The City Beautiful?

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” – Winston Churchill

Bear with me, please. Here goes…

Most people tend to hang out with friends whose company they enjoy.

Most people listen to music that personally moves them in some way.

Most people read books that interest them, watch TV shows that make them laugh, and wear clothes that express their individual style.

Sadly, this isn’t the same intuitive pattern that emerges when we consider how we shape our cities. Why is it that we often allow our cities to be built (or, more often, rebuilt) with little regard to how the residents might actually experience them?

Downtown St. Louis, courtesy of NextSTL

If you’re driving down I-70 in St. Louis, as I did earlier today, you might get a great view of the glorious Gateway Arch to the east and the downtown to the west as you barrel past at 70 MPH.  However, if you work or live in the downtown (and pay taxes there) the nine-lane highway acts as a mighty deterrent to a morning stroll or an afternoon jog along the famed stretch.

Other big cities similarly separate their local treasures from their own residents, often in the pursuit of making it easier for people outside of the community to experience them.  These decisions just make it worse for both parties, promoting an ‘Us vs. Them’ culture of exclusivity and separation that saps the spirit of the place.

You can almost picture the conversations that must go on at the civic design tables when these decisions are made, “Hey folks, it’s getting late. I say that we just block off the area from bicyclists and walkers so that we can fit more egress lanes for the RVs and tour buses. Who’s with me?”

And somehow, it all seems OK whether it is in big cities with large, national attractions or in small towns with their rare, authentic jewels.

What values are represented here?

What community values are represented here?

Now comes the part where I am supposed to blame everything on the automobile and be done with it. But, I fear that is just too easy. There is little doubt that the car and its corresponding effect on urban planning has had an enormous impact on cities- much of it negative. However, Euclidean zoning and an overly zealous auto-centric culture only goes bad when people in the community allow for it. Moreover, it is understandable that early mistakes would be made in the mid-century years that were marked by large population gains, interstate highway expansion and technology advances.

But, why is it still happening today? I travel a lot in my job and I see signs that we have lost our way in all corners- exemplary, historic architecture rotting and deemed obsolete while inferior and often tawdry buildings sprout up new in all directions; ‘modern’ public libraries being built with drive-thru options that make community engagement (once a hallmark of these facilities) darn near impossible; and, cities spending millions of dollars to construct municipal fitness centers  in an effort to counterbalance the fact that their networks of streets are designed so poorly that the thought of walking or biking on them elicits bewildered reactions from residents.

For centuries cities have acted as bastions of innovation and discovery that improved the quality of life and corresponding economic fortunes of their inhabitants. Yet, in 2012 we seem all too eager to settle for places that contain less aesthetic beauty, less human connectivity, and less healthy lifestyles. Are we just so used to it that nobody recognizes the problem? Does it still matter?

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.