Not all lanes are this wide, of course, but they are normally this mixed-use. (Photo by author)

Travel Blog: East Coast Public Spaces

I recently had the pleasure of traveling back to the East Coast and exploring a few major cities I had not visited since becoming an urban enthusiast. Being a public space aficionado, I of course made it a point to investigate as many public spaces as possible. Starting in Pittsburgh, I made my way by train to New York City and Philadelphia, before embarking on a cross-country train ride back to Portland (with a quick stop in Chicago). I visited some spaces new and old, and was delighted to see such infamous improvements for myself.

Pittsburgh, PA

I recently wrote about Pittsburgh and its comparison to Portland, but admittedly had not visited it in recent memory. It certainly has been in the urban-related news lately and I was happy to visit and observe the changes taking place for myself.

The campus public space, downtown Pittsburgh. Note the sun line and location of seaters! (Photo by author)

The campus public space, downtown Pittsburgh. Note the sun line and location of people! (Photo by author)

The city is organized around a river and nestled in a valley, similar to Portland, but in a more intimate way. Trees still line the river and small islands and it’s easy to find yourself suddenly on a twisting road in the middle of a forest despite clearly being within the city. One of the biggest differences, of course, is the abundance of brick homes all in a row throughout the various neighborhoods. Alleys abound with pre-WWII garages placed in the back – some in surprisingly good condition. Corner stores occasionally exist in these predominantly residential neighborhoods, and two-lane twisty streets bordered with parked cars eventually lead to miniature downtowns filled with restaurants and small shops.

A typical street in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. (Photo by author)

A typical street in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. (Photo by author)

Unfortunately, there are still some hangups. Busses go from the neighborhoods to universities and the center city, but train lines are not as expansive as they could be. By and large the city is still dominated by the automobile. It’s the quickest way to get around, even with navigation issues caused by turning radii and loose grid patterns. The downtown district is also similar in some ways to Portland – the business district is seemingly devoid of housing and activity past a certain time creating a cold “modern” feeling where the rivers meet. Pittsburgh is rough around the edges, but its brick exterior still shines, and I’m excited to see where the city is at in five years, especially in terms of public transportation and separated bicycle facilities.

New York City, NY

After Pittsburgh I made my way to New York for the first time in ten years. With urbanist eyes I was eager to explore the recent improvements in public space and alternative transportation. If I had a public space bucket list I could cross off one of the items as I walked the length of the High Line, ending on the perfect note – sunset in the city.

The High Line Park - Ingenious and gorgeous. (Photo by author)

The High Line Park – Ingenious and gorgeous. (Photo by author)

Paralleling this trip, I also made it a point to walk the length of Broadway and experience the newly reclaimed public spaces made by none other than Jan Gehl himself. I caught the original Marimekko umbrellas in a food cart area, but Times Square was under construction in some places as it transitioned to the permanent version of these “temporary” improvements. While it will be nice to not have a grade change from the sidewalk to the original road, I’ll have to wait and see what the end result will look like. As of now, I appreciated the brightly colored pavement in contrast with the gothic architecture. It would be a shame to see such (dare I say) European improvements dulled down to just another cold surface in the city.

The future Times Square Plaza: permanent, but not nearly as peppy. (Photo by author)

The future Times Square Plaza: permanent, but not nearly as peppy. (Photo by author)

Though I am ashamed to admit it, I did not get a chance to ride a Citibike through said improvements, but I did walk through a few areas with the green-painted buffered bike lanes. Admittedly, my observations were short, but happily I did not witness the gross occupation of the lanes by vehicles – mostly due to the massive buffers. At least where the small plazas are present, the lanes are completely bordered by pedestrian space (though the edges did tend to attract a bit of debris).

Not all lanes are this wide, of course, but they are normally this mixed-use. (Photo by author)

Not all lanes are this wide, of course, but they are normally this mixed-use. (Photo by author)

Overall, one of my favorite features of these areas was actually the planters. Coming in various sizes, the formula was simple – a defining buffer hearty enough not to get tipped over or moved, a barrier for a possible stray automobile, and a pleasant addition to the pedestrian experience. New York is not devoid of trees of course, but along the major roads the most canopy-like environment you experience tends to be the scaffolding. While it doesn’t replace a tree, the additional greenery is a welcome piece of the public space whole. In areas with seating, the umbrellas also help create more of a “room” in what is technicaly (formerly) the middle of the street.

This is NYC? Awesome! (Photo by author)

This is NYC? Awesome! (Photo by author)

Another public space I had the privilege of visiting was Bryant Park. This of course holds special meaning to me as most of my work has been based on the research done by William H. Whyte – including the famous alterations done to this very park. What once was a derelict, overgrown space more often frequented by drug dealers than sun bathers, now is a thriving public space in the heart of Manhattan complete with attendant, permanent ping-pong tables, chess corners, and green space galore.

Bryant Park - a pleasant place to pause. (Photo by author)

Bryant Park – a pleasant place to pause. (Photo by author)

I was delighted to find the kind of activity that movable chairs are so apt to attract, though I was saddened by my untimely arrival as the center green was being transitioned to the winter ice rink. The holiday market (something which I have never witnessed!) was also still in transition. All things considered, however, I was still (inwardly) very impressed with what I saw and ended the self-guided tour in what was perhaps the best public restroom I’ve ever been in.

In true Whyte fashion, I even caught two men in the midst of a traveling conversation and "long goodbye"! #nerd (Photo by author)

In true Whyte fashion, I even caught two men in the midst of a traveling conversation and “long goodbye”! #nerd (Photo by author)

Philadelphia, PA

While my stop in Philadelphia was brief, I deliberately wanted to investigate that which was so thoroughly recently investigated by the University City District: The Porch in front of the 30th Street Station. The space was impressive in person – a full 33 parking spaces had been removed to create a vibrant space to eat lunch, wait for the train, or just relax in a thoroughly sit-friendly public space. And if you wanted to really relax, there are even reclined chairs as well! I was sadly not there long enough to observe the behavior, but I can say the research seems to do it justice and the space looks like an excellent addition to the University District.

The Porch - so much better than 33 parking spaces! (Photo by author)

The Porch – so much better than 33 parking spaces! (Photo by author)

I didn’t make it to all of the spaces I intended to, but the highlights (the High Line?) were all in all fantastic, and I look forward to visiting again soon. Stay tuned for more detailed examinations of the High Line park and results from my PARK(ing) Day research!

parking profiel

Park Portrait: PARK(ing) Day PDX

Welcome to Parking Day

This is the third in a series originally published on Parksify of brief spatial ethnographies intended to provide a snapshot of one public space, for one day, in Portland, Oregon. Armed with a camera and a watchful eye, I observe the social behavior in relation to the built environment. The profiles are based on research methods used in my masters thesis in Urban Studies and are inspired by the works of William H. Whyte, Setha Low, and Jan Gehl. 

This Park Portrait is admittedly not about a permanent park, but a parklett that I helped create for a single day in downtown Portland. On September 20th, we took part in the PARK(ing) Day event with hundreds of other public space enthusiasts around the world. On an entire block of Southwest Stark Street we converted ten parking spaces into a greyspace plaza for a day.

Our goal was to supplement the existing spaces and give the city a truly public space

The location was, we thought, an extremely ideal place for this kind of activity. A good public space needs the right kind of activity to fill those moving chairs and tables, and this stretch of Stark has an ideal mix of restaurants, coffee shops, a hotel, nearby food carts, and a recently opened pedestrian alleyway. Believe it or not, despite the many food cart pods scattered throughout Portland, very few come with respective seating areas. Even more than this, Portland as a city is lacking this kind of public space — a stretch of street devoted to the public, rather than parked cars. While one pedestrian street exists, it consists entirely of picnic tables for nearby businesses, and the Street Seats program is spread thin. Our goal was to supplement the existing spaces and give the city a truly public space aimed towards what is lacking generally but also to add to this neighborhood even if just for the day.

The PARK(ing) Day Park itself consisted of about two former parking spaces of bicycle racks and about eight parking spaces of public seating. One space was more akin to a living room, a parking bench added a buffer to the nearby lane of traffic and complimented casual seating around a coffee table. About another five spaces had umbrellas and cafe tables and chairs scattered throughout for the public to use as they thought was best. Near the living room space a hammock also provided another option for relaxing on the street. The furniture was light and movable, and the scattered umbrellas presented the option of more, or less, shade. As an added component of programming, there were also two ping pong tables available for public play.

Ping Pong at Stark Plaza

Stark Plaza

Ping Pong at Stark Plaza (top). Visitors at Stark Plaza (bottom). Images by PARKing Day, Flickr.

 

After the set up at 10 AM, the street was slightly quiet, possibly due to the shock of chairs suddenly appearing in the street. Once things were settled, however, people started trickling in, whether for the ping pong or just for a place to sit outside and work. A coffee shop (without any outdoor seating) is very close by, and some found it convenient to simply bring their tea pots and coffee mugs across the street to sit outside for a bit.

Before too long, the lunch crowd started moving in. While the ping pong tables were in constant rotation, the tables were filled to capacity. At one point, a man with a container from the nearby food carts came over and eagerly looked for a seat. When none was to be found he inquired as to if he had to take a number or if there was a system in place — thankfully a  table immediately opened up and the man quickly filled the space. The rest of the afternoon was filled with children playing, strangers meeting over a friendly game, and quite a few passersby intrigued by the sudden activity on the street. The hammock was in constant use all day. The socializing, a complete success. Even passing cars slowed their speed due to the activity.

Stark Plaza

Stark Plaza. Image by PARKing Day, Flickr.

 

As people moved in to restaurants for the dinner hour, the seats emptied out and the temporary parklett was brought to a close.

Though not a permanent park, it was clear that one like this could work without issue. Movable chairs and tables are inexpensive and it wouldn’t take much to convert a few lanes into a plaza (Philadelphia did it with The Porch a year ago, to great success). Portland has plazas, but only one major (popular) space downtown anywhere near food carts. Maybe it’s time for a permanent PARK(ing) Day parklett? As public spaces go (and my biased opinion aside), this was definitely one of the liveliest I’ve seen in a while.

Tower Envy - Scale Juxtaposition (Image courtesty Michael Mehaffy)

Livable Portland? A New Plan

There’s something brewing in Portland, and it’s probably not what you’d expect. As we speak, planners and stakeholders are currently working on arguably the most important planning document since 1988: the Central City Plan 2035. Technically open to the public, the planning process has been comparatively quiet. After the charrette process, it has now transitioned into monthly meetings with primarily stakeholder involvement. The process itself is fairly standard: the floor is open to public comment (limited to two minutes), there is a summary of the progress thus far, presentations for the topic at hand, followed by stakeholder debate. At the moment, there’s also voting on several nearly finalized “layers” of the plan, specifically for the West Quadrant (Downtown, Southwest, Old Town, the Pearl, and the uber-cool West End, where we recently held our PARK(ing) Day event).

Lately, though, there has been one issue getting a bit more press: Height limits. Raising them, to be more exact, and in more neighborhoods than one.

So what’s the problem? Portland is known for its progressiveness as most people know. Wikipedia even says “Because of its public transportation networks and efficient land-use planning, Portland has been referred to as one of the most environmentally friendly, or “green”, cities in the world.” We know this. It’s the reason why planning professionals flock to see the closest thing to Europe in the US with their own eyes. For that matter, it’s the reason I moved here. But I think the culture of this place would change dramatically with higher buildings. For starters, living in tall buildings has been discouraged for decades – the lack of connection to the ground floor can cause isolation and the height alters the pedestrian experience on the street as well due to shade, wind, and the sheer lack of human scale. The best cities in the world are low-rise – we know this, too.

Central City Plan Layers

Central City Plan Layers – The darkest areas in the upper right indicate proposed raised heights

So why does Portland need to change? One of the best qualities of the city is the smaller feel and Portlanders cite that frequently. We don’t want to be LA or Seattle. We want the Jane Jacobs street-as-room (as does everyone else). Less Manhattan, more Brooklyn, if you prefer. The stakeholders, however, think otherwise, with a vote on the issue getting an overwhelming majority vote for the added height.

The reason this is such an important thing to pay attention to is the impact the new city plan will have on the future of the city. From the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability website: “Central City 2035 (CC2035) will update the plan and policies for downtown and central areas of Portland, Oregon. CC2035 will address challenges and opportunities in the Central City to ensure this unique economic, transportation, cultural and educational hub will be a vibrant resource for all Portlanders over the next 25 years.”

Tower Envy - Scale Juxtaposition (Image courtesty Michael Mehaffy)

Tower Envy – Scale Juxtaposition (Image courtesty Michael Mehaffy)

It’s not hard to put two and two together, and I’m certainly not the first to do so. A letter was recently submitted to the Oregonian by Michael Mehaffy, Executive Director of the Sustasis Foundation, and Dr. Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Co-founder and Director of International Making Cities Livable (both here in Portland). The letter has attracted numerous comments, and it’s clear that people feel passionately about the issue either one way or the other. As the authors put it:

“In our work we have seen, over and over again, city boosters who made horrible mistakes in a misguided attempt to be trendy and “modern.” What’s worse, they destroyed the urban treasures they already had — traded away for a few shiny baubles that quickly became tarnished. Today, many of those leaders come to Portland to learn our lessons. How ironic it would be if we, of all people, destroyed our own livable heritage in the dubious pursuit of an illusion of modernity.”

And I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I’ll be following this issue closely, and adding my public opinion as much as I can. Read the full article here, add your comment, and in the meantime, swoon over the truly progressive planning process courtesy of David Sim of Gehl Architects following the disaster in Christchurch.

Spread the word! Reclaim the street!

Public Space and PARK(ing) Day

I’ll sing it until I’m blue in the face, but public space is one of the most crucial components of an urban environment. Not only is it a huge percentage of any city, but more importantly it’s public. And that includes the sidewalks, parks, plazas, and streets – all (or most) technically belonging to the people. While it’s true that you can’t just camp out in the middle of the highway (not that you’d want to), it’s only manufactured policies that now dictate our streets are for automobiles instead of people.

But what if it was different?

The original PARK(ing) Day by Rebar

The original PARK(ing) Day by Rebar Group (Image here)

That’s what the Rebar Group thought in San Francisco when they started the PARK(ing) Day event in 2005. Technically an art experiment, this design studio simply paid the parking meter as usual, and then set up a temporary parklet. It’s so simple, you can’t believe it hadn’t been done before. And why not? You pay for it. Do you really have to only put a car there? Needless to say, the event went viral and quickly became an international event. There are nearly one thousand PARK(ing) Day events around the world every year on September 20th. As Rebar says:

“In addition to being quite a bit of fun, PARK(ing) Day has effectively re-valued the metered parking space as an important part of the commons – a site for generosity, cultural expression, socializing and play. And although the project is temporary, we hope PARK(ing) Day inspires you to participate in the civic processes that permanently alter the urban landscape.”

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

A group of fellow urbanists here in Portland recently came up with a crazy idea. Architects, engineers, anthropologists, what unites us is more livable streets for everyone and we decided to put on what could be the largest PARK(ing) Day event in Portland thus far. This year we are transforming about 15 parking spaces on an entire block of SW Stark between 10th and 11th downtown. With its painted bicycle lane, cafes, and newly opened Union Way shops, we are set to create a lively mixed-use street for people. And who knows? Maybe it will permanently alter the urban landscape.

This can be better! (Photo by author)

This can be better! SW Stark by the Ace Hotel. (Photo by author)

So if you’re in Portland and you’re looking for a demonstration in lively public space, stop by! There will be places to relax, chat with your friends over coffee, and play ping-pong. Trimet will have a demonstration in public transportation and StreetFilms will play at our family room inspired PARK(ing) Space. Afterwards, you’re all invited to The Cleaners for another great event (and cash bar). Special thanks go to the Ace Hotel, the new Union Way alley, and all nearby businesses. Spread the word, or better yet, start your own! See you on the street!

Spread the word! Reclaim the street!

Spread the word! Reclaim the street!

Pittsburgh's Repurposing. More of this everywhere, please. (Image via PPS, original from luiginter via Flickr)

Pittsburgh vs. Portland: May the Best City Win

There is a competition mentality that plagues our conversations about cities year after year, here and abroad, that can be both the source of joy or scourge for mayors and citizens alike. What is the best city to start a business in? Where should I move to for a great nightlife? Which one tops the list for raising a family? The list goes on and on. Find your preferred publication and pick your flavor of competition. But are these really so important? A lot of time and money goes into attempting to top these lists, not to mention gathering the data to create them. And some people seem obsessed by the notion that one city would be more popular than another when clearly, this underdog city deserves more attention (and new residents). So why the popularity contest? Or more specifically, why the recent emphasis on the battle between Pittsburgh and Portland?

I talk about Portland a lot and in turn talk about talking about Portland a lot because I feel as though I almost need to excuse the emphasis I place on this particular city. Yes, it has a TV show and a reputation for being that weird mid-sized city in the Pacific Northwest, and for this reason it has attracted a lot of attention. However, it has also been included in quite a few of these aforementioned lists detailing bicycle performance and quality of life. My family almost moved to Portland years ago when it was considered an up and coming city in livability standards, and I finally moved here in part because of this publicity, for good reason. In Monocle’s Quality of Life survey, Portland sits at 23 amongst the world’s livability greats – surely nothing to sneeze about. It’s Platinum bicycle rating and inclusion in other lists also indicate the reputation is at least statistically present in some way.

The Portland Skyline

The Portland Skyline (Image courtesy Razvan Oredovic)

Even when not included there is always the question of why. When Copenhagenize released their 2013 Index of Bicycle Friendly Cities, the only North American city was Montreal. Portland had lost it’s 2011 place among the top 20 cities and that was a significant change for a lot of people. And when Portland lost its #1 spot in Bicycling magazine’s top 50 bike-friendly cities list to Minneapolis, it was national news. The bicycle haven had lost! For those who are critical of Portland’s acclaim, it was an excellent example of the city’s slippery position on the bike-friendly pedestal. To the Portland proponents – a reminder that we need to keep progressing in order to keep up with the rest of the country if we even hope to become world-class.

In some cases this is valuable information. If you’re concerned with riding your bike to work in a particular city that kind of reputation must mean something, and you can be reasonably sure that you’ll find what you’re looking for in that place. For members of the community and professionals alike, if you look at a city that topped the charts, you can see what they did and maybe try to emulate it to improve life where you live. On the other hand a city slipping in rankings can provide insight into the issues that need to be more readily addressed. Maybe it even spurs a bit of competition that can push cities to improve. And of course there’s tourism as well. These lists can increase attention more generally and bring people to your city in order to experience the “greatness” or learn from that place and bring it back to their home country.

Pittsburgh's Skyline (Image via PPS and cory.cousins via Flickr)

Pittsburgh’s Skyline (Image via PPS, original from cory.cousins via Flickr)

But lately there seems to be some sort of fervor surrounding not livability per se, or an emphasis on the best at biking, but a popularity contest for the next best “cool” city (or hot, whatever you prefer). For some reason this is complete with a bullying mentality in an attempt to cast one out and raise up the other through the ashes. And Pittsburgh, the rust belt rising star, has become the poster child for Portland’s downfall by a few of these city bullies.

And not without reason.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that this competition is between Pittsburgh and Portland. Pittsburgh’s profile is strikingly similar to Portland’s – A mid-sized city, its temperate climate, dense downtown, and 95 distinct neighborhoods (compared to Portland’s 95) give it a sense of vibrance and new life after an industrial age. And Pittsburgh has also been on lists recently, touting livability, inexpensive housing, a multitude of major employers and the same young, quirky kind of creative population that also exemplifies Portland. A few years ago I heard of young crafty types buying fix-me-up townhomes in a sort of rust-belt homesteading trend. More recently, a story I’m very interested in illustrates the kind of creative enterprises going on there today. The design studio Deeplocal has set up a social club called Bayardstown, an homage to Pittsburgh’s historical inhabitants, in a now privately owned public space near their office. They’re coming up with creative uses for neglected spaces to build community and enjoy their city. In another recent article, Project for Public Spaces hails Pittsburgh’s newfound focus on walking and bicycling in advance of the Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place 2013 conference being held there in September (which I would love to attend). And the list goes on.

Pittsburgh's Repurposing. More of this everywhere, please. (Image via PPS, original from luiginter via Flickr)

Pittsburgh’s Repurposing. More of this everywhere, please. (Image via PPS, original from luiginter via Flickr)

So is Pittsburgh the next big thing? Quite possibly. But that’s not the point. What’s happening in Pittsburgh is great, that’s true. But the same sorts of things are happening in cities all over the country – young people changing their city to be more livable, making their way, riding bikes and making waves. Maybe Pittsburgh and other cities like it will continue their rise in the “best city” charts, and I applaud them. This is a paradigm shift, not a popularity contest. The more we can make cities better for bicycling, creative enterprises, and general all around livability, the better we’ll all be. There’s no need to fight about it. If these top city lists help spur better cities, then I support them. May the best city win? Sure. But if that’s the case, I hope we all win eventually.

Walkable and weird Portland, Oregon (Photo by Mike Davis)

The Normalization of Livable Cities

This article was originally published on International Making Cities Livable

The suburban history of the last century in the United States can actually be said to be relatively short. It wasn’t until after the second World War that automobiles were more widely available and the suburbs became the standard for the “American Dream”. Since then, several developments have appeared which have worked to shape this dominant paradigm on how we live and work; Whereas once a great exodus left city centers abandoned from otherwise urban corporate headquarters, there is now a return of companies and people alike to these more walkable, livable downtowns. Indeed, I would argue that there is a newfound desire towards this sense of diversity and multiculturalism that a city brings. As part of a generation that was criticized for potentially being stuck behind a smartphone, we still want to be face-to-face. More than ever before we want the European experience – an urban lifestyle filled with ground-floor shops, sidewalk cafes, public parks and plazas, compact living with excitement and variety – everything the most livable cities exemplify. As the trends stop being trends and begin showing serious signs of normalization, I can’t help but wonder if what we are beginning to experience now is a true paradigm shift. Much like the suburban dream of the 1950s and all it did for the landscape of the United States, I believe this is instead the real beginnings of a normalization of livable cities.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen, Monocle’s most livable city, 2013 (Photo by Olga Itenberg)

I currently live in Portland and by now I’m sure most people are at least familiar with the show Portlandia. Love it or hate it (most likely the latter if you’re a Portlander, it seems), you can at least recognize the types of people the show presents in this “weird” city. According to the stereotypes, there are groups of people who are very interested in urban farming and horticulture, pickling (everything), getting more information on the origins of food and eating healthier, riding bicycles as a form of transportation, and other quirky alternative lifestyle habits (tattoos, piercings, died hair, and so on). What I find interesting though, is not the poor timing of the show in relation to Portland’s hip-ness (a topic of debate by some people) but also it’s poor timing for the Portland-ness of these so-called weird behavior types. More and more it seems, you can find these types of people across the U.S. They are commonplace in major cities such as NYC, Chicago, and Philadelphia, but also in mid-sized cities rebuilding in the rust-belt like Pittsburgh and Detroit. Even in suburban cities like Missoula, MT and mid-sized cities like Indianapolis, where no one would have thought to ride a bicycle before, these alternative lifestyles are in demand. (I’ve even heard there are separated cycle tracks in Phoenix. Phoenix!)

I know what you’re thinking. This could just be a generational thing, you say. It’s the economy, you cry. But I disagree. If we take a look at related data on the subject we can see these trends in quantitative form. An excellent example of this is the consistent decline in VMT, or vehicle miles travelled, and the decrease in young people buying cars and getting their licenses. It’s being shown that this is clearly not just a product of the recession – we are driving less and desiring to drive less. I’ll admit outright that I don’t have a driver’s license. While I learned to drive a car and planned to eventually get one (still late compared to most), I quickly realized that it makes more economic sense to not have to deal with ownership of a car. With a license, I may fall back on it as a crutch, and especially once I became more experienced in livable cities and what automobiles did to the urban landscape I decided that I simply don’t want to be a part of that. I may still be an outlier but I’m not the only one, and apparently I’m part of a quickly growing part of the population. For those living in cities – most of us by this point – it just makes more sense to choose an alternative mode of transportation to get around (be it by foot, bicycle, streetcar, bus, train, or skateboard – unicycles, even!). It’s more social. It’s more healthy. It’s less costly. Whatever your reason, quite frankly it’s just nicer. And more importantly, it’s becoming more normal.

Walkable and weird Portland, Oregon (Photo by Mike Davis)

Walkable and weird Portland, Oregon (Photo by Mike Davis)

And it’s not just my generation that sees this kind of shift. In cities everywhere the push in development is towards mid-sized, mixed-use, small-sized apartments downtown. We don’t want single-family houses and our “piece of land” per se. We thrive in small spaces, shared spaces, and social spaces – many of which are public spaces. Despite the fears of technologically-induced isolation, we’re moving back towards wanting places of face-to-face interaction in all aspects of our lives. You can find this normalization in books touting the trend and advertisements that cater to bike-friendly twenty-somethings. A new book was just highlighted on The Colbert Report titled “Homeward Bound” by Emily Matcher and details the rise in stereotypically homemaking activities like canning and knitting. The 2014 Ikea catalogue features a video with a Park(ing) Day set up as the normalization of insurgent public space. This concept of being able to impact your environment and enjoy the city with friends in this way is just one example of how this is manifesting itself in portrayals of the “average” person in the media.

And in this way we are shaping the way cities are designed.

My neighborhood in Portland is currently home to a large redevelopment site which will eventually be transformed into a dense, walkable area with a public square and park. Part of the incentive for the site’s owners, Con-way, is to create an area where their employees would also like to live and work – in a downtown area rather than a suburban office park. This in and of itself is also a trend based on the culture of those they would like to attract. And more importantly – this is not just a class of creative people anymore – this is, I believe, quickly becoming the dominant ideology of current and incoming generations. I can speak for myself and say that I would be eager to move to a neighborhood which hosted a public square with outdoor cafes and plenty of social engagement. I want buildings short enough that they provide residents the opportunity to recognize people passing by on the sidewalk below. And I would also want to work for a company that was close to my home, one which allows and even encourages spending time in these livable spaces and commuting in a non-traditional way. I would base my location decisions upon these extremely important quality of life components.

And I think this is what people are coming to expect now. We don’t want to be in a windowless office with a forty-five minute lunch, nine to five, Monday through Friday. We want the ability to take a break, play some ping-pong, have a meeting on the park outside or at a cafe. Arrive by bike? No problem. My office would have showers and a culture where coming in to work with panniers and a helmet isn’t taboo (or close enough that I wouldn’t even need to shower). And on Friday, I think I’ll work from home – or maybe my home is my office, for that matter. Portland already has this kind of stereotypical “alternative” culture, and in some ways this was encouraged by a top-down approach (the Urban Growth Boundary, for instance) but also this incredibly strong bottom-up, neighborhood and community focused population of “weird” people. I’m happy that Portland has this kind of reputation and livability, but I’m even happier to see it becoming less weird. Wherever you are, I think it is clear that more and more people are going to live in cities like Portland and they are going to want and deserve, these kinds of walkable, livable city centers. And while I can’t say for sure that this is a paradigm shift in its true form, I think we can all say that the trends are clear. Walkable cities are the future. Alternative transportation is the future. We are the future, and the future is livable.

A recent urban observation of mine: two girls passing the time making a dirt mound over a toy horse.

Everyday Urbanism: Why We are All Urbanists

I call myself an urbanist, but what does that really mean? Being an urbanist is not something that requires a rigidly defined body of knowledge. There is no degree for urbanism, no certificate or qualifying test. Urbanists come from a myriad of disciplines: sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, economists, city planners (and other such “-ists” and “-ers” I’m sure I’ve missed). While these degrees are good for other things of course, they are by no means necessary to be an urbanist. It seems then the people who decide to call themselves urbanists are simply those that are united by a passion for urban environments and have some sort of urban-related knowledge – which therefore could technically be anyone. In a world where more than half of all people now live in cities, and with no degree for it, I wonder – where are all the urbanists?

A recent urban observation of mine: two girls passing the time making a dirt mound over a toy horse.

Urban play in action: two girls passing the time covering a toy horse with dirt and stones (Photo by author)

One of the most well-known urbanists was Jane Jacobs, a woman who exemplified this passion for cities, but did not otherwise have any formal training. She was criticized for not having a degree in planning, especially since her writing and advocacy work explicitly criticized city planning of her time. What made Jacobs different I think, as a pioneer of urbanism, was not only her ability to organize and communicate effectively, but also her ability to observe the urban environment. But again, is that so strange? Watching people is what people do best. While Jacobs displays exquisite skill in her prose and introduces brilliant terminology used to this day (“eyes on the street” being a personal favorite of mine), the act of public participation and urban observation can, and I argue should, be done by everyone.

I think of this concept as Everyday Urbanism – if you live in an urban environment, you have the full ability to observe the world around you. Those who live in a neighborhood know more than anyone the goings-on of their street – the early commuters, the dog-walkers, shops’ opening and closing routines. Like Jacobs on her street in Greenwich Village, all it takes is a sense of joy and ownership as an active participant in your surroundings. If you are passionate about your neighborhood, there’s no reason you too can’t impact the planning process simply because of your involvement in the street-ballet.

The park that Jacobs saved: Washington Square Park in NYC (Photo by Joe Mabel)

The park that Jacobs saved: Washington Square Park in NYC (Photo by Joe Mabel)

I’ve done this kind of research for the sake of science (and one of those “-ist” degree of course), but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the case that researchers and the like are the only ones gathering data on the city. My title of choice stems from the combination of my degrees, urban studies and anthropology. Both of which include highly specialized bodies of knowledge, but I think theoretically can be done by anybody. Anthropology is one of those funny things – it’s technically the study of humans through a variety of means. I’ve specialized in cultural anthropology and conducted ethnographies, which are technically done in a very specific way in order to be recognized in the scientific community. But as humans, surrounded by humans, I think we’ve all completed step number one for being an anthropologist – being human. And with more than half of all humans now living in cities, I think the same can be said about being an urbanist as well.

Aside from formal research, I have also spent time living on lively streets observing the daily routines in an everyday way as a member of a community. This is how a location truly becomes a place. When one can recognize the telltale squeal of the yellow Beetle next door, or the precise timing of the young man on a bicycle as you round the corner on the way to work, you really feel as though you have a sense of that place. It’s that feeling when you have the same bus driver every day or get coffee from the same barista. We all experience the city in similar ways. I think we are all urbanists – we all have the ability to watch and participate, and many of us do this without realizing it already.

The chair master of Jamison Square in Portland, Oregon (Photo by author)

The chair master of Jamison Square in Portland, Oregon (Photo by author)

Urbanism to me is the inability to hold back a smile as you walk through your city. With all there is in an urban environment to observe, explore, and interact with, this to me is the ultimate achievement in livability. If we all strive for this goal by celebrating our part as urbanists, our inherent places in our respective spaces, we too can save a park or contribute to the great urban ethnography we all currently live in. As idealistic as it may sound, it has become so much easier to capture these moments and share them with others (or even engage in a little insurgent urbanism while we’re at it). In your everyday lives, I urge you to take some time – observe the urban environment around you and soak in the city. We are all urbanists. We all have the opportunity to observe and affect our urban environments.

Citibike in New York City, accompanied by street improvements (image source here)

Bicycle Share (or a lack thereof) in the Bike Capital of the U.S.

2013 seems to be shaping up as the Year of Bicycle Share across the U.S., with New York City getting its Citibike and Chicago’s Divvy launching just a few weeks later. Portland (and Seattle as well) would be joining the party this year, too, if it weren’t for delays in its launch. And this got me thinking – Portland is hailed as the bicycle capital of the United States, so you’d think that we’d have a bike share system long before a city like New York. While Portland has a history of progressive bicycle treatments (bike lanes, boxes, and signals, to name a few) there is definitely a stall in truly groundbreaking developments. A bike lane may be widened or finally there’s a stretch of separated bicycle lanes near downtown, but where is the Indianapolis-like wow-factor? Where is the buffered corridor that provides a safe connection downtown? Where is our bicycle share?

Citibike in New York City, accompanied by street improvements (image source here)

Citibike in New York City, accompanied by street improvements (image source here)

I recently brought this up to a group of friends and colleagues (over beers, of course), individuals experienced with urban studies, many of whom ride a bicycle regularly and are passionate about alternative transportation and walkable/livable cities. I was shocked to find that almost immediately the conversation turned to a backlash of conflict towards the idea of bicycle share, especially here in Portland. Their issue came down to a few main points – For starters, they already have bikes. They don’t need bicycle share. And who would it serve anyway? Would tourists actually use it at all? Would it just be wasting money when it could be put into bike lanes instead? And a major concern, would it reach to the areas of the city which are in most need of this kind of transportation, or would they even use it?

Coming from progressive cycle-friendly young people in Portland, I was shocked. But it’s important to remember that Portland is the home of the urban homesteader – it is incredibly progressive but in a (dare I say) Tea Party-like way it is also home to a lot of people who want to do things in an independent way via Maker-driven artisan businesses or raising chickens in their backyards (and the like). One of the most notable quotes about Portland that I recall from my early days here fresh in graduate school comes from a local historian and professor Carl Abbott: “Portland isn’t Seattle, nor do we want it to be”. What that quote really means could indicate the difference between a town and a world-class city. Is there something to being a Portlander that dislikes a more formal bicycle share? I’d like to go through each of these points in turn in an effort to think this through.

Bike share costs money that could be put elsewhere

The money argument we know to be false – Bicycle share is coordinated most often by a private company or at the very least has private sponsors that carry a lot of the cost. Not to mention that the cost of bicycle share systems is much less than something like a giant highway or the fact that for instance, NYC residents did not pay for Citibike at all. And do I even have to bring up the jobs created and the income generated that goes back to the city?

Bicycle share is for tourists

When the point was raised that all of the world-class tourist destinations of Europe have bicycle share, some in NYC shouted that they didn’t want the city to be like Paris – It’s New York; it’s meant to be filled with honking yellow cabs, grey sidewalks, and people yelling out of their windows. The nay-sayers claimed that people would either die left and right on the streets because of New York’s character, or tourists wouldn’t know how to ride a bike in the city. While NYC is of course a world-class city, the perception of it as always being like it is now, and having a unique niche in the world of metropolises (read: gritty?), was a prime concern for people when those “invasive” blue bicycles appeared on the street.

During the discussion with my friends, one of them brought up the bicycle share in Berlin and how it is dilapidated, unused, and totally unnecessary. One could say the same about cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen where so many people ride bicycles (about half in both cases, depending on the trip type and location), what is the need for a public bicycle service? Portland is of course not even close to these numbers, sitting at a pitiful 7% on a good day (though some neighborhoods do trend higher, again depending on trip type and so on). So while maybe mostly tourists use the bicycle shares in many European cities, I should think that Portland could use the leg up in any way possible, bicycle share being a component of the larger picture.

I already own a bike, I don’t need bike share

In line with the previous argument, the fact that you would rather have your own bike is apparently a point of dissent regarding bike share, regardless of the fact that others might not own a bike yet. However, I think this is one of the easier points to counter. Some people simply may not want to ride a bicycle every day and therefore may not want to spend the money on owning a bicycle (including upkeep and so on) as it may be more economically efficient to instead use the bicycle share system. Further, for people living downtown in apartments or just smaller living spaces, having a bicycle takes up space, or is constantly at risk of being stolen if stored outside. Bicycle share for some can free up the worry of loss, maintenance, initial cost, and storage, depending on the individual (much like the argument for car sharing).

Bicycle share also provides something else crucial for people who don’t own a bike – the ability to try out riding a bicycle in a city, especially if they’ve never done it before. Maybe they don’t want to go through the commitment of buying a bike only to find that they don’t actually feel comfortable riding one. It is possible that through bikeshare they will eventually go on to buy their own bicycle once they’ve decided that yes, this is something that they will do enough to warrant the purchase.

And of course, even people who own bicycles can take advantage of bicycle share. One of the great stories to come out of the NYC bike share was the professional who works downtown and rides to work, but didn’t like taking his bicycle out of his office just for a lunch meeting. It is much easier for him to just hop on a Citibike for those short trips on the fly, and then ride his regular bicycle at the end of the day to get home.

Bicycle share only serves the wealthy

Whenever people bring up the argument that bikes aren’t good for underserved populations, I’m stunned. Bicycles were the dominant mode of transportation for the masses in many countries up until recently and even here in the United States (until the advent of automobiles, of course). In many places where cars are simply not practical, bicycles still reign supreme, not to mention the European examples where bicycles are used more often by the entire population as the great equalizer – exactly what we should all be shooting for in the U.S. The fact of the matter is bikes are much less expensive than cars ever will be. If we can make it more accessible, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, we can give everyone the choice to have a more affordable method of transportation.

With regards to bicycle share, I think this is just a matter of baby steps, especially here in the U.S. where it’s not commonplace yet. When starting bicycle share in a city, it has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is going to be the place with the most visibility and potential for use. This means placing stations near transit stops, the business district, and popular tourist destinations like museums and major parks (typically downtown). Only after its initial stages can it then spread to places that express a desire for access. Chicago’s bike share for example currently has 75 stations, but a whopping 400 are officially planned (that’s 750 bikes now, and 4,000 in the future!). It takes time, and hopefully it will be done with a sense of equality to spread to the neighborhoods that could really use access to alternative transportation.

Portland isn’t the place for bike share

To consider a city static and without change is total folly. We know what livability looks like. We know that providing choices to people is the key to increasing the number of people using alternative transportation and we know that’s what makes healthier people as well as cities more generally. Bicycle share can also be a significant indicator of the current state of a city – whereas for bicycle share to work, the facilities need to be in place for people to use it. I think it’s notable that NYC has recently gone through major changes in its public space and protected bicycle lanes followed by the ability to actually experience these changes in accessibility and safety (not to mention livability).

The question then is this: why is Portland so behind on bicycle share, especially when we’re the home of the company that has made bicycle share in all these other cities? Interestingly enough Portland did have a (admittedly weird) bottom-up bicycle share years ago. Certain bikes were painted yellow and spread throughout the city with the expectation that those bikes could be used by anyone and dropped off anywhere (no stations required). As I’m sure you’ve already guessed it was apparently a complete failure. The bikes were frequently stolen or vandalized, and the “system” eventually died out.

In a beautiful case study, I think this exemplifies Portland in many ways – rather than wanting a top-down government-created project Portlanders are more willing to buy their own bike or take the lane even when lanes are provided. The can-do grassroots and artisan attitude is admirable – no mistaking that. But when it comes to something like a bicycle share system, much like car sharing, it’s best to deliver it with a good degree of technology and coordination – something which can only be achieved through a predominantly top-down approach. But more importantly, when it comes to accessibility, choice in transportation, and livability, I believe that bicycle share systems are a crucial part of this equation, regardless of whether you yourself will use it or not. And maybe Portland hasn’t had a bicycle share before this because of peoples’ attitudes, or the existing infrastructure, but my hopes are that when it does come, it will bring with it an increase in ridership, but also a sense of pride, even if we don’t want to be like Seattle.

Or if you don’t believe me, you can always listen to this guy:

Remains of a Roman temple in Naples, Italy, remarkably still intact despite its constant contact with water (Photographed by Angela Sorrentino, original here)

Looking Beyond the “Western World”

We in the so-called Western World, and the U.S. especially, have a tendency to think of the (so-called) modern world as originating with the Roman Empire. After all, democracy was created within the great Greco-Roman society of old and their cities were modern wonders, still influencing the architecture we have today (you can check your local civic structure for those iconic columns, for example). This kind of thinking however, is misguided and completely inaccurate. Cities have existed around the globe for a lot longer than just the fabled Rome, and in many ways actually embodied the idea of “civilization” far earlier than Pax Romana. At the same time, by not looking back at the ways that even Rome did things, we miss a lot of extremely valuable information that can affect our cities today.

The extent of the Roman Empire in 117 AD (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

The extent of the Roman Empire in 117 AD (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

There is always something to be learned by looking comparatively at cities, and especially cities of the past. I think it is important to consider that someone, somewhere may have grappled with the same issues you do, hopefully in a way that can inform your own decisions. Today this manifests in scholarly journals for academics and conferences where knowledge can be shared by a multitude of professionals worldwide. But sometimes it is necessary to look back, not just across, which is where archaeology becomes crucial to the urban studies equation. (Even comparatively recent cities sometimes require a bit of digging to reveal their secrets.) Indeed, discounting the fact that billions of individuals have come before you and may have considered these very same urban issues, can even be detrimental to development, setting a culture back decades or even hundreds of years.

In more ways than one, Rome is an excellent example of this issue. When the Roman Empire spread across Europe to England in the first century AD, it brought with it the design of fortresses and city structures which fuel this emphasis on Western civilization. After this occupation it was England that brought about the Industrial Revolution which went on to spread urbanization to an unprecedented degree around the world. What’s fascinating to consider, however, is that during that time between the Roman intervention, the eventual retreat, and the famous revolution, the urbanization of England actually virtually disappeared. After the cities were abandoned by the fallen empire, residents for the most part went back to more rural ways of life. It wasn’t until centuries later that the region built back up again to something resembling its Roman days, and then beyond.

The Roman Forum - Not so unique afterall?  (Ward-Perkins 1974: 108)

The Roman Forum – not so unique afterall? (Ward-Perkins 1974: 108)

The modern city structure, generally speaking, is typically attributed to Roman engineering. When we think of cities we often think of an orthogonal grid-plan layout with wide thoroughfares and public plazas – this is the island of Manhattan, most downtowns, and newer auto-oriented American cities like Phoenix, Arizona. Hippodamus of Miletus, the famed father of urban planning, is known for supposedly inventing this orthogonal structure as well as the public agora, having developed numerous towns and cities in Ancient Greece. However, the focus is too narrowly attributed to this singular culture in this one part of the world. In fact, orthogonal city structures were independently invented in all corners of the globe by the simple fact that regulation of the urban environment is easier for the people in power (giving them a way to regulate buildings and to view their domain), and also because a squared shape placed in the urban environment is a fairly logical structure. Boards of wood (or logs or bricks and so on) fit together conveniently in right angles in a more compact grid-like pattern rather than positioning a bunch of cubes in a circular formation (see the earliest cities for examples of this from our first days as city-dwellers).

Chang'an, China in the Tang Period. You can't get much more orthogonal than that! (Kiang 1994: 46)

Chang’an, China in the Tang Period. You can’t get much more orthogonal than that! (Kiang 1994: 46)

Along with the contemporary understanding of urbanism that is so often attributed to the Roman Empire, other modern conventions have also been equally praised as Roman inventions. Take plumbing for example – something which is as famously “Roman” as concrete (I’ll get to that later). In actuality, plumbing has existed since the early civilizations of the Indus Valley to the east. Toilets, too, go hand-in-hand with these pipes, and amazingly flush toilets were even around thousands of years before the English occupation – unlike in Western society where defecation in very unsanitary conditions was commonplace until the mid-19th century. How was it that it took this long for conditions in cities to improve, to push us into the contemporary urbanized world? It’s incredible to think that this back and forth of life-changing inventions could have been prevented with better communication and consistency between civilizations.

Roman public toilets - something the Romans seemed to be ahead of Western culture on (Public Domain)

Roman public toilets – something the Romans seemed to be ahead of Western culture on (Public Domain)

On the other hand, there is something which is valuable to look at when examining the Western origins in Rome. Where they didn’t technically invent other modern conventions, they did have a hand in the invention of one of the most influential materials on earth: concrete. Without it, virtually our entire contemporary society would be dramatically different than it is today. And I don’t just mean a lack of brutalist architecture, I mean a lack of skyscrapers, sidewalks, and yes, even our modern plumbing systems. But here’s something even more astounding – much like our haste to praise the Roman Empire, we have overlooked the history of the urban development and most notably the context of the recipe, as it were, of something so perfected by this ancient civilization. A recent article in Business Week details the findings of the UCLA Roman concrete research team (an interesting elevator speech for those guys to be sure), which explains how the simple addition of volcanic ash to the mix is the secret to the long-lasting structures still standing today.

Remains of a Roman temple in Naples, Italy, remarkably still intact despite its constant contact with water (Photographed by Angela Sorrentino, original here)

Remains of a Roman temple in Naples, Italy, remarkably still intact despite its constant contact with water (Photographed by Angela Sorrentino, original here)

By taking a simplistic look at an idealized past, or by not looking at it at all, we overlook the longer view of human habitation as well as the finer details of ancient urban life. Neighborhood layouts in Mesoamerica famously arrange their buildings around a central public plaza – across an ocean from ancient Roman society and their famed forum. Chinese cities were extraordinarily orthogonal, massive complexes occupied for thousands of years with wide roads and designated markets. And we now know that Angkor Wat was much larger than we previously thought stretching an incredible 13 square miles with giant reservoirs and orthogonal streets and canals. All of these components of cities are far more complex and even common than we tend to believe. What else can ancient, and non-Western cities teach us about urbanism? Considering the thousands of years we have been building and rebuilding cities around the world, the information could be infinite. By looking back at what has come before us more often, by looking beyond our modern Western hubris, we could find that the solutions to our problems can be as simple as adding a bit of ancient volcanic ash to our modern mixture.

Map showing approximate centers of origin and spread of agriculture globally (In different time periods. Original here.)

Urbanism is Weird

From economics to urbanism, I believe every contemporary topic can be looked at through the lens of human history (which is why I prefer to retain the “Anthropologist” part of my urban title). After all, what better way to start discussing human systems (i.e. cities) than with humans? While anthropology is the study of man, it must include our origins – namely our evolution from our fellow members of the animal kingdom. In fact it is often crucial that we remember most importantly, when it really comes down to it, we are animals. As much as we’d like to ignore this fact sometimes, it is indeed our reality, and has significant implications for the way we create our built environment.

Unfortunately, no, this is not what Anthropology is like.

Unfortunately, no, this is not what Anthropology is like.

To begin with, Biology

To discuss this, we need to begin with biology. In the study of natural science, we find that all animals evolve to occupy their very specific niche within the natural (or more recently, man-made) environments. This can mean something as simple as being nocturnal where others are not, or vice versa, but it can even mean something as specific as being active only during twilight – that is, only during dawn and dusk (also known as crepuscular). In the rainforest, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of species which never even touch the forest floor. Their niche is so far up in the trees and so completely sustainable within that space that they never need to venture below, nor would they last long if they did. Their physiological systems are such that they adapted to their physical environment and climate and only that niche within it, be it treetops, the ocean, the atmosphere, or the desert (etc.) in order to fit within the larger system.

When placing animals in manufactured habitats, we therefore take into serious consideration what that animal is supposed to be in – what their environment is based on their niche in the natural world. Gerbils like to dig because they’re normally making burrows in sandy soil, and so we give them lots of bedding in their cages for them to do so, and so on (and as a former gerbil owner, I can attest to this). The question then is: why isn’t this the same for humans and the design of our habitats? Personally I think it can be summarized in this lack of anthropological context. If we think of ourselves as inherently different from animals, then we tend to pay less attention to this concept of environmental determinism – or the effect of the environment on the inhabitants. While controversial (for many reasons) it is still a serious thing to consider at least as a partial reality when examining the built environment and its effect on humans.

Homo sapiens sapiens

When considering the history of mankind (and its lead up to urbanism), we also need to contemplate the history of the world, if only for a moment. In the approximately 4.5 billion years the earth has been around, mammals have only been evolving since about 160 million years ago (the middle Jurassic Period). Thinking in this scale, it is mind-boggling to realize that modern man (anatomically modern humans, or homo sapiens sapiens) have only been around for the last 200,000 years. While we evolved through other members of the genus homo before this, and of course primates before that, this was when we really started to stand out in the animal kingdom. Narrowing the gap even further, however, we find that humans only began displaying the behavior common to contemporary man about 50,000 years ago – literally a blink in the span of history thus far.

Timeline of Human Evolution (Still from The Smithsonian's interactive Timeline)

Timeline of Human Evolution (Still from The Smithsonian’s Interactive Timeline)

And then there’s urbanism. While exact dates for the origins of urbanism vary on location and even the definition of urbanism (another topic for discussion!), generally speaking the first settlements started showing up at around 9,000-7,000 BCE, or about 11,000 years ago. Up until this point, humans had lived their entire evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers – typically groups of 10-50 moving from place to place taking advantage of the resources in one area before moving on to another. We never stayed in one place for long because we were utilizing our niche as animals able to track and hunt local game, gather fruit and nuts, maybe boil some tubers, and make tools and clothing. By changing our location we were able to exploit the abundance of that particular place and then allow it to replenish as we moved to another. This meant there was a lack of permanent structures, heavy objects (due to travel), and luxury goods (like pottery, or you know, iPhones). The big shift came during the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution. One of several notable revolutions in our history (digital revolution, anyone?), a diverse set of circumstances eventually led to humans becoming more dominant and (literally) putting down roots worldwide.

A member of the San tribe, one of the last remaining hunter gatherer groups today (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

A member of the San people, one of the last remaining hunter gatherer groups today (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Urbanism is Weird

And this brings me to the major point. Taking the timeline listed above, if we were to look at the history of the world as a clock, we’d see it wasn’t until ten seconds to midnight that humans began walking this earth. Further, in those last ten seconds it was only in the very last millisecond that we started using agriculture and settling down in cities. When viewed through the lens of anthropology (and science more generally), urbanism is absurd! And this is coming from an urbanist! How did we get to this point of rapid expansion and dense living when literally all of our history up until this point was spent in small roaming family bands foraging for fruit?

In a word: agriculture.

In more than one word, there are several theories as to why we started living our lives in exactly the opposite way that we had been all that time. In the Fertile Crescent in what is now the middle east, cities seem to have started forming in connection with the cultivation of the land there. In this period of human history, mankind was asserting dominance over other animals and even driving some to extinction. Perhaps the sudden abundance of people pushed them to settle in singular locations at last? Maybe cultivating seeds was an accidental discovery made independently over time and only became easier to utilize when sedentary? Then again, maybe the discovery of cultivation (grains in particular) incentivized ancient man to settle and switch tactics for feeding their people. (And still others think it could have been large gatherings that necessitated food surplus and therefore permanent settlements.) Either way, after utilizing these excesses that agriculture brought them, mankind was officially headed down the path to urbanization (and world domination), nature be damned.*

Map showing approximate centers of origin and spread of agriculture globally (In different time periods. Original here.)

Map showing approximate centers of origin and spread of agriculture globally (In different time periods. Original here.)

Everything we do is new

A recent article at The Atlantic Cities sums this up nicely: cities are like nothing else in nature. We humans are literally in control of our own environment at this point. Everything we do is outside the realm of an environmental niche. While we do have a fairly standard human scale as well as states of being that evolutionarily we seem to favor (making a street like a “room” is a good example), we no longer have an ideal state that we “naturally” fit in and can therefore attempt to emulate as we create our surroundings (our proverbial hamster cage, as it were). Our environment is truly our own creation and this is incredible once you realize the scale of human existence (nevermind how much we’ve done in the last century). We are making our own niche in the world. We invented these cities we inhabit. And most importantly, we have the power to make these new, weird, and unnatural things wonderful places to live in.

*Note: Not everyone became urbanized. Some hunter gatherer societies still exist today (!Kung and San to name a few) and some societies happily became sedentary foragers staying in place but never utilizing large-scale agriculture (Pacific Northwest and regions in Japan in particular).