Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Not Just Potholes

Teriffic essay on the emotional impact of urban design:

Politicians don’t want to appear frivolous and insensitive to fiscal challenges, so they say “no” to things that make a city fun, like the arts, culture, design, landscaping and events.

Instead they fill potholes, because when people are polled, they typically cite potholes as their chief concern. But filling potholes wins the politicians and cities very little love. There is no emotional capital in return for that investment. At best, people will say that the roads don’t suck quite as bad.

But invest in a little emotional infrastructure like a dog park or a piece of public art that kids can actually play on, and you get love and emotional engagement in spades.

Look at Durham, North Carolina. In early 2011, a group of private citizens, with no official city support, created the “Marry Durham” event which they described as the largest “civic union” in history. On March 19th, 1,600 brides and grooms married not each other, but the city of Durham. Their vows included promises to keep the streets clean and safe, to shop local, to protect their environment, to support their city’s arts and culture, to cherish diversity, and to elect responsible leadership. The event, done entirely by volunteers, raised over $25,000 for local charities.

Yes, we need to pave our streets and fix potholes — but there is more to a city than that. My worry in the current economic/political climate is that we will fixate only on these traditional “essentials,” and in doing so undermine the very thing that is keeping many communities going – the love, affection and loyalty that people have for their places. We need to expand our expectation of “essentials” and include that which speaks to our higher selves, and invest at least a little in beauty, fun and engagement. This does not take lots of money — it takes creativity, imagination, and an awareness of its importance.

When I ask people what they love about their cities, the answers always involve small things that often cost little or no money — a comfortable place to people watch, a favorite street corner, a local dog park, a street festival or outdoor movies in the park.

Why Aren't We Building Emotionally Connected Cities?

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