Wednesday, June 18, 2014

New Urbanists Can Ideate on This

Tomorrow is the last day Dallas will play host to a prestigious conference on urbanism.

The conference is called New Cities Summit 2014, and it bills itself as "the leading global event on the future of the urban world."  Although it is closed (ironically) to the public, about 800 professional urbanists from 40 countries have been at Dallas' gaudy Winspear Opera House since yesterday, discussing trends in city life, and offering their opinions on how communities around the world can live better as we live closer together.

After all, city life is about density, and people living with a lot less personal space.  Here in the United States, and Texas especially, suburbanization has been the preferred lifestyle for over half a century.  But the preference pendulum is swinging back from the split-levels and faux Colonials of the Boomer generation to the gritty high-rises and soul-less grind of mass transit that today's trendsetting Millennials prefer.

Around the rest of the world, particularly in land-locked Europe, poverty-stricken Africa, and densely-populated Asia, suburbanization never actually reached American-esque proportions.  Either communities were rural, or they were urban, although city life is generally preferred.  After all, if it wasn't, cities wouldn't exist!

These days, agrarian societies are notable more for their shrinking populations, whereas cities around the world are seen as beacons of hope by young people.  And economically, at least, it's not hard to see why.  The more people who live in a particular area, the more chances to make money, no matter what your career is.  Unless you're a farmer.

And now, some cities even want to plant farms on underutilized land, and hopefully provide fresh produce to city dwellers who've developed a diet overly dependent on processed foods.

It's against this backdrop of global urbanization that the Re-Imagining Cities conference has been holding workshops on topics like city-centric technology, transportation, making cities more environmentally-friendly, helping city residents be more happy, and concepts like "the Shared City" and "Inclusive Cities."

While browsing this event's website, it quickly becomes obvious that esoteric posturing and Utopian hubris are key elements of how these new urbanist professionals tick.  They use terms like "geo-strategist", "social change-maker", "augmented reality", and "urban ventures accelerator" as if they've watched too many episodes of Charlie Rose and The Jetsons - simultaneously!

Some of their lingo you have to Google.  "Ideating," for example, is one of their favorite words, but it's simply another term for "think".  "Intrapreneurship" is another one, and it describes a person within a large organization who is allowed to act unilaterally, like an entrepreneur.

Indeed, it's easy to see who the enemies of new urbanism are.  And there are no surprises.  Large, traditional corporations are high on their hit list.  So are automobiles, single-family detached homes, and basically anything that isn't found in New York City's hippest 'hoods.  Also not surprising is the address of several American-based participants:  Brooklyn.

How ironic that millions of people have moved out of Brooklyn over the years, including my parents, looking for a better quality of life for their families.  Now it seems that if you don't like Brooklyn, you won't like the future these new urbanists are planning for you.

And what do these new urbanists do for a living?  There are some glorified social workers, and the entrepreneurs who seem to prefer crowdsourcing over traditional banks for funding their dreams.  There are few engineers, but lots of computer techies.

Some of them have biographies that read like their jobs have been pulled out of thin air.  One of the expert urbanists is "an experienced facilitator on the subject of movement-building" who helps her clients "rethink their participation strategy and maximize impact."

One young fellow - and a lot of these experts in urbanism are young - describes himself as "a lateral thinker, successful serial entrepreneur, and the co-founder of a transcultural think tank."

Culture is also a big thing with these folks, and they advocate for arts districts as a form of economic development.  Not coincidentally, the Winspear Opera House, where this auspicious convocation has been taking place, is a recent addition to Dallas' cultural district, which bills itself as the largest contiguous collection of museums and performance halls in the world.

Apparently, good music, dance, and theater need to be clustered together for bragging rights, instead of spread throughout a community to enhance the public's access to them.

And while a lot of high-dollar education is reflected in the multiple post-graduate degrees held by most of the New Cities speakers, there seems to be a huge disconnect between the aspirations of new urbanists, and the reality for why today's cities - and, likely, tomorrow's - fall so far sort of those aspirations.

A lot of the New Cities agenda appears to be centered upon their conviction that they can manipulate ordinary people like you and me to do what they want us to do.  You and I are the problem, and they're the solution.  If you don't particularly like being squished into a confining urban street grid, or stacked on top of each other in high-rise housing, you need to be re-trained so that loft living - and not needing a drivers license - are what makes us honorable citizens of our planet.

On the plus side, reducing personal and social frictions has become a huge goal of new urbanists, since greater population densities aren't naturally conducive to peace and goodwill.  And while some new urbanists seem to pretend that crime is something that happens only to other people, the schedule at this week's gathering in Dallas includes speeches by the city's chief of police, as well as some experts in the burgeoning field of crime-reduction technology.  Civil liberties purists might call such technology merely an expansion of Big Brother privacy annihilation, but frankly, particularly in Western countries, high crime rates are one of the biggest impediments new urbanists face in implementing their vision of paradise in the city.

Another major impediment is the quality of urban schools, which doesn't appear to rank highly - actually, at all - on the agenda for this week in Dallas.  For wealthy urbanists, private schools are the typical solution for ineffective or unsafe public schools, but for America's dwindling middle class, private schooling is not an option.  Homeschooling may be, but since it takes two incomes for mid-level and lower-level workers to survive in large cities, who's at home during the day to teach the progeny?

One of the key factors that lured America's middle classes out of our urban cores was the promise and reality of desirable schools in suburbia, and compared with the dismal statistics of most urban districts, suburban schools still retain their allure.  It's why, although more and more urban parents are now trying to raise their families downtown, still more urban parents resign themselves to the suburbs when their kids hit pre-K.

Oddly enough, I myself used to be what is now considered a new urbanist.  I was in graduate school for urban planning back in the late 1980's, and I was growing frustrated that my professors were spending so much time trying to demonstrate the modeling of future demand for freeways.  I was going to school here in Texas, which has historically been a state built on the autonomy of the personal automobile, but I figured that at the rate Texas' population was growing, mass transit would have to be incorporated into our transportation infrastructure at some point, and doing so sooner rather than later would be cheaper.  Right?

But I forgot an even more important component of urbanism than crime, schools, artisanal coffee shops (whatever those are), luxury lofts, and trendy lingo.

There has to be political buy-in from the public.  Particularly in the West, obviously, where democracy is established, but even in countries like China, the ruling class knows that the appearance of civic appeasement helps them maintain control better than iron gloves do.  And here in Texas, voters simply have not embraced mass transit the way taxpayers in the far more densely populated Northeast have done.  The reason my urban studies professors were talking freeways - and nothing but freeways - back in the late 1980's is because that's what the public was willing to fund.  And that mentality, for better or worse, hasn't reversed itself, although as parts of the state continue to sprawl with continued growth, residents are increasingly willing to discuss alternatives to the personal automobile.

But back in 1990, however, I grew disillusioned with the "planning" part of my urban studies program.  And I stopped taking classes, leaving my degree unfinished.

I've always thought that I was born in the wrong generation, but usually, I mean that I should have been born decades earlier, in an era that better suits the more provincial side of my personality.  Yet I've been watching this trend towards new urbanism for the past few years with a mix of envy and intrigue.  Now, however, probably thanks to being older, and having a more objective perspective, instead of an optimistic idealism, I see why suburbia isn't as evil, wasteful, uncreative, and antisocial as I used to think it was.  And as many new urbanists are convinced it is.

No, I've never been to any suburb that is as exciting as Manhattan, but I've seen few urban cores that are as clean as most suburbs, with as much reasonably-priced housing as most suburbs, or as safe, or as quiet, or with a less stressful atmosphere.  And as I've gotten older, my priorities have shifted.  Kinda like some trends do.  Trends like new urbanism, maybe?

Besides, let's face it:  if everybody in the world wanted to live in cities, there wouldn't be room enough for them.

To the extent that groups like New Cities wants to make urban environments as livable as they can be for the people who want to live in them, then I say "go for it."

However, if new urbanists think that city living is intrinsically better, healthier, and even more moral than suburban or rural living, then these convocations like the one they're having in Dallas this week will be just another group of elites trying to tell other people how to live their lives.

Augmenting reality may work for a bunch of ideating accelerators of urban ventures, but do the rest of us really need them making social change for us?

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