City Comforts Book Cover

This is a book review that I wrote for New Urban Living Magazine. The review was originally published in the March/April 2005 issue.

In David Sucher’s book, City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village, he admits that he started this book with no outline. It merely evolved from photographs that he took while ‘observing’ cities. The photographs are of things that seem to “work” well in bringing people together and fostering the type of environment that encourages the chance encounter. His book is composed of and about these photographs. The result is a useful, well-organized and easy to use manual full of working solutions for several could-be problem areas in the modern American city and ways to give these areas more potential. These are solutions for creating, what Sucher calls, an urban village, and this is what the author feels most people really desire in their surroundings but are largely lacking in them.

What is an urban village? Sucher says that the best way to spot an urban village is when you are driving around through a modern American city, and you find a commercial area where you actually want to park and get out and wander around. As odd as the term is, this is an urban village.

He goes on to explain that the urban village, a term coined by the former mayor of Seattle, Norman B. Rice, which was borrowed from sociologist Herbert Gan’s book “Urban Villagers”, is a metaphor for describing a place that has the best mix of elements of both the city and the village. The term itself is an oxymoron because each of these, the city and village, is filled with opposing feelings and characteristics. The city or urban life provides the place of activity, opportunity, diversity, business, and anonymity among other features but it can also be hostile and lonely. On the other hand, the village fosters the place of repose, tranquility, intimacy, and familiarity. The author feels that most of us want to be able to enjoy a mix of these feelings. Therefore, the challenge in creating the urban village is to obtain and combine the desirable elements and feelings from each into real streets and real buildings.

Though it can and may take years, the urban village will emerge from the details, and it is these details, or city comforts, that shape our daily experiences and therefore our lives. It is these details that compose this book. Because he feels it is all in the details, Sucher urges us to look at our city and select the things we like about it and ‘reverse engineer’. Even, and perhaps especially, at the public policy level, attention needs to be refocused to examine the details and less of the grandeur and large scale. For example, code words like “units per acre” need to be translated into feelings, because “it is the feel of a neighborhood that is important to people not its numerical density”.

One of the most important sections of the book is the introduction to the author’s three simple rules that “create pedestrian friendly, comfortable neighborhoods and cities” and promote chance encounters. Sucher states that “the future of cities lies in the possibility they offer for the chance encounter”. These three rules are a starting point, and they boil down to one most important decision which is the basic arrangement of the building on the site.

These rules are clearly seen in use and displayed in the photographs throughout the book. The details include from the most obvious, like “parking location”, to the more subtle, like “use movable chairs”. All of them clearly define the details that bring people together to foster that urban village feeling of anonymity and familiarity.

City Comforts is designed to be used by several groups of people including neighbors, developers, architects, and municipal officials. It is obviously an extremely illustrative work with very reasonable solutions and explanations, but it is also enjoyable. You may want to flip through the book and read the sections around the pictures that you find most interesting, rather than reading from cover to cover. It works well as desk reference material or as an idea generator, because, as the author clearly explains, “creating community is a worthy goal”.

Author: Tory Parish

  • http://twitter.com/terrykearns Terry E. Kearns

    I'm not sure what is meant by “the future of cities lies in the possibility they offer for the chance encounter.” To me, it's a delight to bump into friend family or acquaintance someone you know unexpectedly. That cuts the lonely anonymity. Then there is the unexpected: You turn and see something for the first time.