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Thinking Urban: Rochester Helps Out

I am always searching for thought provoking writing and information on urbanism and proposals for pointing a possible path forward in fixing our broken way of making built environments in America (and it IS very, very broken). Once in a while I stumble on a treasure.  One new site that I recently found is called “A Town Square”.  The site description says the following:

Welcome. We have embarked on a journey of exploration, a journey with many destinations. We invite you to join us: these pages will provide a time and place for us to share our discoveries, and for you to share your thoughts.

As we travel and explore, we find ourselves wondering about the Next City, where all of us will live. How will that city sustain us, our future generations, and itself? Most of America’s cities are facing an era of enormous challenge, and an urgent need for reinvention. Join us as we think about these matters.

We stand here confronted by insurmountable opportunity.


This blog on urbanism is composed of a series of observations, comparisons and other thoughts on urbanism and the follies of our current system of building in America and around the world.  It is produced by architect and planner Howard Decker and his wife Amy Hecker.  They go by the catch phrase Hecker and Decker so you know they are fun loving people but take the crisis of urbanism in this country seriously. 

Howard Decker has been an influential player in the architecture world.  He was a founding partner with DLK architects in Chicago a firm which has a major roll in shaping Chicago’s built environment.  After 15 years at DLK he moved to Washington DC to become head curator of the National Building Museum.  After a 4 year stint at the museum he returned to design, briefly running an independent consulting firm before becoming Project Director in the Washington, D.C. office of Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn where he has participated in several very large scale architecture and urban design projects.  Mr. Decker continues to consult on urban design and transit matters for Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn while he also travels and completes research for a book he is preparing entitled The Next City: Shaping a Useable Future.  He says the blog is a testing ground and loose outline for the book as he formulates his thesis.

The Blog first caught my eye because the last several entries have focused on the Urbanism of Rochester New York (with a laser). After traveling all over the world and posting their observations and thoughts on urbanism from that perspective Hecker&Decker have settled briefly (?) in Rochester (due to family connection of Hecker’s).  Howard Decker, a native of Chicago has become immersed in the city’s history and urbanism and has produced a wonderful set of stories on the beauty and tragedy of Rochester’s urban environment.  On Rochester he states:

 “…we also decided that DC could be swapped for somewhere we felt more comfortable. And here we are [in Rochester]. And then as I worked on the book, I realized that it would be good if I had a place I could use as a kind of case study, first for urban ills, and then as a platform for speculating about how to fix things. Thus Rochester, my guinea pig.”

“I have actually been enjoying enormously getting to know this place better. We have been coming here for decades to see family and friends, but now I get to dive deeper into this city, and I am finding it really engaging and interesting.”

People in small to mid sized metros such as Rochester (and Buffalo) tend to have an inferiority complex about their city’s place in the world.   The population in general has a pervasive defeatist mentality that everyplace else is better and that there is nothing special about their small unimportant city.  This mentality can lead to acceptance of mediocrity and inaction. So, it is refreshing to see people like Howard Decker come to Rochester and say – this is a great place to be and you don’t have to accept mediocrity because of history and size and bad governance. 

Rochester is an interesting and unexpected choice to study urbanism.  It was an early and vigorous adopter of early idealistic urban renewal schemes developed at mid century.  It is also very representative of the current American disaster that is our sprawl system that is overlaid onto a city with great historic assets, assets, which point the way into a possibly better way of building, if anyone will take note.  It is easy to build highly functional pedestrian oriented places in large cities.  They have a critical mass of people to support those environments.  But lessons learned from cities like NYC or Chicago do not translate to the circumstances of most urban places in America.  Can we create great urban pedestrian oriented urban space in America? Is there a way to do this in a place such as Rochester which is much more representative of most American cities?  Stay tuned to this blog and see if Mr. Decker can answer that question.

A Town Square conversations about where we live:

Mr. Decker has also compiled his blog into a printed form at as an outline for his book.  He updates the “on demand” book from time to time and it can be found here.

Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

View All Articles by David Steele
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