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Small Is Promising : THE LIVING CITY by Roberta Brandes Gratz (Simon & Schuster: $21.95; 414 pp.)

July 16, 1989|Sam Hall Kaplan | Kaplan is The Times' design critic. His latest book is "L.A. Follies: Design and Other Diversions in a Fractured Metropolis" (Cityscape Press)

For nearly a century, most of the professionals, politicians and others involved with shaping cities have been guided by architect Daniel Burnham's memorable phrase, "Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood." Instead, they were urged by the leader of the so-called City Beautiful movement to make "big plans; aim high in hope and work."

The advice may have been appropriate then for world's fairs and optimistic cities growing helter-skelter, for whom Burnham worked as a master planner. But in recent decades, "big plans," under the banner of slum clearance programs and urban renewal and redevelopment efforts, have been found to be considerably less successful, often at great public expense strip-mining stable, if weary, worn neighborhoods and scattering to the winds the very people who were supposed to be served.

The abuses of "big plans" have been well documented and described in books in the past, including most notably Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," and most recently William H. Whyte's "City." Each also offered appealing remedies on a human scale too often ignored by the special interests elbowing each other at the various municipal Monopoly boards that are our cities.

Very much in the same tone and spirit, and with a similar perspective, is Roberta Brandes Gratz's "The Living City." In an engaging, non-academic, accessible style, the author presents a sensible case of how, by thinking small, troubled urban communities can be saved without their souls being bulldozed and billions of public dollars being spent on despotic programs and inhuman developments.

"It is not that 'expert' planners, architects, developers and government policy-makers don't ever offer sensible and appealing solutions to commercial decay or neighborhood neglect," writes Gratz, an urban-affairs writer who for years covered planning and preservation issues for "The New York Post." "They just don't leave much room for either the breakthrough of the unconventional idea or the contribution of the on-site expert."

Citing case studies and observations from around the country, Gratz argues that the most successful examples of urban neighborhoods being brought back from the edge of extinction were the result of citizen activists working on a one-to-one, building-by-building and block-by-block basis, rather than the efforts of private developers or public authorities. Indeed, she contends that "government and development leaders, when left unchallenged, are erasing the very attributes of urban life that make cities socially appealing and economically productive."

Unfortunately, some of the case studies selected are stale and, worse, have not been updated, including her citing of the purchase and restoration of the Oviatt Building in downtown Los Angeles by developer Wayne Ratkovich in 1977 and the renovation of the Biltmore Hotel in 1979.

Much has happened in Los Angeles since then, both to these projects and to a burgeoning residential neighborhood revival movement. The text has a distinct New York perspective and an East Coast bent, which tends to distort scale and experience.

Nevertheless, Gratz's observations are pertinent and her conclusions convincing: that our cities can be saved by preserving, not rending their fabrics, listening to residents and encouraging self-help efforts, be they planting trees, enlivening streetscapes, rehabilitating housing, encouraging cooperative ownership, and generally by "thinking small in a big way."

The total, written in a populist tone, contains a wealth of practical advice to all concerned with the future of the city, and, perhaps more welcome, exudes a sense of hope.

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