Rethinking My Relationship to Cities

Why I Am Rethinking My Relationship to Cities
David Andrews, Landscape Architect, MILI

Reposted from http://commondesigns.wordpress.com/

I have rethought my relationship with cities. After spending the first twenty odd years of my life on the rural/suburban divide, where I grew up climbing trees and swimming in oceans, I have now lived in cities for the past decade. After the birth of two sons over the last four years, I have pledged to
return to the environment of my upbringing in order to ingrain in them an appreciation for and an understanding of nature that I think is so important and grounding. This desire to return to nature is driven by the sense that city living does not fulfill the entirety of one’s needs.
But the realities of job prospects, efficiencies of local shopping and school, and proximity to friends has begun to change my perception of the possibilities of city living. My work as a landscape architect working primarily in urban environments has begun to change my mind about the benefits of city living, but not yet enough to convince me outright of raising my kids in one. What is convincing me however, is a newfound, deeper understanding of urban form and city-making. In particular, there are two concepts that if altered, might result in more humane, nurturing cities: engaging and refuge-creating edges, and an ability to alter the built environment. To me, these concepts are perhaps what engage the psyche of humans more so than the beauty of nature, and thus hold answers to creating a human-friendly built environment and one that won’t trigger that sense of flight to the country.

There is an urge in some to flee from cities, seemingly in the need for “nature.” I have felt this sense of flight. I understood it as a need to return to that place where my psyche was originally (at least partially) coded. But as I allow myself to think more openly and conceptually, I am deeply intrigued by the idea that the “smoothing” effect created by modern day building facades, with their minimal interest at ground level, results in the elimination of an ingrained sense of protection required by humans to feel safe and comfortable in their environment. This is the same type of protection early
day humans sought in the forest’s edge overlooking the prairie. Our sense of comfort and protection has been eliminated from the modern streetscape. Thus a core component to making cities more “human” is the retention of interest and refuge at the street level. It seems simplistic thinking perhaps, but if streetscapes intentionally cater for our in-built instincts, then our default response of flight may not be triggered.
The second layer to this is the concept that the citizen has been relegated to being a “recipient” of the built environment rather than acting as a participant in its creation. Trends like Tactical Urbanism and the Placemaking efforts of non-profits like Project for Public Spaces, are inspiring people to contest the traditional roles in city-making and transforming the ability of citizens to make places with heart and authenticity that reflect real community needs. My childhood allowed me to alter my environment to create whatever refuge or experience I wanted, whereas my life in cities has removed both.

This is disillusioning and I believe creates my desire to flee from the city. What I find inspiring and makes me hopeful about city living is that I think the normative built environment practices that perpetuate this type of urban form and process of city-making are changing. Given the fact that the populations of our world cities are to double in the next 30 years, there is going to be a tremendous amount of building (although probably hard to imagine given the recession). If we can engage in a humanistic urbanism then I’m staying in the city.

David Andrews, MILI