Fifty-eight years ago, the late writer/urban agitator Jane Jacobs wrote the widely read and thought provoking article “Downtown is for People” for Fortune Magazine. The article is a studied critique of the “modern” city planning theories of that time.
Jacobs is most well known for the 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a provocative and full throated critique of the popular American city planning theories and techniques of the first half of the 20th century. Jacobs was most critical of what she believed to be the well-intentioned sanitization of big city life in America, delivered courtesy of boring, large scale, and antiseptic project planning. For Jacobs, American planners’ efforts to restore vibrancy and energy to America’s declining urban cores produced unintended returns: the removal of the most valuable asset these downtowns and urban neighborhoods had going for them – their heart and soul.
Jacobs’ theories on great city planning centered on her belief in the unrivaled value of:
(1) Seeding fertile ground for the diversity of both people and land use
(2) Being serious about getting the human scale right within the public realm
(3) Ubiquitous sidewalks, thoughtfully imagined neighborhoods parks and civic spaces, and
(4) Exorcising our fears of a few rough edges or occasional disorderliness in neighborhood life
In the Fortune article, Jacobs unforgivingly likened the major publicly sponsored projects like civic parks, grand streets, promenades, and public squares of her era to vacant, well manicured cemeteries, best appreciated by the departed.
Reading Jacobs' article made me think about how we personally experience the cities and towns that we love - It made me think of the emotional relationships that we often form with the places we call home, and what factors contribute to those connections.
Whether Mayberry or Gotham, these have never been just the places where we have lived…but the places where we have LIVED. These are the places where we experienced our first spring visit to the park with our parents; where we nervously stole our first moonlight kiss under the city lights or beneath a clear night sky; nervously began our first “real” job; welcomed our first child into the world; or built our careers. These are the places that after hearing a reference to them, often elicit a smile and warm feelings linked to an experience we probably never even consciously associated with the city itself.
Where we have lived has always influenced HOW we have lived. The quality of the experiences a place offers certainly affects the quality of our lives while there. I am intrigued when I hear someone dispassionately speak of a city where they once lived as if it were simply one of many unremarkable layovers along a long journey. I wonder why for them, those places were not emotional cities. Was the place lacking in compelling physical beauty? Was it short on soul?
San Antonio, Texas has been my home for almost two decades. Along with the fantastically quirky Savannah, GA, it is among a few places where I have lived that are emotional cities. I am emotionally drawn to San Antonio in an “it’s got a great personality” kind of way, but also in a more immediate and physical “this is simply a beautiful place to be ” kind of way. Both elements of my experience with the city have forged strong emotional connections for me. Even after having spent many years here in San Antonio, I am still as curious and interested in the place as I was on my first day here – always hoping to explore and discover more about the city today that I did yesterday.
Appreciating the personality of cities has much to do with how we grow to feel about them over time. It may take years to understand why the place works so well for you. Heavy, but multi-layered culture, a palpable sense of energy and movement, rich diversity and connectedness among citizens, an identity as a place of promise and economic opportunity, physical beauty, and just being an interesting place, are all characteristics of an emotional city.
Some of the personality and physical characteristics of places that spark our emotions are well established with the most solid of foundations. Others are more delicate and less resilient. All are deserving of fertilization and care-taking. That’s where we, the beneficiaries of what those cities have to offer, come in. I have noticed that my young son is developing a relationship with the place that is becoming his emotional city. As he and his peers grow into adulthood over the next decade, his city will continue to evolve. Physically, the downtown skyline will change, across the city there will be new parks, and infrastructure will expand. New views and vistas will emerge, and new neighborhoods will be born along with the revitalization and redevelopment of others. Over the decades ahead, the personality, energy, vibe and physical prescence of the city may be very different than what they experience today.
Do you think that a generation from today, our kids and grandkids will share our emotional connections to the cities that they once called home? Are we making or demanding the type of public investments that will keep both the soul and the physical beauty of our city alive and healthy? When we do make investments, will they be the type that excite people, spark wonder, inspire creativity, and strengthen our connections to one another? Or will they be the type of investments in the city that meet the most basic standards of form, utility and function, but excel more in dulling the senses and becoming instantly forgettable?
Over the past decade in San Antonio alone, citizens have taken to the polls to approve over $1 billion in publicly funded bond programs for the improvement of the city's built environment. These projects range from streets, sidewalks and bridges, parks/recreation/open space, to libraries, museums, and cultural arts.
That accounts for hundreds of public projects just in one city. Wherever we live - when it comes to the built environment, once major public (or private) projects are completed, we wind up living with them for a very long time. There are not many do-overs. All across the country, leaders and citizens in cities large, small and every size in between are planning, designing and building future public projects to improve thier communities. Some will be special enough beyond their basic function to be beautiful, interesting, and compelling. Others will just be there, having failed to live up to their potential to contribute much more than basic utility. For projects not yet designed or even imagined, will the marriage of form and function be of a high enough quality to strengthen or create emotional cities in those places, or will they just be projects?
Politicians, public policy makers, planners, and the private sector designers and constructors of these projects should be obligated to deliver a return on investment to citizens that goes beyond the basic accountabilities of “on-time”, and “on-budget”. Individually and cumulatively, these projects should, as Jacobs hoped generations ago, increase our connectedness with one another, reestablish the public realm as the domain for people first, enhance the physical beauty of the city, and help feed its hungry soul.
Whether the places we call home will remain or become emotional cities will depend on how much we exercise our influence to demand the very best of those who plan design, and construct the world around us.