaucracy, he never doubted that “a democratic government working hand in hand with the free enterprise system could realize national dreams as well as private ambitions.”

the planning gameLike Building Home, The Planning Game (W.W. Norton & Company, 224 pp., $59.95) is prescriptive, offering examples of how another much-maligned collaboration—city planning—can be used to improve the prosperity of a place.

Author Alexander Garvin, an urban planner and academic, brings a down-to-earth practicality leavened with just enough starry-eyed idealism to his exploration of how to build better cities.

Besides offering an overview of how planning works, Mr. Garvin analyzes how four actual cities were transformed, studying the development of Paris, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. The colorful personalities of the planners behind the transformations and the colorful maps and photos make for easy reading or grazing, but the book is a how-to, not a history.

Throughout the book, Mr. Garvin emphasizes the importance of investment in public spaces—the streets, parks, squares and public buildings that are the fundamental elements in any community. This might seem like an obvious lesson, but it’s one we often forget, especially in New York. If city planning focused more on the public infrastructure, rather than the pittance of public space that developers concede to carve out in their projects, it might well be met with less cynicism from a public that is inclined to feel hostile to changes that they seem not to have a stake in.

Still, Mr. Garvin draws out lessons from men like Robert Moses who, for better or worse, are hard acts to follow.