Streetsblog Interview with Planetizen Editor and Children’s Book Author Tim Halbur

1_22_09_where_things_are.jpg Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Tim Halbur, the managing editor of Planetizen and author of the new, hot-selling, children’s book Where Things Are, From Near To Far, which seeks to explain urban planning to children.  There’s going to be a reading of the book this Sunday, January 25, at the Natural History Museum.  For more details on the event, click here.  For more information on the book, read our interview, below.  However, before you start reading, you might want to familarize yourself with the term "urban transect."

Or, you could just skip all of this and buy your own copy here.

Damien:  Why don’t we
start off with the simple description of what the book is?

Tim: It’s a book about urban
planning, aimed at kids.  It takes the idea of the rural to urban transect
as a jumping off point, of course greatly simplified for a younger audience, to
expose children to the idea of what cities are, how they come together, and
what urban planning is.

Damien:  So the kid moves
from a rural area to a city?

Tim: Well, no.  The main
character, Hugo, is in a playground in a city and asks his mom, "how did
those buildings get here?"  He’s looking at all these tall buildings
from his vantage point and asking, "how did this happen?"

Damien: …and his Mom knows?

Tim: His Mom turns out to be an
urban planner.  She walks him through, if you know about the urban
transect, the different zones of the transect.  He goes from dense city,
to the urban neighborhood, out to the suburbs, to the rural areas in the
countryside.

Damien: Is there a moral to the
story, or is this more of an exercise in stimulating young people’s minds?

Tim: It’s more an exposure
thing.  One of the inspirations for this book was Richard Scarry’s Busy
Busy World
, which was one of my favorites as a kid.  In a way, the
story is a vehicle to expose you to a lot of detail and fun in the built environment. 
The idea was to give kid’s a sense that there are different kinds of
development.  If you live in the suburbs, you may not have a sense of what
a city is, what a city neighborhood is or even what it’s like in rural
areas.  It’s about showing that spectrum and that these areas aren’t just
happenstance.  There’s a reason these places are built as they are.

Damien: Is there a reason you
decided to write a children’s book?

Tim: There are a couple of
reasons.

First
is that Chris, Chris Steins, the founder of Planetizen, got his hands on
a book called, Neighbor Flap Foot: The City Planning Frog, from 1952
about urban planning.  His first thought was that if it was now in the
public domain we could just republish it to introduce kids to planning; but when
we got it, it was very outdated.  It had a very ‘Dick and Jane’ feel to
it.  The ideas were outdated as well.  It really trumpeted zoning as
the ‘be all and end all’ of the development of cities.

The other side is that since
Chris has twin boys, three years old, and rapidly growing.  He wanted
something that could explain to them what planning really is and what their Dad
does.

Damien: So are either of them the
model for Hugo?

Tim: He’s not based on anyone in
particular, but the book is dedicated to his kids.

1_22_09_where_things_are_2.jpg

Damien: How difficult was it to
write it?  I sometimes have trouble explaining what I do and what
Streetsblog is to adults who don’t either live in a city or think about
transportation issues beyond the price of gas.  Was there a challenge to write
for this audience?

Tim: Absolutely.

A lot of the challenge was
working with an illustrator.  As great as the book looks, the illustrator
wasn’t versed in urban planning.  What we did was break the book into
sections to fit into the transect zones to make them have a feel for the
different places.

Then, we put together an idea
book for the different zones saying this is what the fire station looks like,
and here’s what we want on this page.  We were able to create our own
streetscape and the types of buildings that went into these pictures.

Damien: How much time do you
spend on the different transportation modes that you see in the different
zones?

Tim: Most of the transportation
topic is implied.  One thing that you get is a cutaway view of the
underground, the Busy, Busy World sort of feel that you get. 
There’s all these different layers going on.  The city has a subway that
follows through the downtown and stops.  Underground you follow a storm
drain that stops at the rural area.  There’s also a bus that ends in the
rural area before you get out to the countryside.

Damien: Besides that, you see
people on the street.  You see people on bikes.  You definitely get
the idea that there’s more going on than just people driving cars. 

So, let’s move on to the nuts and
bolts.  When was the book published?

Tim: Last December.

Damien: In time for the
holidays.  Smart.  What’s the response been like?

Tim: It’s been good. 

The best response we’ve had was
when Andrés Duany purchased a couple copies of the book.  He wrote us an
e-mail saying that it was one of the best tributes that he’s had.  That
was great, because he was the creator of the "rural-tourban transect."

The other response was a picture
from someone who got a copy for their kid.  On Christmas Eve the kid was all
huddled up with the book, fast asleep.

Damien: The cover of the book
looks great.  Everyone is smiling, happy urbanists.  And are Hugo and
his Mom walking down a car-free street?

Tim: The cover was an interesting
piece because it’s a combination of the different zones.  You have the
combination of the countryside to the city.

Damien: So, let’s talk about the
event on the 25th.

Tim: It’s going to be pretty
cool.  A friend who’s an actress and a teacher will
be doing the reading and we’re going to project some images from the book onto
the wall so everyone can see them.  We’ll also have some of the original artwork available for sale.

When that’s done, I discovered
that the Natural History Museum has a model of Los Angeles from the 1940’s in
their basement.  I thought we could walk down there and show people how it
was used.

Oh, and James Rojas is going to
be joining us.

Damien: Let me guess, he’s making
a model.

Tim: Yeah.  He’s going to be
modeling the LA River.  Do you know James?

Damien: I’ve done his modeling
workshops, twice now?  I think he has a modeling project at half of the
events I go to.  I’m half surprised there’s not one being built at the
table next to us.  Are the kids going to be working on a model, or is it a
demonstration project?

Tim:   I think
so.  It will be a mix of people working on it.

Damien: And if I wanted to buy
the book, where should I look?

Tim:
You can get a copy at the Planetizen website, and I think, at Amazon.

  • Peter

    totally awesome idea. i’ve been wanting to do the same for democracy-type ideas forever.

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