The words “the good life” frame a spectrum loaded with moral judgment and extremes—a spectrum of only black and white. Thomas Jefferson, with his belief in the morally uplifting qualities of rural life, has given us a deeply embedded tradition of suspicion, disdain and fear of cities and the pestilence of a depraved, pleasure-seeking life that springs fully formed from dense urban living. A city will destroy anything good or moral.
This fear is embedded in our public policy, manifest in the design and use of our streets and public realm and in the rigorous separation of public and private life. This may have been valid two centuries ago, but today the fear of rich, sensuous urban life stifles the maturation and the success of cities—which are extraordinary resources. Densification addresses climate change. Edward Glaeser’s work documents the power of cities as incubators for innovation, creativity and sources of economic power. Both are reason enough to uproot the Jeffersonian view.
Changing embedded cultural frameworks requires long, hard persistent work. Amy Trubek, the author of The Taste of Place, believes shifting the way we live must first be done at a visceral level with a celebration of sensuous experience and then at cerebral, moral, political level. She believes this is required to fundamentally change any pervasive cultural framework and the way we live.
Of course, it is easy to frame the problem, but what are examples of effective action? Such solutions must first start with faith in the individual’s and collective’s strong innate desire for a rich life. Places to begin include:
Make sure food carts, vending stands, cafés and markets populate public space—and abundantly! Nothing like good food draws people, and with food comes gathering, conversation and social urban life. With food comes rich smells, sensuality and ephemeral public experience. With food comes chairs and tables, working lunches, lingering, people watching, musing and the need for generous pedestrian territory. Bring food and the demand for well-designed, humane public space will follow. With food comes a social contract to care and maintain, and social contracts formed around shared return foster interaction and shift the responsibility from a relatively anonymous government to a shared responsibility with individuals with faces—people you see daily. Food is an insidious and wily tool.
Healthy Street Life
Seattle’s Peter Miller of Peter Miller Books believes shops and their owners have a responsibility for the health and life of the street. First Avenue at the intersection of Virginia Street in downtown Seattle, where the bookstore is located, reflects this. The block includes lively storefronts; generous, year-long sidewalk seating and even a dog bed on one front stoop, all of which personalize and blur the transition between private and public realms. While not brilliant design, these humanize the street, making citizens feel welcome and safe. These generous gestures are from smart business people who understand the economic value of a personalized experience, which builds client loyalty. As the concierge for their streets, these business owners should be supported for their efforts to build a vibrant urban landscape. Their softening of the public/private edge should not be perceived as a taking space that is not theirs.
Art Made Public
Every Saturday morning, a rotund balding man in a white shirt stands at the intersection of Maiden Lane and Kearney in San Francisco and with arms wide open, sings arias in Italian. He has found an acoustic sweet spot and has appropriated the street. Art made public, both fixed and ephemeral, is an indicator of a vital and rich city life. The integration of the arts changes the nature of a city, shifting it from a place of work to a place of living and being. The 60 pianos installed in New York City as part of the NYC Business Improvement District Public Art Program Play Me I Am Yours inserts a tool for civic interaction and function for the public realm—in addition to walking, you can play a piano, if you want! Lullaby Moon, Lucia Neare’s year long theatrical wonder, and Nights on the Piers have become part of Seattle’s urban myth. Traditionally, the value of the arts is defined and justified by economic return (in the form of taxes). If there is an economic downturn, the arts quickly receive financial cuts, public and private. If cities are to be places of innovation, attracting the best and the brightest, then they must be interesting and a source of pleasure. In this equation, the arts bring much more to the table than a small increase in revenue. A healthy, diverse and well-supported arts community is a true indicator – not an add-on and certainly not the stepchild – of a vibrant, healthy city.
In the effort to change deep-seated cultural frameworks, you can’t talk about change, you must act. All of the aforementioned examples, and many others, are actionable by individuals or small groups. Each focuses on life in the city. Each shifts incrementally the experience and the perception of a city’s value. Each applies to cities and towns of all shapes and sizes, for residents first and tourists second. The city I want to live in is not apologetic for its sensuality and rich urban life.