Sounds good to me. But imbuing urban spaces with new life has a name, and to most it's a pretty ugly one: gentrification. JHK is something of a supporter of said process. He claims (p. 54) that "[t]he problems of the cities are not going to be relieved until the middle class and the wealthy return to live there." The problem people have with gentrification, though, is that when the rich come in they put up fancy apartment buildings and drive up property values and make so the less fortunate can't afford to pay rent and get pushed out. JHK doesn't believe that to be right, though, and his vision involves mixed-income neighborhoods where all can live (p. 56):
Where does the underclass go if the cities are reoccupied by the well off? The underclass ceases to be an underclass and becomes something else: a working class of honorably occupied people who make less money. They share the city with other classes, as was always the case in history until our era. They observe the same standard of public conduct as everybody else. They live on less desirable streets in less desirable buildings, but they need not live in either material or spiritual squalor.
That doesn't sound too bad. Though it somewhat offends my leftist sensibilities and egalitarian tendencies, I can recognize that the abolition of class-based society is not really in the cards at this point, and this sounds like a rather decent way of dealing with things.
So why isn't this the way gentrification goes? Until recently, I was living in Portland, OR, a city where gentrification was quite the hot topic. It was going on in many parts of the city, and it was pushing out the poor. One of the more striking manifestations of this was Chinatown. It used to be that to get the really good, authentic Chinese food, you went to Chinatown, a part of one of the older sections of Portland on the west side of the river. Nowadays, anyone who knows anything about Chinese food will tell you that, to get a really good authentic meal, you have to head to E 82nd Avenue, a truly ugly strip full of all the worst kinds of things JHK describes in his book. It sucks.
The reason for this shift is gentrification. The Pearl district, the epicenter of Portland gentrification, is expanding expanding into Chinatown. Those who have traditionally lived and operated businesses there can't afford the rent anymore, so they move out to the sprawling suburbs of the East side, where rent is much, much cheaper. This has been the bizarre consequence of urban "revitalization" in Portland: the middle and upper classes are colonizing the urban center, and the worst, dodgiest, most undesirable parts of town are definitely the eastern suburbs. Hands down. These have all the worst aspects of suburbs – car crazy, strip malls, etc – but with the added bonus of poverty and the associated social pathologies.
Why are things happening this way? Why, instead of the functional, mixed-income neighborhoods described by JHK do we have an all-white, all-wealthy population in these redeveloped neighborhoods? I hate the Pearl. Though it's mixed-use, dense, pedestrian-friendly, and has great public transportation, it's still got that ultra-clean, sterilized feel that rich suburbs do.
Clearly we could put our finger on a number of reasons why, instead of creating a city for everyone, as in JHK's vision, gentrification seems to just push the poor out to the fringes. For example, we could say that the mixed-income thing wasn't planned well enough. And that wouldn't be incorrect. But I don't think that's the real, deep issue. The real issue is our socio-economic system, it is the brutal capitalism the American economy runs on and the savage inequalities it creates. The vision JHK describes is possible, surely, but it can't tolerate the intense class divides of our modern society.
I've seen JHK's city – in places like Denmark, for example, where my parents lived for a few years. They lived in a "suburb" of Copenhagen, meaning a town just outside the city that was part of the urban area. Even there, a relatively affluent area, a less affluent class could reside. They were storekeepers and electricians and plumbers, and they lived in less desirable buildings on less desirable streets. But they were not commuting from far-flung suburbs. And they were not desperately poor.
That last bit presents a huge obstacle towards creating livable, mixed-income cities in the US: our working poor are not making a decent living, and they are very much an underclass. They are not "honorably occupied people who make less money." They bust ass working multiple jobs at places like McDonald's and Walmart, and still can't make ends meet. Economically, it is just not possible for them to share neighborhoods with wealthy people, even with deliberately mixed-income planning.
The point I'm trying to make, and the point that JHK misses, is that to create the kinds of places he envisions we need to change our socio-economic system drastically. The existing places that have all of JHK's positive characteristics – the cities of Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, etc. – are social-democratic states. They have highly progressive taxation systems that limit social inequality. They have a strong sense of egalitarianism and social responsibility. Only under a social-democratic system can you have "a working class of honorably occupied people who make less money," not under one of brutal free-market capitalism. Pleasant, redeveloped cities that are also affordable for the less-affluent simply cannot be created in our society as it exists today. The poor are simply too poor, and the rich too rich. It's no accident that the places with the nicest cities also have progressive, humane socio-economic systems.
In effect, all the pathologies of American society are all deeply intertwined. Inequality, sprawl, derelict cities, car culture, corporate power, low voter turnout, obesity – these and many other problems are deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing. They cannot be disentangled and looked at separately. The approach to healing this society, to civilizing it (to use a word JHK likes), must be holistic. JHK's is not.