Alexander Garvin, Visionary City Planner, Is Dead at 80

A cheerful man, who often dressed in a bow tie and obsessed over the cityscape wherever he was, Mr. Garvin insisted on taking almost all the photographs for his books and traveled around the world to see firsthand the places he wrote about.

Trained as an architect, he was skeptical of the ability of buildings alone to remake cities. The key to a successful city, he believed, was a vibrant, active downtown with lots of public space, usually made possible by public investment, and a healthy mixture of residents, commercial activity, culture, restaurants, parks and transit.

In his book “What Makes a Great City” (2016), Mr. Garvin used Bilbao, Spain, as an example, taking issue with the argument that Frank Gehry’s celebrated Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which opened in 1997, had single-handedly turned the city around. He argued that the city’s decision years before to invest in a new transit system, decontaminate its polluted river and build waterfront parks made the Gehry building possible. The Guggenheim was the culmination of a much deeper revival, not the start of it, he wrote.

Alexander Garvin was born in New York on March 8, 1941, to Jacques and Margarita Garvin. His father owned Claridge Food Company, a canned goods producer, and his mother was a designer and ceramist. He grew up on the Upper East Side and would live for the rest of his life within a few blocks of his childhood home, though he prided himself on knowing almost every section of all five boroughs.

New York taught him, he would say, that cities work best when they are both dense and diverse and have ample public space. He saw Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the designers of Central Park, as heroes. He walked through the park daily until a few weeks before his death.

After graduating from the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, he went to Yale, where, he recalled, a roommate gave him a copy of a newly published book called “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs, an attack on the belief that troubled downtowns were best fixed by demolishing and rebuilding them.

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