51y27QPZHuLMarshall, Alex. How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken. 1st ed. Constructs Series. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

The Author

A journalist and writer for a quarter century, Alex Marshall is the author of The Surprising Design of Market Economies (University of Texas 2012), as well as How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl and The Roads Not Taken (University of Texas 2000), and Beneath the Metropolis: The Secret Lives of Cities (Carroll & Graf 2006). He is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association in New York. He writes columns for Governing magazine and Bloomberg View. He has taught courses about infrastructure at the New Jersey School of Architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.

MarshallA graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Marshall’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Metropolis Magazine, Planning Magazine, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Slate, Salon, Architecture, Revue Urbanisme and many other publications. From 1988 to 1997, he was a staff writer at The Virginian Pilot in Norfolk, his native city. In 1999-2000 he was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He speaks around the country and abroad. He is a member of Citistates Associates (citistates.com), a group of speakers about urban planning, economics, design and architecture.[1]

My Thoughts

Marshall summarizes the purpose of this book well in the opening statement of his Acknowledgments statement, “This book began as a criticism of the design philosophy New Urbanism. It is ending as an attempt to locate and describe the actual forces that create our cities and places where we live.”[2]

The actual forces he mentions are: transportation, economics and politics. Marshall debuncts several common myths in American culture. One myth is that cities and places are natural expressions of individual freedom and the free market. Closely tied to this myth is another myth that he dismantles: free markets are are caused by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” The truth is that places and markets are created by government. Like it or not, government is the force that creates both transportation and economics. Marshall uses a helpful analogy to explain this. Government is to places and economics as computer operating systems are to software. Software developers are absolutely free to design as long as they design within the parameters of the operating system. Cities, suburbs—human places of any kind—are designed by technological advances such as the car, the big-box store, the suburban neighborhood, but those things could not expand unless government created roads and money upon which these innovations could move.

I found this book to be very easy to read (Marshall is a journalist, after all) and a very helpful insight into the forces that lie behind much of the urban/suburban issues that I am wrestling with in my study. It was especially helpful in that he offers a balanced and appreciative critique of Andres Duany’s New Urbanism. He exposes it as simply another form of suburbanism that is built on the superstructure of expanding highway systems and a free-market economic systems that puts the needs of the individual before the needs of the community. In this case, the individual is the designer that stands in contrast to the municipal government.

Marshall calls for a metropolitan government that seeks to limit growth by taxing gasoline, changing the interstate infrastructure, and bringing all metropolitan municipalities into a collective agreement and more regional identity. He claims that this, while impinging heavily on our individualistically-oriented American values, will actually create physical places in which, and through which, community can form. He acknowledges that the forces of our current culture make this an almost idealistic pipe-dream. However, he reminds us of two things: First, it is government that shapes place, and second, we, in a democratic society, are government, so we can make the changes needed.

Marshall offers three “rules of thumb” to bring about change.

  1. “Creating places is almost wholly a product of a public, political, and taxpayer-financial decisions.”[3] We must stop catering to the individual interests and believing that community will simply emerge from it.
  2. “Of all the public decisions that go into place-making, the most important is what type of transportation systems to use. They will determine the character of the city and much if its economy.”[4]
  3. “A city’s political structure should match its economic structure…our true cities today are our metropolitan areas.”[5]

Theological Reflection

Marshall’s notion of power in government connects to some of the ideas of the Holy Spirit as power that we discussed in Patrick Kiefert’s class. Church leaders and theologians need to pay attention to the “invisible arm that moves the invisible hand” in order to see what is truly happening in our metropolitan areas. Marshall’s notion of metropolitan government, bringing scores of municipalities into communicative action, is directly tied to my studies of communicative rationality and social Trinity.

Missional Reflection

The real question is this: How is the church supposed to be interconnected with the metro? How small is place? How do we, as missional leaders, cultivate community when the powers pull it apart? Marshall’s chapter on community is especially insightful for anyone who is trying to cultivate community in the metro.

The following two paragraphs are especially insightful:

“This desire many people have for richer, more connected lives is a valid one. I believe that a society grows out of its social, religious, and political compacts, on which ultimately even market relationships depend. But like the construction of coherent physical places, the construction of coherent communities is not something to be attempted directly. Rather, one has to understand what produces both places and communities, and what weakens them, and address those forces.

“Most of what we call community in the past has been produces as a byproduct of other things: making a living, shopping for food, keeping ourselves and our families well, protecting them and our society from physical harm, educating them. We shopped for groceries, served in the military, and went to a doctor and along the way got to know the butcher, the fellow soldier, and the local doctor. All of these actions have become less communal, and so our society has become less community-minded. We buy our food at the warehouse-style supermarket, do not serve in the military unless we volunteer, and go to the impersonal HMO to get our cholesterol checked. If we want to revive community, then we should look at the trade-offs involved in making some of our decisions more communal again.”[6]


[1] http://www.alexmarshall.org/about/ (accessed August 14, 2013)

[2] Alex Marshall, How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken, 1st ed., Constructs Series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 214.

[3] Ibid.,  210.

[4] Ibid.,  211.

[5] Ibid.,  213.

[6] Ibid.,  189-190.

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