Antisocial Infrastructure

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A few posts back I wrote about the questionable value of “Best Places” lists. Too myopic, I argued. Too subjective. Too reliant on dubious conversions of qualities to quantities. I looked at dozens of lists and picked up on a trend that piqued my curiosity. No American cities topped any of the “Great City” rankings I came across, and few American cities even made the top 20. A recent poll concluded that among people who would like to move to a different country the United States is still far and away the top draw, suggesting that reports of our demise may be premature. Still, I was disquieted by the reality of just how few great cities we Americans have created. Where are our Romes, our Parises, our Barcelonas, our Amsterdams or Tokyos or Buenos Aireses? How can a great country have so few great cities?

True, we have New York City. But I gotta be honest and say that I’ve walked the streets of NYC plenty of times and only occasionally been struck by the sense that I’m in a truly great city. I’ve never felt compelled to move there. I’ve never felt transported. Boston is a fine city with some wonderful neighborhoods, but there is a sense of fragmentation that prevents it from becoming something more than the sum of its parts. San Francisco is charming, its geography is tough to beat, but something about it seems oddly inconsequential. The built environment of the historic downtowns of Savannah and Charleston suggest greatness, but the general lack of street life suggests otherwise.

It’s a strange thought, but despite the American proclivity for parks and low-density development maybe we just like living indoors better than out. I’ve heard Americans described as task-oriented workaholics who lead lives of linear separation: work is work, play is play, cities are cities, the country is the country, roads are for cars, etc. If we take our cities to be reflections of our selves, perhaps there’s some merit to that gross oversimplification.

It occurred to me that the U.S. is still young, and so are its cities. How fair is it, really, to compare 300 year old Philadelphia to 2000 year old Vienna? But youth is not the problem. A recent article by Richard Birch, a native of Milwaukee who splits time between his hometown and that of his Spanish wife, argues that the problem with American cities is infrastructural.

Check out the article, A Void Paved Over With Concrete, and feel free to come back and share your thoughts.

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