Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘cities’

15 APRIL, 2013

A Theater for Living: Anatomy of European Street Life in 1900

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“… unrefined, menacing to some, and occasionally violent, but full of the raw energy of day-to-day human existence.”

What makes a great city? Is it a “sparkle of the highest power”? The magic of how it “compresses all life … into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines”? Its quilt of subjective memories? Its walkability? Its lights? Its dogs?

In The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City (public library), celebrated urbanist Alan Ehrenhalt traces the aliveness of today’s city to the vibrant street life of early-20th-century European hotbeds of culture:

To admire London, Paris, or Vienna in 1900 is not to admire squalid tenements, lethal working conditions, or the absence of privacy. It is instead to admire other qualities that those cities possessed.

Street life, for one. The late twentieth century considered the street so preeminently an instrument of movement that we forget what it was in the great European cities of a century before: a center of activity, much more than of motion, a center of commerce and sociability, of nonstop human drama, of endless surprises and stimulation. One might call it, as many did at the time, a theater for living. To talk about a crowded city thoroughfare of the nineteenth century as ‘mixed use’ urbanism in the modern sense is to miss the point altogether. This was essentially ‘all use’ urbanism.

But underpinning the seeming joyfulness of street life was its contrast with the lamentable state of the home:

Of course, people were out in the streets of London, Paris, and Vienna in part because they did not want to be inside. In 1860, in a piece of social analysis aimed at describing and understanding Parisian social life, the critic Alfred Delvau wrote that ‘as soon as it awakes, Paris leaves its abode and steps out, and doesn’t return home until as late as possible in the evening — when it bothers to return home.’ He went on to write that ‘Paris deserts its houses. Its houses are dirty on the inside, while its streets are swept every morning …. All the luxury is outside — all its pleasures walk the streets.’

Indeed, it was in those early 20th-century streets that the century of the child began — streets that looked remarkably like what Charles Dickens had found across the pond a few decades earlier. Ehrenhalt describes the gritty mesmerism of the urban chaos:

These were streets in which traffic was often gridlocked and nothing moved very fast, so there was plenty of time for the resident or visitor to take in the human drama at leisure. At first glance, there was little charm to them. They were not the quaint European streets down which foreign tourists like to stroll today. To a great extent, they resembled the streets of New York’s Lower East Side that nearly all of us have seen in pictures: unrefined, menacing to some, and occasionally violent, but full of the raw energy of day-to-day human existence.

Everything and everyone was visible on these streets: prostitutes; horse-drawn carriages filled with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen who traveled at speeds of no more than a few miles an hour, or walked if they wanted to arrive at their destination more quickly; vendors who crowded the sidewalk; peddlers with no fixed place of business carrying their goods in handcarts or wheelbarrows, or on their backs; children inventing games and playing them all day in the midst of the confusion.

But, above all, street life was a stage for extroversion, the performative part of the social fabric:

In a work published in 1862, Delvau had argued that ‘we find it tiresome to live and die at home … we require public display, big events, the street, the cabaret, to witness us for better or worse … we like to pose, to put on a show, to have an audience, a gallery, witnesses to our life.’ Some Parisians even warned that the street was becoming too enticing, almost irresistible. The Goncourt brothers, perhaps the city’s most important publishers, lamented that ‘the interior is going to die. Life threatens to become public.’ As a later historian put it, Paris was an extroverted city.

Though the latter part of the twentieth century saw the demise of this magnificent chaos, Ehrenhalt argues American cities today are experiencing a renaissance of street life, returning to the dynamics of Europe’s early-twentieth-century cultural epicenters:

American cities all but lost their street life in the last decades of the twentieth century; anybody walking around downtown Philadelphia or Boston or Chicago after five in the afternoon found the streets deserted and dangerous. Today, in various forms, street life is returning. One can walk down Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Walnut Street in Philadelphia long after dark and find the place throbbing with activity and nearly always safe.

The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, which explores the demographic inversion that transformed poor inner cities into wealthy downtowns, comes as a fine addition to these seven essential books about cities.

Public domain images courtesy LSE Library

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27 DECEMBER, 2012

How People Live In The Suburbs: A Vintage Illustrated Gem

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“Swinging is a good time to close your eyes and make-believe.”

Much has been written about what makes a great city, with recent theories placing walkability atop the list of favorable assets, deeming suburbs among the least desirable, most unsustainable, most culturally insular places to live. In fact, every week from now until 2050 more than a million people are being added to our cities. But the city-suburb relationship didn’t always skew this way — in the first half of the 20th century, suburban sprawl was hailed as a pinnacle of industrial progress and by the 1950s, more Americans lived in suburbs than anywhere else.

Last week, while researching the lovely vintage gem The Little Golden Book of Words, I came upon another out-of-print treasure: How People Live In The Suburbs (UK; public library) by Muriel Stanek, originally published in 1970 as an educational supplement teaching primary school children about the basics of social studies. Through a mix of vibrant illustrations by Bernadine Bailey and photographs by Philip Gendreau, the slim 48-page book captures the golden age of utopian visions for suburbia, a bittersweet memento from one of history’s greatest failures of urban planning.

How People Live In The Suburbs was published as part of a Basic Understanding series of primary school supplements, also including How People Earn and Use Money, How Farms Help Us, and How Our Government Helps Us — all, sadly, out of print but delightful if you’re able to secure a copy.

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15 NOVEMBER, 2012

What Makes a Great City: A General Theory of Walkability

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“City engineers have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

“I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory,” Maira Kalman observed in considering the creative capacity of walking. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, too, came up with their best ideas while walking. For Peanuts creator Charles Shulz, walking was part of love.

In Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (public library), city planner Jeff Speck, who spent four years leading the design division of the National Endowment for the Arts working directly with a couple hundred mayors to help solve their greatest city-planning challenges, turns a perceptive eye towards what makes a great city and how we might be able to harness the power of a conceptually simple, practically complex, immeasurably far-reaching solution in improving the fabric and experience of urban life.

Speck opens with a bang:

This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed. An intellectual revolution is no longer necessary. What characterizes the discussion on cities these days is not a wrongheadedness or a lack of awareness about what needs to be done, but rather a complete disconnect between that awareness and the actions of those responsible for the physical form of our communities.

We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities — after forgetting for four — yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. Jane Jacobs, who wrote in 1960, won over the planners by 1980. But the planners have yet to win over the city.

Winning the city over, however, requires equal parts sensitivity and rigor:

The pedestrian is an extremely fragile species, the canary in the coal mine of urban livability. Under the right conditions, this creature thrives and multiplies. But creating those conditions requires attention to a broad range of criteria, some more easily satisfied than others.

And yet, there’s hope:

It turns out that since the late nineties, the share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their twenties has dropped from 20.8 percent to just 13.7 percent. And if one looks at teens, future shifts seem likely to be greater. The number of nineteen-year-olds who have opted out of earning driver’s licenses has almost tripled since the late seventies, from 8 percent to 23 percent. .This statistic is particularly meaningful when one considers how the American landscape has changed since the seventies, when most American teens could walk to school, to the store, and to the soccer field, in stark contrast to the realities of today’s autocentric sprawl.

I was recently in London, curating a session on the future of cities at the 2012 Wired conference, where one of my speakers, the wonderful and witty Alissa Walker, made a case for walkable cities and walked the point home brilliantly:

Photograph by Nate Lanxon for Wired UK

Speck goes on to outline a “General Theory of Walkability,” focusing on the four key factors of making a city attractive to pedestrians:

The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential an none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms,’ in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.

He argues that, more than a utopian notion, the walkable city is a practical solution to a number of problems that affect both our daily lives as individuals and our economic, environmental, and cultural health as a society. He writes:

These fixes simply give pedestrians a fighting chance, while also embracing bikes, enhancing transit, and making downtown living attractive to a broader range of people. Most are not expensive — some require little more than yellow paint. Each one individually makes a difference; collectively, they can transform a city and the lives of its residents.

But to spark such holistic transformation, Speck advocates for the role of the generalist:

If they are to function properly, cities need to be planned by generalists, as they once were. Generalists understand that consolidating parks means that fewer people can walk to them. Generalists understand that infrastructure organized in service of big trucks is not always inviting to small people. And generalists, finally, are coming to understand that more lanes usually just lead to more traffic.

Most significantly, generalists — such as planners and, one hopes, mayors — ask the big-picture questions that are so often forgotten among the day-to-day shuffle of city governance. Questions like: What kind of city will help us thrive economically? What kind of city will keep our citizens not just safe, but healthy? What kind of city will be sustainable for generations to come?

These three issues — wealth, health, and sustainability — are, not coincidentally, the three principal arguments for making our cities more walkable.

As far as wealth is concerned, walkability is proving to be a monumental economic draw:

The economic advantage that has already begun to accrue to walkable places can be attributed to three key factors. First, for certain segments of the population, chief among them young ‘creatives,’ urban living is simply more appealing; many wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere else. Second, massive demographic shifts occurring right now mean that these pro-urban segments of the population are becoming dominant, crating a spike in demand that is expected to last for decades. Third, the choice to live the walkable life generates considerable savings for these households, and much of these savings are spent locally.

Ultimately, a walkable city isn’t merely an economically and environmentally healthy city — it’s also a relentlessly alluring city, the kind in which you can “create a sparkle of the highest power”:

Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. While the physical and social rewards of walking are many, walkability is perhaps most useful as it contributes to urban vitality and most meaningful as an indicator of that vitality.

[…]

This discussion is necessary because, since midcentury, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking ones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers — worshipping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking — have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.

Insightful and passionately argued, Walkable City comes as a follow-up to the landmark 2010 tome Suburban Nation, which Speck co-authored, and presents a welcome addition to these favorite reads on urbanism.

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