Cities are a context for living. Easy to take for granted but, the idea is one we’re all familiar with. We all have at some time dreamed of living in some city, not so much for what we know about what it means to live in the city. The microscopic part of living never factor into the idea. No, we imagine what the city represents, what is meant to us by the context we believe that city will bring to our lives. Cities are almost unavoidable and deeply loveable places.
Cities are places where creativities collide with ideas. When that happens, when the ideas are fresh and the creativity invigorating magic can happen. To get to be a part of that magic can make you feel like you are a part of something special, special and ultimately temporal. It’s not the sense that something will be forever that is exciting, it’s the sense that it is of the moment.
But, for all the excitement a city has to be conducive to the life that can be created within it. Not every city has that ability. There’s a constellation of factors from transport to desire that people have to be in that city, be it for business or for pleasure. Cities create a context for living, they are a structure, one that allows the emergence of some kinds of life and not of others.
When I think about the cities I have lived in it’s their ability to connect me with other people, their ability to sustain more than a routine that stands out. It’s the meeting places, the life that they breed beyond work, cafeteria and the TV that has made them exciting. A city has to be more than a transit route for the mechanics of everyday life in order for its vibrancy to be more than superficial feature. The life inside the ideas of the people living in that city need to be accessible.
I had a conversation recently with a friend who’d been to art school. Jokingly we’d said that we knew it was safe to live somewhere if there was an art school nearby. We were joking but, in some sense I think it’s true. Not however, just for art schools but, for any kind of organization who’s aim is to help develop or grow people. For example, in London Covent Garden is a popular part of London. It has shops, there are cafes for people to eat, people spend a lot of time there at the weekend walking around and forgetting about life. It’s like a getaway inside a city. It’s a pleasant place to look around, do a little people watching and move on. The shops tend on the whole to be on the upper end of the high-street stores but, reachable for those that are looking for a treat. Santa Monica Promenade is pretty much the same. But, despite their cleanliness they are not creative or inspiring places to be. They are comfortable places and as far as comfort goes they do a good job of it.
The difference I’m looking for is the living that is implied by a place. Space implies a way of being, a frame through which we think to interact. James Howard Kunstler makes a lot of just this as he describes the evolution of the American living space in The Geography of Nowhere. The book spends a great deal of time criticizing the decline of the American town in large part because of the role that cars have had in shaping the way that we live. For him for example the width of streets, requirements made in some towns on the number of parking spaces a business must have, the mall outside the site and ultimately the decline of public transport have lent themselves to places that are meant to be passed through. Our lived space as described by Kunstler is the damaged product of postwar modernism an the car.
I agree with Kunstler’s critique. Too much road and not enough pavement and the world starts to feel unlovable. When the artwork around you is exclusively for drivers there’s no need to second guess the decision to put the sign up. But, as a pedestrian a certain magic might be missing. A magic that can only be replaced by a promenade. But, as I mentioned earlier, comfort is not creativity.
So we have at least two kinds of structure described here. The retail structure or space, infused with coffee shops with gentrified pedestrian zen and highway interconnections. A romance from right side of a dashboard. But, a city must be more than two kinds of functional space to produce the kind of life that makes us feel as if we are living in a special moment.
For me at least. One of the great things about choosing to live in a city is feeling like you can be part of something and that the thing you are part of has novelty. By virtue of its size and dynamism any number of varieties of color, taste or idea can come to life. Either that or, exploring some corner of a city you discover something new that you can share.
The happy accidents I remember happened because there were places in the city to have accidents. In London you don’t have to make plans to discover something new. The two things, discovery and planning just don’t belong together. In London there’s a festival called the Coin Street Festival. It takes place on London’s Coin Street, a developed area on the South Bank of the river Thames. The area has several galleries including the Tate Modern as well as The Royal Festival Hall and The National Theatre. It’s one of those spots you wonder to in order to Promenade. People from all walks of life end up there for one reason or another. Theatre or music lovers mix with art lovers who all stop at a bookshop, restaurant or street vendor or just stop to watch skateboarders do their thing. The point is that other than the schedules the place is a happy accident.
I used to go for coffee, to sit and people watch or just have a place to wonder on those off days. One of those days I got there and there was a festival on. The rest of the evening was spent in tents, watching street performers or just watching the people watching the people. You could think of The South Bank and of Coin Street almost like the area around the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York if Park Avenue wasn’t Park Avenue.
That accident for me happened because there was a place to be. Cities are, or at least as a human being should be different from other places because those accidents can take place. Cities are a kind of historical accident as it is. But, a city that doesn’t allow novelty to emerge, that is limited because it’s own space doesn’t provide for novelty is not a modern city. It is just a space with a lot of buildings.
Cities that connect little communities are no more than intersections on a freeway. Why? Because once a person has to start to plan their adventures they stop being adventures. They become plans. It is the structure of cities that gives way to these kinds of experiences. That structure is made by a few simple things:
- The ease with which a person can move
- The ease with which people can congregate
- The freedoms given to people to be expressive (it attracts attention)
- The human amenities available (you can pee in any bush at a music festival)
That’s the big stuff. But, there’s another magic to cities that’s worth mentioning, also in the vein of accidents. It’s the things that make you realize the intimacy of human life. Cities, in the scale can forget the reality that we live in them. Remembering the reality of our own existence, even as voyeur is humanizing.
In London I worked in an area in between Liverpool Street and Old Street. It was like working in between the financial district of a city and a an older less developed area with charities trying to make it. Again, haphazard. Much of the area is greatly gentrified. Spitlefields Market is now posh and trendy, Shoreditch is like trying to find an apartment in SOHO or the Meat Packing district of New York. It felt great to walk around the area, make random decisions about which street you’d take to get wherever you were going. It was easy to tell how long it would take to get to main street if you got lost and you didn’t know what you’d see if you hit a side street.
For me the moment hit when I was walking down the side street I worked on . Looking up from one of the businesses on the sidewalk I saw the reflection of a gym. There wasn’t a clear entry to the gym but, it was one moment in which I saw past building and felt like I was looking into a secret. Sure, it wasn’t the dirtiest of secrets but, nonetheless it was something private. It was that privacy that made the image so palpable.
For me there is a dimensionality to cities. That dimensionality comes from a cities ability to both support and to encourage human life. Given that a city can do both those things, and with ease, the better that city is. I can’t see that it ought to be that much more complicated. But, that said technology has done a lot for the inadequacies of city planners and those responsible for making l=city life so difficult to navigate,
One only has to think of Yelp, Meet up, Open Table as examples of how our digitized world is changing the way we interact with our our spaces. And these are good changes. It’s easier to discover in the digital environment. Yelp helps us choose, Meet Up gives us groups of like minded people to interact with. There are increasingly new ways to discover the world around us and services like these make the smallest town as exciting as a city. All that is required are the people. But, there has to be a down side.
The down side is not accessibility. It’s accident and intimacy. Spontaneity requires a kind of comfort, a place in which it can happen. Yelp doesn’t have a category for that and neither does Open Table. A random restaurant is a happier find than a recommended one.
I don’t think the moral of the story is digital change. It’d be nice if it were. I think the reality is that initmacy is found in real analog experiences. We can better connect disconnected places virtually but, we can’t account for physically moving around them.