9 Minutes on the Emotion of Cities

A slideshow about the human connections that cities forge.

Last night I had the pleasure of speaking at Life in Deep Ellum as they hosted a local Q Commons event.  The theme was connectivity and community.  As something I know a little bit about I was happy to have a go at the Pecha Kucha meets TED talk format.

Given that I had 9 minutes flat and my penchants for wordiness, I had to develop a new strategy to deliver the message.  Rather than data, research, analysis, and theory I had to go in a different direction:  emotion.  Not only did I need to emote and evoke emotion, but it hit me that I could explore a topic that I haven’t had much of a chance to expound upon ever since a tweet-storm stream of conscience some 4-5 years ago about the emotional design of cities.

See if it makes any sense to you.  I’ve embedded the slide show below and the rough text of what I said or at least meant to say for each slide below that.

Slide 1:  As you can see the title of my talk is how urban design can foster or fail community, which is way to say that the way we design our cities can nurture or fail humanity.  As humans, we need community.  Community is the thread that binds us together as a society, elevates us from the helpless, lonely individual to something more meaningful.

Slide 2: Of course, community is just one level of socio-political hierarchy on this rock floating through space.  But it may be the most important, as community is who we interact with every day, which is set within neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods which then aggregate into cities.

Slide 3:  However, in order to answer the question about how we design for better communities and in turn better cities, we must ask the question “why do cities even exist?  What do they do?  Why are they on this planet?”

Slide 4: I, for one, agree with Aristotle.  “Cities exist to promote human flourishing.”  They are tool of progress.  And like any tool, it must be designed to maximize its utility.  Civilization does not exist without cities.  Cities do not exist without civilization.  They are one.  Language does not exist without a speaker and receiver, two people working together.  Therefore, progress and culture do not exist nor advance without cities.”

Slide 5:  We often think of cities for the buildings.  The things we see.  Indeed, cities are the physical form of economies.  But, before they take form cities are networks of people and therefore invisible.  I have a personal relationship with you, but no one else in that room can see that bond as a physical link between us.  Instead, the form of the city is what makes those links, which must be designed to strengthen existing bonds and to make new ones.

Slide 6: Think of a city like a computer.  Those invisible networks are like software, which has to be run on hardware.  The hardware of the city are the roads and buildings.  The hardware must be updated to keep up with the needs of ever-changing software, us and future generations.

Slide 7: I’ve heard people define the term “urban” as a place where you can meet new people.  But it’s not just about encountering strangers, but also strange or foreign ideas and becoming familiar with them.  It’s not about “the other” as something to fear, but people, as conveyors of ideas, it is about two ideas coming together to make something entirely new.

Slide 8:  The advantage and convenience of cities is proximity.  Great cities empower all of the population by compressing space and time between the interaction of new ideas.  They allow us to exchange goods, services, ideas, and genes for they are the crucible of innovation.  The cities best positioned for the future are those that empower the greatest percentage of their population to meet their individual needs.

Slide 9:  Cities are like stars in that they are fusion reactors.  But instead, the fuel cities run on is not atomic energy but emotional energy.  Our economy runs on emotion, the things we want and need.  We need food and shelter.  We want to better our quality of life and our experiences.  Great cities create health, wealth, and well-being by metabolizing ideas, testing them, discarding with the bad, costly, or useless while improving upon and advancing the good ideas.  Progress.  However, the more segregated and disconnected we get, the more the system breaks down which can fail some or all of us.

Slide 10:  Great cities produce greatness.  And culture.  There can be no Shakespeare without London.  Without the immediate feedback loops of nearby talented collaborators and the market response of audiences.

Slide 11:  However, we can’t have barriers between us.  Cities must be designed as seamless places fostering human activity, not shielding it.

Slide 12:  This is one of the reasons why President Eisenhower never intended the interstate highway system to go into existing cities and displace communities.  But introduce them we did, almost entirely in poor and minority communities.  These highways tore apart the fabric of stable communities.  Homes, businesses, families, and friends lost to but a memory.

Slide 13:  It is easy to see how a highway can divide us.  If I live in this house to the right and own that business to the left on the other side of the highway, I wouldn’t play frogger to try to get across it.  But more perniciously, is what it does to the real estate market over time, 10 or 20 years.  I no longer want to live next to this monstrosity.  I move away.  Further, this road now allows me to move my business to cheaper land.  Over time, we get further and further apart and the only way to get around is on these highways.  Choice is lost.  Distance is the biggest barrier to community.

Slide 14: We have conflated the American Dream of upward mobility with homeownership and the two-car garage, which merely a symbol of past successes rather than future opportunities.  And why?  To live in these anonymous places where you barely know your neighbors, like the meth lab next door.  “He seemed like such a nice person.  Kept to himself a lot.”

Slide 15: However, cities around the world are learning from their mistakes when they went broke building for the car only to become congested by car traffic.  Unbearable and unlivable.  They no longer attracted people.  They weren’t designed to be attractive to people.  The only way forward was to design for people.  Only then does the essence and personality of place emerge.  New York becomes more like New York.  Copenhagen more Copenhagen.  Deep Ellum more Deep Ellum.  The spirit of the place, its people, emerge.

Slide 16:  Today, we now find ourselves at this crossroads.  Do we continue to build for cars despite our inability to afford and maintain the infrastructure we have?  Or for people?  I show Detroit and Vancouver as the two paths forward because these are the two cities that have solved congestion in cities (if that’s what we’re going to prioritize).  The city designed for people did it without losing a million people.

Slide 17: However, Vancouver and Detroit themselves are mere symbols of something deeper: a dichotomy of emotion.  Do we want walls between us? Or do we trust that we can come together and problem solve and improve everyone’s opportunity and lot in life?

Slide 18: 20 years ago, the language of fear pervaded the debate in San Francisco whether to tear down an elevated freeway.  Words like “grim,” “gridlock,” “serious,” and “horrendous.”  Today, the United States Secretary of Transportation says we need to tear down the infrastructure that has divided us and isolated communities.

Slide 19: Our city streets can unite us.  Provided we design them that way.  Streets serve as the melting pot between cultures and communities.  Before the highways, that was Deep Ellum.  The epicenter of jazz and blues culture in Texas.  Streets…are the backbone of the places we love, not just by connecting points A and B, but everything else in between.  Forming a network.

Slide 20:  Which is why I propose we begin tearing down elevated highways in the center of our cities.  Starting with the one between us and downtown right now.  So the city of Hate, the city of distrust can begin healing its wounds and grow back together again.


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