Wednesday, April 30, 2014

City Planning as a Social Movement, What it Means to be an Urbanist

Throughout the history of city planning, and except for a brief period in the 1960s, it has never directly entered the public mindset as something that can bring about social justice and lead to better living. 

Cities are the building blocks of nations. They are economic powerhouses which have developed or manufactured each and every technological advance in the history of the human race. Cities are the cornerstone of modern society. But cities are even more than that:

“Cities are for people. A place for their hopes and dreams, their work and play, their homes and homes for their children. Cities are alive and have personalities, each different from all others and each in constant change.”
-Richard Bartlett, AIA.

As I note in the banner of this blog, how we design and use our environments directly relate to the quality of interactions we have with and within them. These interactions can include everything from the mundane, such as buying groceries, to the extreme, such as criminal activity.

Cities are built by people and for people. As residents of cities, or as those who have reaped the benefits of cities, we have a responsibility not only to ensure their continued prosperity, but to ensure that the social, economic, and cultural benefits they bring reach the largest number of people and do the greatest amount of good. It is our responsibility to ensure that cities meet the needs of all social and economic groups, that cities can provide safe places for children as well as homes for the elderly. It is our responsibility to ensure that the penthouse apartments for the wealthy do not detract from the provision of housing for those on the margins of society.

Moreso, it is our responsibility to ensure that the economic and societal collapse of the 1960s and 1970s, mainly due to urban decay, does not repeat itself. We must make sure that our cities are resilient, both economically and environmentally. We must build for the desires of the present, while planning for the future; realizing that while bars and nightclubs may be desirable now, schools and grocery stores will be needed in the years to come. 

To this end, ensuring comprehensive multimodal transportation is the responsibility of every citizen, and we all have something to gain from it. Americans spend almost one third of their income on transportation, only to receive increasing commutes, increased stress levels, increased pollution, and longer work days. This is not sustainable in any way. Our love of the automobile has fractured our social networks, brought our environment to the verge of destruction, and caused our lives to revolve around the price of gasoline, not to mention the 30,000 deaths per year as a result of automobile wrecks.

We also have a responsibility to keep our cities free of crime. This does not have to mean an increase in the police force, however. The design of our cities in and of themselves can deter crime, something which was realized as long ago as the 1960s. This, along with a fundamental rethinking of policing strategies, as brought to the table by David Kennedy, is something that it is our responsibility to advocate for. It is the job of a city to bring people together and foster social, as well as intellectual, collaboration regardless of race, class, or gender. Crime does the opposite of this. It separates communities, often across racial lines, and fosters negative stereotypes.

Finally, and on a more personal level, the design of our environment impacts our health. Perhaps the ultimate solution to our healthcare costs lies not in the halls of congress, but in our methods of development. Our fascination with automobiles and drive-throughs has led to an explosion in the popularity of fast food and a dramatic increase in distance between travel points. A recent article in USA Streetsblog notes that only in three cities in the entire country, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, is it possible for a majority of residents to walk to a grocery store in five minutes or less. If we spent more time walking or riding our bicycles to the store and spent less time eating fast food in our cars, perhaps we could reduce our record rates of obesity and heart disease. If we consolidated our development and devoted more money to inner city economic development, perhaps we could alleviate the food desert issue that plagues so many low income communities.

However, none of these aspects can be looked at in their own field of influence. It is impossible to encourage more people to walk or bike in a community that is rife with crime. Likewise, it is impossible to encourage economic development and business investment without building a vibrant and resilient community. Finally, it is downright negligent to constantly mourn victims of mass shootings without paying attention to the fact that the majority of mass shootings occur in suburban areas. 

This is what the idea of urbanism is. Not just understanding the world around us and how we interact with it, but also realizing that the built environment is one that we all influence, whether we realize it or not. To borrow (and modify) a phrase from Matthew Taylor, the Chief Execuitve of the Royal Society for the Arts, I believe that the use of our urban space can “tell us about who we are as human beings, spark political debates about who we need to be, and lead to philosophical debates about who we aspire to be”. The goal of urbanists is to spark and lead these discussions, turning inclusive thought and deliberation into policy.

This sentiment was expressed over 50 years ago by Jane Jacobs, in her landmark book Death and Life of Great American Cities, which brought planning into the realm of the general public for the first time:

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”