Plumb Lines

February 18, 2009

Cities as They Are Imagined

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:41 am

As you might expect, David Brooks spins a survey of Americans’ attitudes about where they live into a grand narrative of restlessness, kayaking, and longing for the virgin soil of the West.

The column’s low point arrives when Brooks suggests that by jumbling together “the five most popular American metro areas — Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando and Tampa — you get an image of the American Dream circa 2009.”

This is nonsense. These cities are nothing like each other. Seattle is full of the walkable neighborhoods that urbanists love, Denver is trying to become more Seattle-like (plus mountains!), Orlando just means “Disney” to most people, and San Diego means beaches and Seaworld. I have no idea what Tampa means to anybody, or why anybody would want to live there. What the survey seems to indicate is that when Americans fantasize about living somewhere else, they don’t imagine what it would actually be like to live there. When they imagine Orlando, they just think about Mickey Mouse, and not, for example, about a rail transit system that could profoundly affect how they live from day to day, or even what a typical  street in metro Orlando looks like.

This is unfortunate. So long as we imagine cities as cartoons of theme parks and beaches we will continue to ignore the actual, physical reality of the places we inhabit, and these places will therefore continue to be dreary and inhuman.

David Schaengold

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