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  • Walkable Cities: Revitalization, Vibrancy, and Sustainable Consumption by Carlos J. L. Balsas
  • Bradley Bereitschaft
Carlos J. L. Balsas
Walkable Cities: Revitalization, Vibrancy, and Sustainable Consumption.
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2019. xix + 238 pp. References and index. $32.95 paper (ISBN 978-1-4384-7628-5); $95.00 cloth (ISBN 978-1-4384-7627-8); $18.12 electronic (ISBN 978-1-4384-7629-2).

In the early 1960s, as urban renewal schemes designed to prioritize the automobile and needlessly segregate land uses, took hold in the United States and elsewhere, the urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs argued eloquently and persuasively against this new paradigm and in favor of what many now consider “traditional” urban planning and design. At the heart of this traditional way of building cities is a fine-grained mix of mutually-supportive land uses – residential, commercial, civic – that at reasonable urban densities, encourages people to walk and generally inhabit the public realm (i.e., sidewalks, plazas, parks, etc.). Shoppers, street vendors, residents, office workers, tourists, and shopkeepers all take part in a kind of “street ballet” that lends vitality, vibrancy, and safety to an urban neighborhood.

In Walkable Cities Carlos Balsas focuses on the core element of Jacob’s street ballet: the retail businesses and enterprises that shape the economic viability and vitality of city centers around the world. Through a diverse set of case studies in Portugal, Spain, The United States, Mexico, and Brazil, Balsas shows how business owners, political leaders, and community groups have employed strategic and coordinated planning, public-private partnerships, and various place-making efforts to cope with internal and external stresses related to urban growth, globalization, [End Page 210] economic restructuring, and changing consumer preferences. Focusing mainly on solutions and adaptations utilizing commercial revitalization strategies, Balsas takes a unique and refreshing approach to distilling and addressing these complex issues through a series of myths and “reality checks.” Balsas suggests that one of the most widespread and substantial challenges city centers have had to contend with over the past century is suburbanization and the subsequent rise of new retail formats such as shopping malls, big box stores, and strip malls that are often capable of out-competing traditional urban retail stores in regard to price, convenience, and product selection.

In the first chapter, however, Balsas rejects the notion that this increase in competition from suburban retail markets is the sole, or even primary, reason traditional retail in the city center has so frequently struggled. Instead, he suggests that retailers, in concert with municipal leaders and other stakeholders, should take responsibility for attracting customers by providing attractive urban spaces and unique retail experiences (a revitalization strategy the author refers to as commercial urbanism). As Balsas notes throughout the book, one of the critical differences between the retail environment of urban centers and those of the suburbs is that visitors “want to have a pleasant experience without necessarily having to shop” (p. 84). Indeed, one of the central themes of the book is that traditional urban centers, with their dense, human-scaled streetscapes can leverage the unique social and environmental experiences (i.e., diverse people, street vendors, smells and sounds, historic architecture) to not only attract customers but also differentiate themselves from suburban retail offerings.

While Balsas extolls the virtues of walkable urban districts, he also warns against cities rushing to implement pedestrian-only zones given the failure of so many “pedestrian malls,” particularly in the United States. Drawing on case studies from Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula, Balsas suggests that these spaces can be highly successful, however it is critical that they are a part of an authentic “living neighborhood” rather than simply an urban re-imagination of a suburban mall. They also need strong pedestrian and transit connections with the surrounding urban tissue. The implication is that pedestrian districts are best not to be thought of as stand-alone revitalization strategies, but rather “upgrades” to existing commercial areas where much of the traffic is already on foot. Balsas again emphasizes the need for careful planning and cooperative management strategies to ensure the long-term maintenance and viability of pedestrian-only spaces.

Even when successful, the...