The city is a complicated place. It’s a unique combination of history, geography, cultural characteristics, governance, work, and trade. It captures the expression of our habits and values, our arguments and loves. Over the long haul, a city becomes a reflection of our spiritual and philosophical thoughts.
And it falls on city planners to choose from the best of history and current innovations to help make that reflection a beautiful one. Yet often the very idea of planning according to “a great idea” gets in the way of its actual construction. Planners try to create the “ideal urban space,” but such things sometimes cannot be simply created. “Make us beautiful,” say the citizens of, perhaps, Seaside Florida or elsewhere. But having an idea of a beautiful and just city, and having an actual city which is beautiful and just are two different things. Sometimes the very planning prevents you from doing it. You don’t just build Florence and you can’t build the city of God.
Why? Because cities are not just places of beauty; they’re also places of trouble. Cities can be beautiful and just, but they are also the locus of war, fire, plagues, hatred, and persecution. Sometimes these troubles could be avoided with better planning— think the great fire of London in 1666—but sometimes it is the very design and development of a city that has caused our troubles. Consider, for instance, the number of pedestrians killed in a car-centric city like Brasilia. Or be haunted by the fact that the effectiveness of Amsterdam’s municipal bureaucratic record-keeping enabled Jews in that city to be rounded up for death camps with ease.
Today, I am wondering if cities are in danger of a rising tide of trouble that comes as a result of a convergence of smaller ones. This rumination happened as I was building a ramp at the residence of a ninety-year-old couple determined to stay in their home. Take for instance the problem of social isolation. Studies show that social isolation—or, as most people call it: loneliness—is a major social problem. The health and social costs of lonely people are occurring at the same time as the aging of many of our citizens. And, in many cases, both of these trends are taking place in communities designed to limit the sense of community and intermingling which serves as the natural antidote to loneliness. Our structures— some planned many years ago and some emerging today—make it more difficult to address these problems. As the old grow older, they are less interested in heading to the store, less capable of getting into the car to go see a movie, less able to work the flower beds. With my head down, I send a text to my good friend but have failed to see the young man walk by the house—my world has less touch and more tech.
And the city structures which make it difficult to address social isolation take place in a broader national context which increases the number of conflicting interests. Retired grandparents and retiring parents need their children and grandchildren to pay for their pensions and entitlements; but there are fewer of the next generation. Increased mobility means that children are unable to care for parents and need to hire help. But someone needs to pay for health care costs, and again, the young are already bearing a heavy burden.
The challenge for social architects of our time—and often this is most immediate in cities—is whether they will have the wisdom to gently balance the immediacy and urgency of the day with the enduring patterns of how we best live and build together. This challenge is much more demanding than the already difficult task of balancing a municipal budget. It involves navigating a complex delta, searching for solid ground on which to build neighbourhoods and tax policies, and creating communities which are less prone to flooding by the confluence of troubles.
Doing this requires paying close attention to the way we actually live—and the way we were made to live.