On Changing Attitudes

So I’ve been thinking more about cities and urban planning lately (particularly when reading about the continuing CTA troubles or doing the afternoon commute past the Wal-Mart).  And so far I’ve come up with this:

Things would be better if people enjoyed being outside.

This isn’t to say that this alone would be sufficient to fix everything that needs to be fixed.  But I think it could go a long way.  Here are some possible consequences of a change in attitude.

* People would walk more!   This is a key part of city life (de Certeau’s essay, “Walking on the City,” elaborates on this idea) and ultimately the most efficient way for a person to get from one part of a neighborhood to another (it’s hard to be stuck in foot traffic unless you’re in a parade crowd heading for home).  People are more likely to walk when the weather is nice, but a great many choose to drive, take the bus, or take  a cab when they could just go the few extra blocks to their destination.   And if people enjoy the act itself – moving along on one’s own power,  observing the interesting buildings and shops and fellow walkers, feeling the sun or the mist or a cool breeze – they are more likely to repeat this act whenever possible.  Also, of course, walking is a health benefit for the walkers.

* And as all these new walkers hit the sidewalks, they would stop driving!  Fewer cars on the road means a smoother flow of traffic in now-congested areas, less air pollution (another health benefit for walkers), and fewer parked cars to contend with and find spaces on which to sit unused for several hours.  Less air pollution is also a health benefit for the city itself, particularly delicate old building edifices.

* As more people stopped driving, they would use public transportation!  Walking is the best way to spend time outside but still get to where you’re going, but if you’re going too far to just walk, you still won’t mind spending time waiting outside for the next bus or train.  Ideally, of course, public transportation would be 1) clean, 2) reliable, 3) unobtrusive on the landscape, 4) safe, 5) wide-reaching and flexible for many different itineraries, and 6) affordable, but regardless of its condition, the act of waiting at a bus stop or station would be a more enjoyable (and again, repeatable) experience if people didn’t mind doing it.

* And since people are already outside, they would make use of (and support the cultivation of) more green space!  In Chicago, you can definitely tell where the old money was by how much green space can be found in a given neighborhood, and the city’s long-time commitment to its parks can be seen in the shoreline from Jackson Park and the South Shore, through Grant and Millennium Parks downtown, and past Lincoln Park into Evanston.  While not all areas of the city have such dramatic green spaces, however, a neighborhood playground or grass-covered lot can do wonders for the aesthetic (and land) value of the neighborhood.  And nothing better supports such efforts than their use – a community garden, a dog park, a school field, or a patch of forest preserve (like that along the Des Plaines River in the aptly-named River Forest).  In order to enjoy being outside, people must have attractive places in which to frolic, and green space, while perhaps not being a strictly commercial asset in the way a parking lot or corporate headquarters might be, is vital to the health of a city.

* As people enjoy looking at pretty scenery, they will also demand beautification of their streets and homes and stores and neighborhoods!  This is important not only to save historic buildings and districts (Chicago’s myriad post-fire apartment buildings, shops, and building facades come to mind), but to encourage the proliferation of interesting and attractive new architecture in current and future construction projects.  If people spend more time outside their homes, naturally they will come to expect – and hopefully participate in maintaining – a higher standard of cleanliness, upkeep, and general aesthetic value of their neighborhood, from keeping streets litter-free to adding outdoor sculptures or murals to their parks, streets, and buildings.  Landscaping will be cultivated rather than the sad, scrubby weeds of abandoned lots; graffiti and acts of vandalism may give way to restored building fronts and frescoes whose content, but not presence, may be subversive; in short, neighborhoods will offer themselves as pleasures to look at and spend time in.

* As neighborhoods look better and people linger there, more businesses will cater to this interest in the outdoors!  Here I’m not talking about sporting-good stores, but local establishments that cater to the walking shopper – local cafes and restaurants, boutiques designed for window-shopping, promenades with places to eat, drink, sit, and watch the other pedestrians.  Although in some places, such as Chicago, these establishments would not always be able to offer an outdoor option due to the weather, during the pleasant months of the year outdoor patios would be the preferred seating, rather than “whatever’s closest to the air conditioning,” and residents and visitors could enjoy a leisurely meal in the open air.  Seasonal festivals, open-air markets, and other outdoor-oriented events would offer some variety to the normal fare, and such events, when successful, can have great drawing power for the surrounding area.  Public services, notably libraries, would also receive greater participation; if the pharmacy is next door to the library, why not stop and pick up a book on your walk home?

*  The effect of all these attractive local businesses and the healthy level of patronage would be keeping money in the neighborhood!  So often people drive a great distance to buy or experience things which may be found much closer to home – the classic story of Wal-mart taking the business of the local grocery.  While it is true that difference in cost (or availability of a local alternative) can make such movement outwards more rational, it becomes less of a good deal when one factors in driving time, fuel consumption to make the trip, and often the lower quality of the product(s) in question.  American cities are particularly ill-designed to cater to local needs (unless you happen to live within walking distance of the nearest strip mall), but nevertheless in areas of dense population it is not impossible.  Furthermore, keeping one’s income within the community benefits all those who live and work there – local restaurants stay in business and thrive, local shops can sustain reasonable prices and respond to the requests of their customers for whichever products are most needed or wanted, other businesses can move into an area which is seen to be growing and/or prospering, more people are able to find employment without having to drive several miles away (see above point), and the community can collect more commercial property tax which in turn can fund whatever other projects contribute to its overall health.

* And finally (though this list is not exhaustive!) the important and perhaps overlooked fact that being outside, and being out among many other people, is good for you.  Health and economic benefits aside, interacting with other human beings is generally a really good idea, particularly in a city where so many people live in such close proximity.  This is not to say that everyone needs to shake hands and spend an hour with everyone they pass on the street, but simply that we too easily close ourselves off in cars and homes and cubicles and impersonal supermarkets.   Many people don’t know their neighbors and make no effort to do so; they find themselves in an unfamiliar neighborhood whose streets look abandoned, and start to feel afraid; and they may have no experience and therefore no idea how to behave among those, however different from them, when they do find someone in that strange place.  We interact with people, inside and out, on a daily basis, but often it is one of mutual and tacit obliviousness, not because we are all misanthropes but often because we are so concerned with where we’re going and not enjoying our route or our destination.  It’s hard to strike up a conversation when both parties feel rushed and compelled elsewhere; but it’s hard not to take pleasure in being among others who are genuinely enjoying themselves in, for example, an outdoor public space.  We see dog and owner and smile as they enjoy a game of frisbee; we see children mingling on a playground and their chaperones comparing nearby parks; we see a small crowd around a street performer; and we see an unwieldy group of tourists marvelling at the same sites which we pass every day.  Surely this kind of positive human contact – even if it is as indirect as sharing the same bike path every Saturday afternoon – is a good thing.

Two places in Chicago where I see this spirit in action:  Millennium Park (in the Loop) and Promontory Point (in Hyde Park, just off 55th St.)  In both places, although they have very different characters, I see genuine evidence of community.  Promontory Point is mainly a locally-centered place, known as “the Point” to the many people who run, walk, bike, skate, swim, and simply meditate there.  It is not a large space, but it is a well-used one by many Hyde Park residents, not to mention a strongly-defended one against the possibility of restructuring.  Although you may not see the same faces on every visit (and may not recognize the faces in any case) there is nevertheless the feeling of a shared and loved space, a source of commonality for everyone who frequents it.  Millennium Park, in contrast, has no particular locality but offers a place to play in the middle of the city – finding your reflection in the Bean, walking through the flower garden in the spring or along the small canal, enjoying an outdoor concert at the amphitheatre, splashing in the wading pool with the giant spitting columns (the faces themselves a reflection of the park as a place of community), skating on the ice rink, or interacting with whatever art installations happen to be featured there that season.  It is a tourist attraction but not exclusively so – it costs nothing (ice rink excluded), does not advertise itself with the touristy kitsch that residents tend to shun, and most importantly makes no assumptions about the people who visit, throwing everyone together into the same space with no set rules or particular path that must be followed.  (And offers pretty nice views of the city).  In short, both the Point and Millennium Park are places in which you can enjoy being outside.

Why is this shift in attitude so important?  As I stated at the beginning, changing attitudes about enjoying the outdoors in itself is not sufficient to effect great change in American cities, but it seems to be a good part of what must be a larger plan.  While people may not support the restoration of a historic building for its own sake, they may be more supportive when they consider that they enjoy looking at it every day.  People may not be interested in growing their own vegetables, but they can appreciate the beauty of a green space in which their neighbor does.  And people may not think that buying local is a good way to save money, but it’s certainly a good way to save a neighborhood.  Perhaps it’s a stretch to consider all of these points as the cascade of consequences from making people go outside, but since a city is not only its buildings and roads but the spaces and environment around them, it seems to me that we should make an effort to get to know those spaces, and work to make them better.


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