Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Monday, August 25, 2014

thinking about cities...

    Within about five miles of my house, there are three different Wal-Mart stores, a mall, a Super Target, a community college, multiple Big Box home improvement stores, and a metric ton of hamburger restaurants of some sort or another. 

In San Antonio, out on the northwest side of town, our houses and big box stores are all relatively new. About thirty years ago, this was a big, empty scrubland. The flood of development hadn’t turned this way much. We came here because the highways were built here, really. Our lives are pushed into the box we live in, in our community and our society. We keep our yard as the HOA demands. We shop increasingly at what is most convenient to us. We eat what is available to us when we are hungry. How we live is deeply marked by the space where we live. We only have a limited power to alter our living conditions. Much of the decision-making happens far above us. And, our health is generally going to be decided by our zip code. Our longevity and happiness will be tied to the community that provides for us. 

Economic opportunities are circumscribed by our physical location, while the less dynamic career choices exacerbate the options presented to us in our little corners of the world. There are statistics that can be looked up, but the esoteric numbers about health and happiness and economics and pet ownership, and I’ll talk about those. 

What I think is important, though, is that physical space is a kind of destiny. Where you live will change who you are. And, urban planners in America generally don’t do a good job of planning our cities. If they did, we’d be healthier, more-connected, safer, and green. Instead, we have palaces built for white flight and cars, extending deep into the hills. The redlined urban communities are left to rot alone, in a self-fulfilling prophecy of corrupted corruption, impoverishment becoming poverty, and criminal districts begetting crime. The rich folks drift out into isolated enclaves, where the disconnect from the rest of their community is so palpable, they can be seen watering their lawns in a serious drought, and actively discuss ending welfare benefits for people they do not know in neighborhoods they don’t ever see, because they truly don't know anybody in their lives who is from outside their way of life. 

There is a destiny in urban planning. The statistics, in this case, are humans. The way cities are planned out, mapped out, and built, is a kind of destiny. It is the path of least resistance down which our lives flow. And, our urban planners have almost universally betrayed health and happiness by following myths without true meaning.  

Everything is designed. Every road is planned out, run through a committee. Every building is commissioned based on plans made by architects, approved by people with money who have a vision for that space. We live in a public imaginarium, and all we do and all we see is part of that shared dream of what our city is, and what it needs, and what it ought to be.

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