I’ve been having a hard time trying to pin down exactly what bothers me about Aaron Renn’s piece, “In Praise of Boring Cities” in last week’s Guardian.
You see, I get Renn’s larger point – getting the “boring” things right is, in fact, important. We don’t talk nearly enough about how critical good management is, and the importance of a clean, safe, well-run city. And, yes, it’s worth always repeating that it’s a big world, and proponents of urbanity should accept that not everything will be urban.
But, and there’s always a but…
When I get down to it, two things really stand out now that made me re-read his piece twice. First, he sets up a false dichotomy that cities and urban life are all about excitement, action and trendiness, while suburbs are essentially about what really matters – family, safety and cleanliness. Suburbs are booming as a result, not those glitzy cities with their hipsters, crazy beards, modern art (really?) and expensive coffees.
Puh-leaze. That argument feels so 1992.
Yes, I completely get that for most people, all they really want is a place that is safe, clean, looks good and has good schools. Life is pretty crazy on its own. But c’mon – most urban neighborhoods are just as quiet as suburban ones, often just as safe (if not more so) and dreadfully short of trendy modern art. We don’t all live in New York, after all.
What many are questioning and wanting is quite simple: the ability live a full and complete life without a car versus being compelled to own one simply because of the place you live. And I know that many people are totally happy with their choices in drive-only areas. That’s fine, but if you don’t see evidence that more and more people are tired of that lifestyle than you’re not paying attention.
Second, I’m just getting really tired of reading people taking shots at so-called “hipsters.”
Renn and many others (including folks that I admire like Jarrett Walker and his blog post below): now have displayed on multiple occasions a recurring not-so-subtle message that somehow “hipsters” are a problem or too much of a focus for cities.
Should we try to appeal to only the young demographic? Of course not. If you read this blog at all, you know how much that bothers me. But so much of the hipster critique is its own form of social snobbery and tribalism – most obvious by even using the term “hipsters” which immediately sets up an us vs them mentality and drops thousands if not millions of diverse people into one category.
But let’s back up a minute and take stock of some reality. First off, the big, glaring problem for American cities is that building great walkable places is still really, really hard to do and building same-old, same-old suburbia is very easy. From political leadership down to NIMBY’s and passing through every manner of technocrat possible – we’re still in a phase where those who want urbanism have a huge uphill battle. Every stage of the process is a challenge, while all it takes to build on the fringes is the right lender. So let’s have some perspective about why suburbia continues to grow and that somehow “Urbanists” are in danger of forcing their preferences onto others. We still refuse to allow true urbanity to flourish, and instead impose suburban or rural approaches on walkable places virtually everywhere.
And then, on “hipsters.” It never ceases to amaze how conflicted Americans can be about cities and culture. We spend thousands to travel to France and Italy to enjoy those artisanal cheeses, wine, great coffee and slow culture. And then we come back home and... make fun of those who are trying to do just that in the US. A lot of this criticism sure sounds like grumpy old men saying, "get a real job, kid."
Here’s what I see in a lot of so-called “hipster” culture: fellow human beings, who actually love cities, trying to make them work well again. First and foremost, cities need to be pleasurable. Yes, pleasurable. A simple fact of life for humans: if we don't enjoy something, we will stop doing it. You may think you wouldn’t pay for a $5 latte and sit in a great plaza to people-watch, but then you actually experience it and – you enjoy it. Every great urban culture in the world encourages just that sort of activity, and not just in one or two places. Thank God we have more of this springing up and we don’t have to travel overseas to experience it.
Just as importantly, the scale of economic activity needs to match the scale of the place. The suburban system does not adapt well to urbanity, and vice-versa for that matter. I differ from many of my new urbanist colleagues in that I don’t think we should put much energy into urbanizing the suburban landscape. (more on that another time). But what I see happening with “hipsters” is that people in this country are experimenting and trying to figure out how to truly revive the human urban ecosystem in ways that please us, fit the scale and are lasting. It won’t always work, but I sure don’t denigrate people for trying – in fact, we need a whole hell of a lot more of it.
Reviving truly walkable urban life is not just a challenge of design and construction - it's also a social and economic challenge. By that what I mean is reviving or building new the sort of social bonds in neighborhoods that we've by and large ruined, and reviving the scale of economy that works best in cities: food within very easy walking distances, neighborhood shopkeepers and manufacturers, smaller schools, police patrolling on foot, real jobs nearby instead of requiring a commute; in general a scale that doesn't depend on bigness.
For years, urbanists have tried to bribe, arm twist and berate the national players and large institutions into adapting their services and footprints into walkable projects. And, let’s not put too fine a point on it – all of those efforts basically failed. The purveyors of big industry and big commerce (and one might argue, big government) have no real interest in developing models that work for fine-grained urbanism. Their systems of manufacturing, delivery, service and sales fit the suburban paradigm to a T.
Now, here come some people that say – no, we don’t like that paradigm so we’ll invent another approach. You can have your mass-produced (whatever), we’ll make our own right here in the neighborhood. Sure, it may cost more, but you know exactly where it came from, who is making it and where the money goes. Oh, also – it tastes better.
And so "hipsters" are trying to figure it out. They don't want to try to convince Walgreens or Target to make a more urban store - they want to do some new cool and fun version of it themselves. They want cities to be playful and sometimes about just sitting and enjoying a great cup of coffee. These are good things - we need more of them. And in the process, yes, we need to figure out models that work for neighborhoods with lower incomes and widely different demographics. Are there poseurs that just copy the look? Of course! Welcome to real life. But that doesn't diminish what a lot of real people are trying to accomplish.
Look, cities need all kinds of people to be successful. It's time to get over valuing one group more than another; whichever is "your" group. I personally think creative people are critical to cities because, well, they create things. It's true, most may just be a passing fancy, but a lot of it isn't, and it makes for places that are somewhat more interesting than your typical suburban mall food court. Yes, I get it, a LOT of people like that mall food court. That's fine - they get to enjoy it. But can we please just allow something different to evolve and thrive before trying to squash it with so much cynicism? The back-to-the-cities and walkable/bikeable movements are still VERY early on in all but about 4 cities in the country. How about we let it breathe and give it more oxygen before we denigrate it and try and squash it?