Why Cities Matter
When cities work, they are the hubs, the crossroads, the dominant centers of activity whose influence – political, social, economic – extends over a far greater area. A vital downtown is not just the heart of a city, it is the focal point for a region often including several states. Sure, we have smart phones, i-pads and laptops – the virtual and mobile workplace — but when the information highway merges with the human highway it brings out the best in both.
Successful cities offer economic and racial integration so that all strata of society can share the same public realm. When working well, cities are unparalleled centers of diversity and opportunity – societal gathering places for living, working and playing that by their very nature offer the most choices to the most people for the least cost.
Cities are the most efficient way for a society to live and work. They are the antidotes to the noxious sprawl that continues to overrun our open spaces. Building on or renewing existing infrastructure is far more cost efficient and environmentally healthy than continuing to spread people and buildings across the landscape.
There is a huge cost for all the new infrastructure as well as a cost for abandoning what we already have in place, often paying more to repair it than if we had been diligent in the first place. There is also a heavy environmental cost as farmland and open spaces give way to subdivisions, shopping malls and factories, pushing people further and further apart from each other and necessitating more and more highways and car travel.
The Way It Is
In New York, Chicago and San Francisco and to a lesser extent, cities such as Denver, Minneapolis and Portland, downtown areas are commercially viable, alive nights and weekends. They have a critical mass of in-town residents. There is a sense of perpetual motion, of emotional highs and lows. People feel the city around them.
In Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles, and in such places as Tampa, Columbus and Phoenix, much of the streetscape is anti-pedestrian and antiseptic, preventing a true urban environment. The major difference is the level of personal contact one experiences in daily life.
In cities that are alive, people tend to travel by public transportation, walk short distances to desired destinations and continually interact with the parade of people they encounter. People notice the little things a city offers, the bits of history tucked into downtown corners or surprising views from streets and alleys. They are aware of a city’s “Rivers of Life” – the effervescent streets bubbling with energy. The act of going from one place to another is as important as the places themselves.
Nighttime activity is almost as fervid as during the day. Restaurants, theaters, stores, hotels, offices, homes, universities, sports arenas and concert halls – places to live, work, play and learn – all combine to make what the late columnist Herb Caen called a clawing, exciting, struggling, striving, helter-skelter mix; what critic Paul Goldberger says is the sheer intensity of an alive urban center.