Feature Stories

Cities matter

The most efficient communication tool in the world is the city

By Zachary Benedict, AIA

Including Fort Wayne

In case you haven’t noticed, downtowns (at least in concept) are rapidly increasingly in popularity. The idea of urban living not only appeals to our environmentally minded conscience, but it provides us the romantic promise of a more vibrant lifestyle. So as conversations surrounding economic development continue to focus themselves on the integrity of our urban core, it seems to beg the question — why do cities matter?

Cities have always been about interaction. From the Athenian marketplace to Greenwich Village, the success of cities relied on their citizens’ ability to communicate. However, as the modern city evolved, so did we. 

The shape of our cities has always, in one form or another, been dictated by transportation. While the earliest settlements were tightly knit networks designed to accommodate a pedestrian-based culture, the advancements in modern-day transit allowed the limits of the city to expand. As we grew into the American Dream defined by our post-World War II sensibilities, the suburban sprawl it embraced only furthered this expansion. The more our communities grew, the more isolated and disconnected we became — a reality that we eagerly attempted to remedy through the relatively recent creation of social media.

While there is no question that tools like Facebook and Twitter have forever revolutionized the way in which we communicate, their success has further separated the critical connection between our social habits and the built environment. We no longer communicate because of our cities. We communicate in spite of them. In doing so, we should understand that while social media is valuable, placeless communication models encourage placeless communities. This is why cities matter.

 

Synaptic networks

Think about cities as a nervous system. Every time we interact with each other we create a synapse, a pulse, that energizes the system. So as you picture your everyday routine, consider every instance where you engage someone in the geographic landscape (e.g., bank teller, coworker, etc.) and place a dot on a map. Now if we make similar maps for everyone, we can begin to overlap these networks to find consistent pockets of energy. These areas are not only more vibrant places; they offer more opportunity and, in many ways, a higher quality of life.

And while we can easily appreciate the anecdotal benefits of interpersonal connections, the ultimate power of these networks is the third-party exposure they provide others — an event that is cyclical in nature. For example, the quality of your day could easily be enriched by a casual lunch date with a friend. But, for various reasons, this common experience would be dramatically different if your lunch was held in private or in a crowded bistro.

While the private setting offers a perfectly appropriate place for an intimate conversation, it lacks the ability to be surrounded by activity, to interact with others. Conversely, the crowded bistro not only offers a place for conversation but also presents the unique opportunity to engage others. Even more, that same conversation is now an additional activity energizing the environment — contributing to the vibrancy of the bistro and coincidently encouraging more people to do the same. Your lunch date just became a synapse.


Good cities recognize this. Great cities incentivize it.

While social media has successfully allowed us to stay connected to distant relatives and estranged friends, as a primary communication tool it often struggles to allow us the impromptu interconnections our city’s sidewalks have provided us for centuries. The most efficient communication tool in the world is the city.

As any historic Main Street will remind you, the physical proximity our downtowns offer makes it easier to not only exchange good and services, but ideas and innovation, too.While cities, especially during the height of the Industrial Age, were inherently designed to handle the distribution of goods, they also provide a wonderfully efficient platform for innovation. From the Renaissance that grew from the streets of Florence to the technological phenomenon of Silicon Valley, dense collections of people have historically been the birthplace of many of our most important ideas.

However, more than innovation, cities matter because they provide us opportunity. These synaptic networks promote access, amplifying the basic understanding that, as urbanist Jane Jacobs once said, “the point of cities is multiplicity of choice.” These choices, this elevated level of opportunity, is what makes cities so critical to the future of our communities.

In a world crowded by isolated shopping malls and gated subdivisions, our downtowns exist as the last surviving landscape able to provide this multiplicity of choice. It is the last place our communities have where they offer consistent engagement and unplanned interaction. Despite how subtle this difference may seem, it dramatically affects how we live, the results of which are undeniable.

 

Benefiting from the city

In illustrating the benefits of dense urban neighborhoods, two trends tend to speak loudest to the power of cities: (a) wellness and (b) independence.

Through numerous studies, researchers have consistently shown that urban dwellers are healthier than their suburban counterparts. They weigh less. They
exercise more. They live longer. They even laugh more.

Recent studies are even beginning to correlate the amount of walking we do (a statistic that is historically much higher for urban residents) to results ranging from elevated real estate values to directly lowering our chances of getting Alzheimer’s. And while you can point the blame for these results to a long list of culprits (i.e., longer commute times to work), the fact is that the combination of the social and physical engagement offered by more concentrated, more walkable communities present a healthier (both physically and mentally) lifestyle for all of us.

In addition, urban environments themselves are healthier — having a much smaller carbon footprint then the typical suburban lifestyle. Per capita, cities pollute less. They utilize less water and energy; and in most cases, they even offer more greenspace (i.e., parks, trees, etc.).

Another key benefit of downtowns is the independence they offer. With more than 80 million of us either too young, too old, or too poor to drive, cities provide an invaluable ability for a large number of us to access the world in which we live. Urban living presents those from ages 8 to 80 the independence seldom found in suburban communities. The significance of this fact is apparent when you consider the realities many communities will soon face.

Take for example, our growing senior populations. Between 2005 and 2040, Indiana’s general population is projected to grow by 15 percent. During that same time our 65 and older population is projected to grow by 90 percent. As the rapidly aging Baby Boomers become a frailer, less mobile population, the independence offered by our urban neighborhoods will not only allow existing residents to age in place, but it also will offer an enticing opportunity for the millions of seniors who will soon find themselves forced to relocate to a more accessible community in the years to come.

Like the previous example of the lunch conversation, while this reengagement undoubtedly elevates the quality of life for these individuals, it also allows their activities to energize the communities in which they live. The power synaptic networks provide downtowns is not in the occurrence of one seemingly
inconsequential action, but in the collective energy of multiple activities occurring in a common place. The networks shift the focus of our interactions. They elevate the power of place.

This is why cities matter.

 

Conclusion

The most obvious asset the city presents is its ability for its activity to provide equilibrium to a larger region. Cities exist as a central hub of activity for not only those residing within their limits, but also for a much larger population sprinkled throughout the surrounding area. In return, these surrounding residents not only benefit from the economic vitality of the central city, they also support (and often make possible) the city’s ability to offer a number of cultural amenities. From theaters and museums to restaurants and ballparks, the communities that surround the city are critical to its ability to survive and flourish. Nevertheless, the success of the city is less reliant on the identity of these specific amenities and more concerned with the interaction and activity they foster.

Cities are more than a dense collection of buildings. Cities are people. As Edward Glaeser proclaimed in his recent book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, “Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.”

Despite suburbia’s instinct to strive for utopian perfection, cities revel in their sincerity. Cities are imperfect. They are authentic. They serve as the purest reflection of a community’s personality and in doing so, operate as the most discernible promotion of who we are. 

They are fueled by our willingness to connect, by our appreciation for the opportunities they provide.

As our most efficient communication tool, they teach us how to interact. They constantly remind us to remain engaged. And every now and then, we need to be reminded.

That’s why cities matter.

Posted: Fri, 10/19/2012 - 1:36 pm
Last updated: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 2:10 pm