Why do I write about cities? What so attracts me to urban environments? There are factual reasons that cities are preferable over suburbs and the countryside, often cited on this blog. But my preference goes deeper, to a visceral emotional level. I will attempt to put the sources of this preference into words.
Architecture. I love the architecture of buildings (what else is architecture?). Rural landscapes are defined by the near absence of buildings. In suburban settings buildings are designed to be hidden, set back, subdued, never to upstage the focal point of nature, trees and greenery. The suburban project is an attempt to merge the bucolic rural landscape with the practicalities of home, work, shopping. It produces not great architecture by design. In a city, however, buildings cannot be hidden. They are the city, lending endless variety, new and old, well-kept and run-down, art deco and victorian and post-modern and modern, all on the same block. One-story, office, six-story, condo, commercial, two-story, hotel, twelve-story, retirement center. Always something different to feast your eyes on.
Community. I am a shy person, easily self-entertained. If I met one hundred thousand people, with maybe five I would click and we would become great friends. The odds are low. In a city constantly surrounded by people, with residents from everywhere with every interest known under the sun, the odds are slightly better. How many people could you meet while driving home on the freeway? How many people could you meet on a well-attended city bus or subway? Cities aren’t designed for isolation. Good cities form strong neighborhood bonds and support institutions. People seek the city for its crowds, public ceremonies and celebrations, sporting events, critical masses of nightclubs, art galleries or political bicyclists. Elsewhere people avoid crowds. I seek them out.
Innovation and influence. A diversity of experiences leads to new mixtures of ideas that drive every field forward. Cities are made greater for their serendipitous interactions. How many musical genres have been invented or transformed in New York City? How many in the great plain states (with the same population, spread out nearly 1000 miles)? New ideas are created in cities, and then rapidly transferred and adopted in other cities. Slowly these innovations spread across the countryside around the world. Cities set the cultural tone for nations, including within them most leaders and taste-makers, giving them outsized influence economically and culturally (but not always politically).
Sustainability. Cities have been sustainable communities for millenia in all but the worst of war and societal collapse. The larger the city, the fewer resources each resident consumes. Cities can offer as high a quality of life as suburban areas, but its a different quality of life. One with less travel and fewer personal resources, but with more convenient services and community support. We live in a world of depleting natural resources and accelerating climate change (induced by our global combustion habits – i.e. burning fuel). Spreading advances in agriculture mean that fewer and fewer people are needed to farm, and for the first time in human history a majority of us are living in urban areas. But what type of urban areas? Dense cities allow efficient living in the face of scarcity, create strong communities and give rise to the innovations we need to maintain prosperity.
The sweep of history. Humanity started in a garden, cultivating fruit trees. As time passed large-scale agriculture and industry and cities and trade and empires and megacities developed. The controlling narrative in American culture, the Christian story, is about redemption and restoration of a lost idyllic paradise. The Christian scriptures conclude with a vision of the restored people of God: the holy city, the New Jerusalem. The story does not end with a renewed garden, but with a vision of a city described as 1,400 miles square and 7,392,000 feet high.