Tuesday, January 12, 2010

City Living: Designed for Thoughtful Consumers?

Being a thoughtful consumer doesn't just mean making wise personal decisions about purchasing, recycling and donating; it also means contributing to making larger decisions about where and how you live and work. Wherever that may be, the built environment that houses and surrounds you is planned, efficiently or not so efficiently, and that affects you as a consumer and a citizen.

There's ample evidence that the practice of designing cities, what we call "urban planning," has been around for thousands of years. Once a sizable population gathered in one relatively small area, streets or paths were laid out in a grid pattern, drainage and other water use systems were set up, and sometimes walls were constructed for protection, all for the purpose of making city life work. Modern cities face a similar challenge to those of their predecessors: how should a city be built to provide the best possible environment for its inhabitants? There are issues of safety and functionality to be considered, but aesthetics are important, too. Jails are urban microcosms, but most of us wouldn't be happy to live in those surroundings, even if we weren't forcibly detained inside them.

Throughout the U.S., cities were the vibrant centers of community life for generations. But after decades of unprecedented rapid increases in both population and construction, eventually crowding and deterioration afflicted many urban areas. The process of "urban renewal" in the last century was a sporadically successful effort to reclaim some of the positive aspects of city life that had been lost.

The real blow to the perceived desirability of city living in the U.S. was the return of GIs after WW II and the development of the suburbs. The American Dream became defined by a single family home with a yard and, significantly, a car. Living outside of the city was made possible by the ability to commute. Cars and the highways created to accommodate them were the factors that most altered urban landscapes.

But now, years after many of our cities sprawled for miles, their centers collapsed and turned nightmarish, a renaissance of urban life has been occurring across the country. Is life at the center of the city "The Next American Dream?" That's the thesis of the interesting documentary of that title from filmmakers who examined the re-birth of Kansas City, Missouri, over the last several years. (See the brief trailer here.) I saw the show on a PBS station in the LA area recently, but you can check your local stations for broadcasts scheduled later this month.

While "The Next American Dream" examines the societal changes that are making cities more appealing again, an episode of the PBS series LIFE (Part 2) examines what sort of communities allow people to flourish and live longer-than-average life spans. (YouTube clip here.) Turns out that one of the important factors is living in a walkable community, something that's provided by an urban rather than rural environment. Reduction in obesity is cited as one of the benefits, but I would think that there are also advantageous social aspects. Part of the "French Paradox" may have to do with drinking red wine, but living in a walkable community and spending much time socializing at the local cafe probably help, too.

How would your life as a consumer change if you lived and worked in a well-designed city? Walking more and being able to rely on public transportation would mean better personal health, less consumption of fuel, even less need for owning a car. You'd eliminate the stress of a long commute. You'd probably be more inclined to patronize local businesses. Access to cultural events would be easier. You'd live in a smaller space and probably would own less useful stuff as well as less clutter. You'd share outdoor spaces like parks and plazas rather than maintaining your own yard. There might be community gardens, too. There would be potential for a very nice balance of private and public spaces. Much urban planning today also includes "sustainable development" that considers environmental impact while working simultaneously to achieve a workable, comfortable city life. What's good for you can also be good (well, at least not so bad) for the planet.

There are some excellent resources to peruse if you'd like to learn and think more about city life. I was pleased to discover that William H. Whyte's terrific book City: Rediscovering the Center was reissued in paperback last August. He also wrote The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a brilliantly insightful book (there's also an accompanying film) that was the result of his Street Life Project, "a pioneering study of pedestrian behavior and city dynamics."

Planetizen is a fascinating website that "prides itself on covering a wide number of planning, design, and development issues, from transportation to global warming, architecture to infrastructure, housing and community development to historic preservation. We provide a forum for people across the political and ideological spectrum, ensuring a healthy debate on these and other important issues." For an example, check out this post, "In Praise of Mid-Century Modern Planning," which links to an article in New Geography, calling for design diversity.

We all can have an impact on our built environments, whether we're in a big city or a small town, by informing ourselves about the decisions that affect the structure and infrastructure of our entire communities and acting to make sure that those decisions are responsible. To do this, we need to refocus our thinking, at least at times, to consider what it means to be consumers on a much bigger scale.

In the 1970s, many people thought that the answer to society's problems could be found by going "back to the land." Today, maybe the answer is going back to the cities.

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Artwork: © 2009 Mandie LeScum, stock.xchng

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