Better Places Add Up to Better Cities

Traci Sooter, Springfield. 
15 August 2016

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

A review of Good Urbanism: Six Steps to Creating Prosperous Places by Nan Ellin. 2012.  Island Press. ISBN 13: 978-1-61091-374-4. 141 pages. Buy the book.

Many people have a desire to improve spaces in their cities and neighborhoods, but most don’t know where to begin or what steps to take to see a community project through to fruition. Most who have been successful at creating “livable and lovable spaces” succeed through tedious determination of trial and error.

Nan Ellin’s strong desire for environments that “inspire, uplift and sustain us” shines throughout Good Urbanism.
During the recovery stage after the Joplin, Missouri EF5 tornado of 2011, students at Drury University designed and built a 12,000 ft2 memorial garden, the Volunteer Tribute in honor of the over 170,000 registered volunteers that went to Joplin’s aid in their great time of need. As students with no prior experience in creating “prosperous places” they relied on the experience of their professors to guide them through the steps of designing and building this community space. In this case, as it was response to a traumatic disturbance, a trial and error approach to the steps of place making would have been too slow. There was immediate need of relief from the brownness in the city caused by the scrapping of the earth during the demolition and clean up. Greening this Red Zone (Tidball, Krasny 2013) through the construction of the Volunteer Tribute and other projects within the park, set the stage for the park to become a sacred place in Joplin.


In Good Urbanism, Nan Ellin offers her “positive call to arms to connect us to place” mapping out the process in a clear, cohesive manner that shows the reader how successful interventions have applied these steps through eleven easy-to-follow case studies. Ellin draws on and applies insights from organizational learning, psychology, and the philosophy of pragmatism-grounded theory and wisdom traditions, to create a straightforward, step-by-step approach to a “Path toward Prosperity” in urban spaces.

She quickly and succinctly defines six steps that become the road map for grassroots community members or students to follow toward successful acquisition of resources and execution of what she calls livable and lovable spaces. Icons representing each step reinforce the process and clearly tie the storyline of the case study with each step. The diverse projects and the variety locations of the case studies reinforce the idea that the proposed steps can be effective in any U.S. urban area.

Six steps to prosperous spaces, according to Ellin:

  1. Present
  1. Promote
  1. Prototype
  1. Propose
  1. Polish
  1. Prospect

Dissecting the case studies and clearly defining how each case used the steps she has identified makes the book a good resource for activists as well as professors and students. This short read has no self-indulgent filler. Instead, it is feels like the writer wants to uplift and inspire the reader to take action. A humble, collaborative approach to community action is suggested throughout, which is always good advice. As resources are the make or break of any project, Ellin guides the reader toward “cultivating good ideas” but makes clear the importance of “rallying the resources to realize them”.

In Good Urbanism, Ellin uses icons to illustrate the six steps to prosperous places.

Generating desire and enthusiasm to support improvement of places within a community is typically easy. Identifying and acquiring funding to make projects happen is almost always the harder task. Though she calls for a “rally for resources”, a deeper description of successful funding acquisitions or a step-by-step guide for successfully finding funding would be of great assistance to the reader.

While this book could be a reference for urban designers, universities with a strong and engaged learning culture could turn to Good Urbanism as the go-to guide for any civic engagement project, regardless of the discipline the project is housed within.

The book’s optimistic approach is undeniable and refreshing—Ellin’s strong desire for environments that “inspire, uplift and sustain us” shines throughout the read. As to its merits as a guide book to community action, Ellin’s straightforward approach to telling the story and organization of case studies, combined with the overlay of six step icon, makes it a friendly resource for first-time grassroots activists and students.

Traci Sooter
Springfield, MO

On The Nature of Cities


Keith G. Tidball, Marianne E Krasny; Greening in the Red Zone – Springer Science & Business Media, Jul 22, 2013.

Traci Sooter

About the Writer:
Traci Sooter

Traci Sooter, AIA, LEED AP is the Director of the Design-Build Program and a Professor in the Hammons School of Architecture at Drury University.

Traci Sooter

Traci Sooter

Traci Sooter, AIA, LEED AP is the Director of the Design-Build Program and a Professor in the Hammons School of Architecture at Drury University. She holds a Master of Architecture and a Master of Construction Management from Washington University in St. Louis, a Bachelor degree in Marketing from Missouri State University, and is a registered Architect. Sooter specializes in Sustainable Design-Build courses serving charities and communities in need and has led and co-led teams of Drury students through four Design-Build projects for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition television show that included the interior of the "Barnabunk" for the Emmy Award winning episode, Camp Barnabas in Purdy MO, a 4-H barn for the Collins family in Murfreesboro, AR, the "Eggstreme Chicken Coop" for the Hampton family in Ash Grove, MO, and the "Volunteer Tribute" in Cunningham Park for the community of Joplin, MO as part of the Seven houses in Seven Days series finale episode, following the devastating EF5 tornado in May of 2011. Sooter has also completed 10 other community Design-Build projects including the first-ever LEED platinum home for Habitat for Humanity International and the “Butterfly Garden & Overlook” a healing garden in Joplin, MO as part of the Landscapes of Resilience team, funded by the TKF Foundation. Sooter along with a team of Professors and students from Drury University and Crowder College have been selected to compete in the 2015 Solar Decathlon for houses against peers from 19 other colleges from around the world. Professor Sooter has presented at international and national conferences, co-published articles in several magazines such as Home Power and was a contributor to William Carpenter's book: Design Build Studio. Sooter was selected by the National Council of Sigma Kappa Sorority as a recipient of the Colby Award for her achievements in the fields of Architecture, Construction Management, and Education in 2012. She received the Drury University President’s Award of Excellence in Community Engagement for Leadership in 2012, the Drury University Faculty Award for Excellence in Leadership in 2008, the Ozarks Green Building Coalition Design Excellence Award in 2009, the Habitat for Humanity Golden Hammer Award and the Building Lives Award in 2008, 2007.

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