I recently moved to a new city in the Pacific Northwest, so I was not surprised to be asked about my progress in exploring the natural treasures of the region. “Have you gone hiking on the trail yet?” a colleague asked at a staff meeting one week. My first impulse was to explain sheepishly that my schedule had been pretty full—that I hadn’t had time yet see much yet—but I was planning to take that hike just as soon as possible.
But instead of that typical response, I was hit by a flash of inspiration, ” Nope, I haven’t done it yet. I’m really more of an urban walker,” I declared without a trace of sheepishness. I had finally figured it out. I love cities the way other people love old growth forests, meandering river walks, and alpine lakes. Instead of apologizing for the natural wonders that I hadn’t seen, I have decided to lay claim to all the urban glories that I had already discovered in my new city.
I can explore a new city on foot for hours and never grow tired. And I can walk the same territory of a familiar, urban environment without getting bored. I could probably even happily restrict myself to the same block day after day enjoying how the variations in light throughout the day brings out different features and how the built environment responds to seasonal and demographic changes.
From this day forward, I will no longer allow nature lovers to take the peripatetic high ground. I will wear my urbanism proudly. There is a lot to love in the city! The following are just a few of my favorite things about city life.
- The chiaroscuro of sunlight filtering through the trees on the sidewalk.
- Faded lettering on bricks giving evidence of a building’s former use.
- Restaurant tables on the sidewalk filled with people who are enjoying a pre-dinner drink.
- Upper-storey windows that open and allow residents to lean out and observe street life below.
- Children playing in pocket parks protected from traffic by a sturdy fence.
- Christmas lights spilling their warm glow onto the sidewalks while highlighting different shapes in the buildings by night.
- The flash flood of human activity on the street when a theatre lets out.
- The play of reflected light on wet pavement.
- Having a choice to drive, walk, or take the bus to destinations.
- Street performers on the sidewalks.
- Fresh flowers purchased at open-air markets and brought home in the front basket of a bike.
- Tamale carts.
- A grid block network allowing one to choose multiple routes to any destination.
- View corridors that terminate with a church or monumental public building
- The reading room in grand, public libraries.
- Skinny streets that force cars to drive carefully and give pedestrians the advantage.
- Sidewalk corners with the names of streets stamped into them.
- Church bells ringing before worship.
- The smell of ethnic, specialty markets.
- Historic street lamps.
- Wrought-iron benches.
- Lying on blankets with the whole family at the outdoor movie in the park.
- Walking home late at night and feeling safe because you’re not the only one on the street.
- Alley walks in residential parts of the city.
- Railway stations that once were the gateway to the city and remind us that ‘urban’ and ‘grandeur’ used to be associated terms.
- Well-kept window boxes.
- The morning lineup for the really good coffee in town.
- A real plaza that feels like an outdoor room.
- Used bookstores with a changing collection of good books on display in the window.
- Buildings with unnecessary ornamentation.
- A jog in the sidewalk that makes room for an ancient tree.
- Magazine kiosks that sell international newspapers.
- A street that uses its street-wall effectively and feels like an outdoor hallway.
- Downtown churches that still have a bit of life in them.
- A row of brownstone buildings with good steps for hanging out.
- Urban parks with a water feature that draws young and old on summer evenings.
- A neighbourhood or city with a clear sense of its centre.
- A boulevard with mature trees.
- A bridge scaled for pedestrian use that crosses over a river.
- Adaptive re-use of old buildings.
- Surprise pedestrian paths that allow short-cuts at mid block.
- Whimsical public art on which kids can climb.
- The sight of Orthodox Jews walking to synagogue on Saturday morning.
- Harvesting fruit from trees that grow over fence lines
- Getting drawn into a conversation at a cafÃ© on the way home and losing track of time.
- A morning run to the bakery for pastries and the newspaper.
- Kids in school uniforms waiting for the public bus.
- Hotels with grand lobbies.
- The discordant rhythms of pick-up basketball players, roller bladers, and skateboarders enjoying an urban park.
- Walking at midnight confident that you will find something to eat within a few blocks.
The flip side
I don’t just love a place because its population count has reached the point that it’s designated as a city in official documents. Just to make sure that there is no confusion, I feel that I ought to compile another list of things that cities can do wrong. I believe that cities represent a kind of creational norm that allows humans to experience shalom together and with the rest of creation. The following, shorter list gives a taste of some of the ways that cities break my heart by failing to live up to their God given vocation.
- Blocks that devote over 25% of ground space to surface parking.
- Curb cuts that allow cars to turn corners without slowing down and increase the crossing distance for pedestrians.
- Subdivisions consisting exclusively of detached single-family homes.
- Buildings set back from the street to allow parking in front.
- Large signs on poles that are meant to be read at 45 mph.
- Physical barriers that prevent walking from buildings that are adjacent to each other.
- Streets that are more than four lanes wide.
- Public buildings in strip malls or that look like office parks.
- Buildings clad in glass.
- Impermeable structures such as freeways and hospital campuses that cut cities and neighbourhoods in half.
It seems to me that cities that fail to embody an urban ideal do so because they reflect the reductionistic thinking of those who shape them. Cities that are seen exclusively as economic catalysts seem to go wrong in this regard as do cities that cater only to automobile traffic. Good cities help create wealth and can be accessible to automobiles, but they get it wrong when they attend only to these functions.
In this regard, I see some connections between my love for cities and those who love natural environments. Those who treasure the old growth forests, the meandering river walk, and the alpine lake are keenly aware of how fragile those environments are and how necessary it is to make every effort to preserve them. These environments represent a delicate balance that can’t be easily recreated if they are allowed to deteriorate. In the same way my delight for the city and my disgust with its many sham alternatives makes me aware of how fragile the beauty of cities actually is. By loving cities with my feet, my eyes, my nose, my ears, my mouth, and with my hands, I intend to contribute to the development and preservation of these wonderful artifacts of human culture.