What would your urban utopia look like?

Assuming (and from personal experience, I suspect accurately) that our Korean audience would be unlikely to confront us speakers with probing questions face-to-face, one of the neat things that the LIFT folks did in Seoul was to arrange for attendees to ask their questions via Post-Its. These were gathered and presented anonymously at the get-together afterward.

Admittedly, this is not a 100% solution, but it’s got its merits; if nothing else, the board of collected Post-Its constituted both a jumping-off point for further, beer-fueled discussions and an enduring visual record of the enthusiastic response.

This is one of the questions that was addressed to me, and I’m going to make my best attempt at framing an answer.

I should first confess that I just don’t believe in utopia, or anything close to it; I don’t place much stock in the idea that it’s either possible or advisable to articulate a perfected end state for anything as dynamic as a human city. That said, after thirty-nine years on the planet, I’ve sure as hell got some opinions on what works and what does not, and since you asked I am more than happy to share them with you.

The first thing that might surprise folks who know me – unless they’ve been paying very close attention – is how little I trust high-end design and architecture to deliver enduringly congenial urban environments; long, sad experience with the kind of hotels, shops, restaurants, bars and clubs you so often see gleaming from the pages of wallpaper* and its ilk has convinced me that, however beautiful they may be, such locales are all too often the province of fabulous wannabes and overprivileged douchelords. When it comes right down to it, I’d much (much) rather hang out with friends on the patio at Zeitgeist than fight my way through a scrum of coked-up nonentities at the Hudson and its bleeding-edge latterday equivalents.

Lord knows I love me some Modernism, at every scale, but as far as I’m concerned spaces that support conviviality and reflection (as the case may be) will always trump formal beauty. When such spaces are also executed with a high degree of aesthetic refinement – as I suspect Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House is, and I know for sure Austin’s Hotel San Jose is – so much the better. But the flexibility, adaptability and comfort that give rise to pleasant interaction come first.

Sure, there’s a part of me that would love to live in (at least the physical aspect of) the world depicted in Gattaca. Similarly, Jacques Tati’s Play Time wasn’t, for me, nearly so much a withering send-up of High Modernism as a wistful look back at the possibilities and promises of a path not chosen.

Sure, something in me wonders at the self-evident glamour and sheen of Manhattan life, oh, round about 1966, what with the Velvets playing all shiny-boots-of-leather downtown, Massimo Vignelli rolling out his never-bettered subway signage, and helicopters taking off hourly from the roof of the Pan Am Building. And there’s a part of me that will always have a weather eye peeled for the re-emergence of that kind of glamour, however garbed in twenty-first century globalist drag it may be. But you can more reliably extrapolate the balance of my true feelings about liveable cities from the above comments.

What would I do if I had full, SimCityesque control? My urban utopia would assemble these traits, kaleidoscopically:

– A setting as gemlike and as accessible to ocean, mountain, forest and desert as San Francisco’s, with winters no worse than that city’s, and summers like Helsinki;
– Lots of oxygenating green space;
– A zone or zones with the density, skyscraping verticality and walkability of Manhattan, or maybe central Hong Kong, for identity, legibility, and let’s face it, excitement;
– Boulevards with the leafy slope and generous broadness of Barcelona’s Ramblas or Tokyo’s Omotesando (at least as the latter existed up until 2003, i.e. prior to the destruction of the Dojunkai Apartments and their replacement with Ando’s jumped-up, pompous mall);
– Flabbergasting ethnolinguistic diversity, with all that implies for the eating experience;
– Lots of mixed-use close in to the core, and lower-density, more purely residential outlying districts with the easygoingness, human scale and hardy housing stock I remember from my adolescence in West Philadelphia;
– These connected to the downtown(s) and to each other by something like the vividly multimodal transitscape of central Amsterdam, where a road, a sidewalk and a bustling bikepath will all converge in crossing over a canal (and I’d thrown in Portland’s light-rail network);
– Enough cheap housing so that everyone who wants one has a room to call their own – and enough cheap warehouse/event space to support an arts community like Berlin’s;
– The 24-hour bustle and ad-hoc spirit of Seoul – where a vacant lot plus a grill plus a tent equals a nightspot, and in nice weather you don’t even need the tent;
– Something in the lay of the streets that recalls Daikanyama, or the winding backways between Shibuya and Ebisu;
– It’s undeniably haute-bourgeous, and titled perilously toward consumerism, but if you’re going to have commercial zones I’ve always felt that something works about Berkeley’s Fourth Street;
– Thousands of idiosyncratic small bookshops, cafés, bars and other service establishments;
– Moments of sudden, unexpected grace – a planted nook, a shaded arcade or courtyard, a humble bench;
– London cabs, Amsterdam bikes, old Saigon cyclos, Yamanote-sen trains – and while we’re at it, why not make it safe for motorcyclists so I can ride my beloved SV once more;
– All of this undergirded by a thoughtfully-designed informatic infrastructure that sutures all these experiences together, that lets them speak themselves, that does what it needs to and then goes away.

How’s that? Schizogeographic enough for you? Man, I’ve made myself wistful, just listing all of that – the odds that I’ll ever actually get to live in any such place are, if anything, dwindling. But, y’know, someone once told me that hell is what happens when you can’t imagine what heaven looks like anymore…and at least for the time being, as you can see, I still have one or two ideas about that.

15 responses to “What would your urban utopia look like?”

  1. Warren Frey says :

    Just about the first half of your theoretical utopian city describes my home town of Vancouver. When we get to the 24 hour bustle and the cheap housing…not so much. And my neighbourhood, Yaletown, is the province of fabulous wannabes and overprivileged douchlords (nice one, btw.) So I guess that makes Vancouver…a draw?

  2. neb says :

    now you are speakin’ my language! if only there were some sort of modeling framework that people could use to resample simulated urban contexts…. ;) how about a game design toolkit! you could give the Douchlords their own gentrifying rules and pit them against the McMansionites. or watch the streetgrid branchings and striations change as you move the layout parameter from Daikanyama toward Istanbul. or maybe, if you got ambitious, you might try to pipe/hack together a simulation filter that expressed the attribute ‘aesthetic refinement that maintains intrinsic conviviality’, just to see what you came up with when you tried to articulate such a thing. ‘playing’ with urban simulation design as a way of trying to create a collaborative utopia, ftw!

    now you’ve gone and made me rant around my Picnic talk preemptively! :)

  3. speedbird says :

    AH HAHAHAHAHA, excellent.

  4. neb says :

    oh, and it will be superb to sit canalside with you at the cafe and chat all things utopian and otherwise whilst you are Amsterdammed.

    also: the simulated Douchelords are not worthy of correct spelling.

  5. speedbird says :

    Indeed, it’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long, long time – seeing *your* A’dam.

  6. Laurent says :

    “overprivileged douchelords”, I’ll keep this ine in mind for my next trip to Paris or London.

    Adam, the best post-it was still this one you didn’t mention:
    Adam has rocked
    Mate, you rocked Korea!

  7. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Interesting that you associate that most hated of skyscrapers, Walter Gropius’, Pietro Belluschi’s, and Emery Roth’s Pan Am building, with romantic and nostalgic ideas about architectural modernism. I’ve yet to read Meredith’s Clausen’s book on the topic …. but I would be curious to hear your own take.

    The other day, I heard someone here at Princeton refer to book stores as the “canary in the coal mine” of successful urban life. Is that something to add ro your list? Is good book shopping too specific of a demand?

  8. speedbird says :

    I thought “[t]housands of idiosyncratic small bookshops, cafés, bars and other service establishments” would just about cover that. ; . )

    (I agree with your Princeton buddy, BTW.)

    The Pan Am Building book is a great one – a thick description, in the anthropological sense. I understand intellectually why people originally hated the Pan Am Building; their feelings, especially, about the way it blocked the view corridor up Park Avenue must have been almost identical to my feelings about the despoiling of the rhythm and scale of Omotesando by Ando’s eponymous Hills.

    But, dag, I just can’t join the haters. It’ll always be a splendid shaft to me, marred only by the seven letters of an insurance company’s name where there ought to be the magnificent, optimistic identity of the world’s most experienced airline.

  9. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Ahh, yes … you did mention bookshops. I’m apparently a poor reader!!! And, like you, I can’t join the Pan Am building’s critics.

  10. Mike Scott says :

    Even Sim City doesn’t let you control land values. If your hypothetical city is so desirable to live in in all other respects, and yet has low-density housing, how can it possibly have cheap housing?

  11. speedbird says :

    Wow, Mike, you must really not believe that there’s a valid place for regulation in the public sphere.

    We’re not all children of the Invisible Hand, you know. Not 100%, anyway. Take a look, for example, at this post of Paul Krugman’s, in the blessedly re-available New York Times. Note, particularly, the convergence in wealth he calls the Great Compression – and reflect that this did not occur by accident, but by conscious intent.

    Part of the design of cities is the design of the incentive landscape that pulls the built into conformity with it, like a strange attractor lying behind the seen. If I had control of the levers of power, I would make damn sure that developers were properly incentivized to create lots and lots of affordable housing.

    This is most especially important in a place like New York, because so much of the wealth we’ve traditionally enjoyed has flowed in due to the city’s being a cultural nexus. You eliminate the cheap housing, cheap rehearsal space, cheap storefronts, and fifteen years later you can kiss the city’s ability to function as a cultural powerhouse goodbye. I promise you. (You can see it happening even now: name the last genre of music you strongly associate with New York. I’d be surprised if it was anything more recent than old-school rap, circa 1985 at the very outside.)

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