This is the fourth and last in a series on cities in the USofA. The first entries can be found here:
What is the purpose of a city?
I asked that question several blogs ago both in what might seem like a rhetorical flourish. It isn’t. This is a question that I think everyone who lives and loves urban life needs to ask themselves nearly constantly.
That may seem like a ridiculous demand, as if a city is a problem child that needs constant supervision. The truth is that in the USofA, right now, cities are a kind of problem child. They are desperate for attention and often act out in wild and obnoxious ways. Unless we can get to the root of it all and give our cities what they really need, the bad behavior will continue.
The purpose of a city is life. Six thousand years ago our species of standing chimp discovered that with a little bit of planning and care it didn’t need to wander around following the herbs and picking off a few berries along the way. All they had to do was cooperate a bit and they could settle down into an easy life that allowed them to pursue what was really fun for them – sex and culture and all kinds of other things they did with other standing chimps. It was agriculture that gave us culture culture, and we gradually came to live in a world defined not by the vagaries of nature but by ourselves.
Life, as we know it, is about other people. We set the rules, we have the fun, and we make the great memories that put together a life in stories. All of this involves people and the institutional memories of culture. A city is simply the built-up place where all of these things happen. In a city we run into other people we know or even those we don’t know or are afraid of for whatever reason. Gradually, we learn through good memories and bad and get tons of stories to tell our grandkids all about. Without other people, there just aren’t as many stories to tell or as many exciting times.
When we talk about esoteric subjects like urban planning, things get boring in a hurry. Zoning codes and Draft Environmental Impact Statements are usually major snooze-fests, and no one can sit down and simply read them without getting drowsy. By definition, this means that they do not have the city and urban life in them. A city is awake and alive, not bureaucratic and dull. The space that makes our urban life in the USofA is controlled by stuff that is the exact opposite of what a city is. The essence of a life lived well enough to generate some incredible stories is not part of the equation for us.
That’s why urban planning is subject to so many fads; people know, deep down, that they are utterly missing the point. So they move on to the next Big Idea�, then the next, all the time dancing clockwise around what is really important to a city. Life can be planned, but mostly it just happens. The people that make up a city have to breathe their life into any bits of asphalt and concrete that make up their world; whatever is done in planning can never go down to details so fine that there isn’t room for the hearts of the people who live there when it’s all done.
How do we go about doing that? For one thing, size matters. The smaller and more intimate a space is, the more likely people are to be intimate in and with it; that’s a pile of stories waiting to happen right there. We also have to remember that the purpose of zoning is to make the city pleasant enough that people are willing to sink their own money and ideas into it for the long haul so that they can make things happen; it’s not about blocking stuff we don’t like just because we can.
More than anything, however, it’s always about life. And a purposeful life that is mindful of the world around you requires that you constantly ask yourself a really basic question before you go off on a series of wild assumptions.
What is a city for? It’s for life, a fun and exciting and good life. The rest is nothing more than the details of the stories made, told slowly in a crowded pub or at the house of a friend. If we keep asking ourselves the basic question, we shouldn’t remain as far from the real point as we often are now.