We’ve been hearing about it for years: The 21st century is the era of global urbanization, or urban globalization, or both. But now that more people want to live in cities, bigger questions loom. What makes a city? And what makes a city a desirable place to live?
The stereotypical trappings of urban living (i.e. crowds, tall, shiny buildings) do not a city make. In order to figure out what does, design firm Sasaki recently published the results of a 1,000-person, six-city survey that asked residents what they loved and hated about their surroundings. Some answers from those living in Boston, Chicago, New York, Austin, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., could have been anticipated, but other responses were more surprising.
Take, for instance, people’s affection for historic buildings. According to Sasaki’s survey, 57% of city-dwellers stop to look at old buildings when walking down the street (more than the 15% who stare at skyscrapers), and more than half agreed that renovating old buildings so that they retain their architectural character should be a priority. Only 17% said they felt their city was “too quaint” and wanted more shiny “iconic” buildings.
The attachment to old buildings makes sense for a number of reasons. Before the faceless International Style swept in from across the Atlantic, architects used to take pleasure in elaborate details. (Just look at any Louis Sullivan joint.) But old buildings are comforting in another way: By reminding us of the past, they help us understand the plot of our times. After all, historic buildings carry narrative, too–something that contemporary buildings often eschew.
When urbanites bemoan the Starbucks opening up on their block, it’s usually not because they hate Starbucks, but because the Starbucks is replacing something else–maybe a mom-and-pop shop, or that deli with the best egg and cheese around. An important note from the Sasaki survey: 46% of residents said they’d leave their neighborhoods to try a new restaurant. What can this tell us? Optimizing a city so that every chain and franchised amenity is within a couple blocks of your home doesn’t necessarily make it a great place to be. Perhaps we do need to feel like we can go on an adventure in our own 10 square miles, and when we do, it shouldn’t look like every other part of the city.
No surprise here. People love parks. Nearly half of those surveyed said the waterfront was their favorite place to be, which contains a note of sadness, too. Will cities be able to adapt their waterfronts to rising sea levels? Or will we all eventually be forced to retreat? There are still a lot of creative suggestions to the first question before we resort to answering the second.
Just because a city’s dense doesn’t mean it directs its traffic well. More than 40% of those surveyed highlighted traffic as their most frustrating issue, followed by lack of parking. Cities across the states are still working to develop functional bike share programs and more efficient public transit, but shifting away from a reliance on cars still has a long way to go.
There is one thing that the Sasaki survey didn’t mention that’s probably integral to all of the above: Affordable housing. If outrageous rents exile artists and people who serve the basic functions of the city, neighborhoods can begin to look like homogenous strip malls for tourists and the wealthy. After all, that’s part of what happened to the suburbs, minus tourists.