urban living : getting back to the city

by Grant Wigmore, B.S. in Urban and Regional Analysis and Planning

In most North American metropolitan areas city living is unfortunately no longer as commonplace as suburban living.  The obvious exceptions to this being New York City, Chicago, and Toronto.  In the decades following WWII, the shift from the urban core to the suburbs and now exurbs has increased dramatically.  People fled the inner city for new single family homes and a plot of land to call their own.  They left due to congestion, pollution, poverty and perceived high crime.  Soon, retail and other employers followed the people causing the core of many urban areas to become a shell of their former selves.

While in most parts of the United States it is largely acknowledged that schools are better in suburban areas (read: better places to raise a family), these areas are also considered places of homogeneity and mediocrity.  Individuality is not only discouraged but in some cases, frowned upon.  Suburbs (and now exurbs) are filled with chain restaurants and stores, acres of parking, multi-lane roads, and loop-de-loop streets of “cookie-cutter” houses in seemingly endless subdivisions.  This monotony lacks not only good planning with too much separation between development but also lacks a sense of place; a uniqueness that exists in the inner city.  “There is no there there,” as American writer Gertrude Stein once said, referring to Oakland California in the early 20th century.

Drive down any major suburban thoroughfare in the United States and there are very few visual cues to let one know where they are.  They all look too similar with their “disposable architecture” and seas of surface parking lots.  Mass produced restaurants such as Applebee’s and T.G.I. Friday’s, “big box” stores like Walmart, Best Buy, and Home Depot, and other chain stores blanket virtually every neighborhood.  These low density areas were built exclusively for the car-owning demographic. Pedestrian activity is not only discouraged by a lack of sidewalks but is nearly impossible and dangerous due to the distances between businesses and multi-lane roads with higher speed limits.  Urban planning is much more pedestrian friendly and encourages a sense of community.

Within the first decade of this new millennium there has been a resurgence of interest in urban cores in both the United States and Canada.  From Calgary, Alberta to Cleveland, Ohio to Toronto, Ontario to Tulsa, Oklahoma to Boise, Idaho to Buffalo, New York; across the entirety of North America, downtown cores of cities are not only being re-inhabited but reinvented as well.  People born and raised in suburban areas are now young adults and want a more interesting, exciting, and stimulating environment.  Empty-nesters who desire some excitement in their lives after years of raising their children in large suburban houses look for fun and more practical housing.  These sought-after lifestyles can be found in the urban cores of North American cities.

In the city there is a walkable environment that offers unique, historic, and interesting architecture with craftsmanship that just isn’t possible or at least is not economical today.  Cities contain structures that were built to stand the test of time, not the temporary and often-times pre-fab architecture that is predominately found in suburban areas.  Cities that have invested heavily in public transportation such as light rail (Portland, Oregon and Calgary, Alberta come to mind) have enabled people to be less reliant on an automobile in the city, as opposed to the car culture which dominates suburbs.  In dense urban areas buildings are constructed right up to the sidewalk lending to a more appealing pedestrian environment where catering to an automobile is secondary.  Land use in cities merge together with multi-story buildings containing office, retail, and residential space in the same structures as opposed to suburban areas which tend to separate all uses from each other.  This mix and higher density of land use is not only visually interesting; it also enables around the clock activity instead of a life span of the 9-5 workday.

In the urban core, diversity is prevalent with people of all races, backgrounds, cultures, and income levels represented unlike most overwhelmingly white middle-class suburbs.  Entertainment options are varied and interesting, from art galleries, theaters, concert halls, and arenas to ethnic restaurants, local/independently owned shops, nightclubs, and bars.  Urban areas ignite creativity and the collective gathering of people and ideas, enhancing cultural activity and development.  People can express their individuality through a multitude of ways such as dress/clothing without the threat of being chastised by their peers.

I’d like be optimistic and think that people living in cities have a better sense of what (in my humble opinion) is truly important in life, placing more value on being culturally rich than striving for a “McMansion”, luxury car, or other material status symbols.  The city is a living breathing organism, showing life at its best and worst aspects.  People living in cities seem to lack a sense of fear, because they are constantly exposed to people of different races and cultures, poverty and homelessness, and everything that occurs in a real un-sanitized environment.  Don’t get me wrong, people can feel free to choose to live wherever they want.  If you prefer a suburban environment, that is your prerogative.  However, this unending sprawl of development that is creeping further and further away from the central core is exclusively automobile reliant and not only foolish but will ultimately prove to be unsustainable.  We have a finite amount of natural resources on this planet.  In the United States, with a newly elected President who values city living, maybe things can indeed change for the better with reinvestment dollars flowing back to urban areas.

If you are reading this article while sitting at home in a typical subdivision in a suburban area, do yourself a favor: explore the nearest city.  Go to an art gallery, check out the historic and unique architecture, shop at stores you aren’t familiar with, eat at an ethnic restaurant, walk around mixed-use neighborhoods, and take it all in.  It might open your eyes to a whole new world and give you a different perspective on life, or at the very least, it might make you realize that cities are just a tad bit more exciting than suburbs.  As humans we were meant to interact, not to be confined to self imposed boxes sheltered from the realities of everyday life.  Living in an urban area is certainly not all “sunshine and rainbows” but I think the stimulating, pedestrian friendly environment it offers is better for ones physical and mental well being overall.  As I once read on a skyscraper/urban development message board in reference to the city of St. Louis, “The city is coming back, back the city.”

from the February Issue of Auxiliary Magazine

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