Sunday, July 12, 2009

Why I Want to Study Urban Planning

(or, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the City.")

I've been reading a lot of nonfiction books lately. A People's History of the United States told me about American people's movements and common folk trying to change the world. Endless Forms Most Beautiful let me marvel at the intricate, clever workings of the evolutionary process in animals, then pointed out how many of those animals are being wiped out before they can even be studied. The more nonfiction I read, the more I want to influence the world for the better. I want to do something with my life that has a real, immediate impact on the world.

At this point I can finally say, with about 90% certainty, that I've chosen urban planning.

I used to think that I wanted to live far away from cities-- out in the mountains, in a house deep in the forest with only the sounds of birds and wind for company. I used to think I hated cities. It's taken me a while to realize that I love them.

It's not my fault, entirely. I was a suburban child from the age of nine. Before that I lived on military housing, which was similar but even more boring. I hated the uniformity of the houses, the monotony of the lawns and regularity of the streets, the fact that there was never anything interesting to do. (You can only ride your bike so many times around the block before it starts to get old.) I read a lot of fantasy novels as a child, most of which described city life as soulless and dirty. I loved the country-- or what I'd experienced of it from visits to my grandparents' house-- and I figured that if suburban life sucked, then city life had to be a hundred times worse.

Even so, when our family went on trips that had us out after dark, I always loved to look at the city lights as we passed them. Something was always going on in the cities-- everyone was awake and alive, shopping and eating in restaurants and doing lots of interesting things. When it was raining, the lights would blur, and stain the drops of water that rolled down the windows. They seemed even more exciting, then: despite the cold and the dark outside, the life of the city was obviously continuing unabated.

I never really liked leaving those lights behind. Highway driving at night meant long, long stretches of black countryside, with only the lights of other cars for company. (The red taillights we were following always seemed demonic to me, and the white headlights on the other side of the highway looked angelic. I remember wondering, when I was really small, why the other side got the pretty lights and we were stuck with the ugly red ones.) Sometimes my parents would tell us stories, but more often the car was quiet, with most of my siblings sleeping and maybe Rush Limbaugh crackling on the radio. At the end of the drive was a quiet, sleeping neighborhood; a quiet, sleeping house; and bedtime, with an end to adventures.

I went to college in a very small town, three miles down the road from a medium-sized one, forty-five minutes from the nearest city. Late at night, when my friends and I got bored, we'd watch movies in each other's dorm rooms, or go down the road to Wal-Mart and play around in the empty aisles. There was nothing else to do. I loved college, actually, but the fact remains that any time we did anything really interesting, it meant a trip to Asheville. New movies were what usually drew us there-- Firefly, Mirrormask, the latest Harry Potter. (The nearest movie theater to the school had screens you could count on one hand and never got anything new until well after the release date.) We'd make an evening of it: go shopping downtown, where the stores were quirky and artsy; hit up Barnes & Noble, the mall, the comic shops my friends liked to go to; have Japanese for dinner, or Indian, or whatever else we felt like eating.

The opera is in Asheville, and the symphony. There are little galleries and a wonderful chocolate shop and the Asheville Pizza and Brewery, where you can take in your movies along with good food and great beer. There are art and music festivals, historic buildings, strange little twists and turns to get lost in. Asheville is not a big city, but it was the center of culture for us.

When I moved back home, after school, there was no real center of culture at all. We had movies, sure. My hometown has huge theaters, chain stores galore, every high-demand consumer product you can shake a stick at. It does not, however, have the opera. Or the symphony. It has no museums that I'm aware of. There are apparently galleries, but they're far flung (and, anyway, at that point I was not cool enough to want to visit them.) Worse: anything you want to do there, you have to do by car. Even the corner market might be a quarter-mile away, or more, and the nearest bookstore might well be across town. With an area of 43.5 square miles (according to Wikipedia) and a population well over 100,000, Cary is like a small city that's been stretched out like silly putty until it does no one any good.

After dark, the town shuts down. Closes its eyes. At ten p.m. in a residential area, you can go outside and feel like the only person alive in the world.

Contrast my current home, in a rapidly-developing area in South Korea. The town started out as a farming community, but is urbanizing with amazing speed and fast approaching city dimensions, if it isn't there already. Right now I live in a fifth-floor apartment cornering on a downtown back street that's bordered half by stores and half by high-rises. At any hour of the day or night, there will be someone passing by below my window. It may be a street sweeper or trash collector, or a group of friends out on a binge, or a bunch of rowdy high school students just getting out of their cram schools, or a solitary walker whistling or singing as he or she strolls along. From five stories up, you can hear the scrape of feet on the pavement and the echoes of conversations. The buzz and rumble of car engines is white noise now. Sometimes it's exceptionally noisy, and then it's hard to get to sleep, but most of the time I find the constant presence of other humans outside surprisingly comforting. I'm never alone, even when I'm tucked up in my apartment and haven't spoken to a soul (except the cat) all day.

I always used to feel guilty for shopping and eating out, but I couldn't help myself. I love shopping in cities. There are always things on the shelves I never thought of before-- clever little ornaments, books by authors I've never heard of (some of whom would never make it in a Barnes & Noble). I used to buy way too much. Restaurants are another downfall-- I can't see a new place without wanting to try it out. I would chastise and guilt trip myself, convinced I was being wasteful and greedy.

I've only recently realized that the food, and the jewelry, and the baubles and books and gadgets, aren't really the point of shopping, delightful as they may be. The pleasure comes in being out on the streets, in seeing the people and enjoying the multiplicity of ideas and just being part of the scene. For a suburban girl, this is a huge revelation: I had never learned to think of street-wandering as something to do for pleasure. Where I come from, all the stores and buildings look the same. You go where you need to go, maybe a couple other stores if they're close by, then get in your car and go somewhere else. City shopping-- especially downtown shopping-- is different. You don't even really have to buy anything-- just enjoy the presence of the art and the music (because a good store will always have good music) and the other people who you'd never see if you stuck to your normal routine.

I used to think of that kind of shopping as a guilty pleasure, and of city amenities (like all-night businesses, subways, and all that jazz) as the good parts of a necessary evil. "We need these now," I thought, "but someday, when the world is perfect, we'll have to regretfully wave good-bye to these things as we phase out the cities altogether." Now I want to get rid of the bad sides, instead-- make city life seem like less of a "necessary evil" and more of a viable and beautiful thing.

It seems like a dense, well-managed city, replete with public transportation and free from high-crime areas, is much better for the earth than a sprawling suburb with half the population. The remaining land can be kept beautiful and unencumbered.

I really believe that the suburban lifestyle as it is currently practiced-- sprawling developments, endless highways-- is not sustainable, and that it will someday come to a crashing halt. Maybe people will rebel against zoning regulations and start building things they need where they actually live. Maybe everyone will shake their heads in disgust and move off to denser, more workable cities. Whenever that system collapses, the country will be left with an endless desert of concrete, unfit for anything but reflecting heat. I've been wondering for a while what we're going to do with it. How do you reuse laid concrete? Can it be shattered and used as building materials somehow? Is there a way to dissolve it? So much money gone into something that's ultimately going to be a waste-- there has to be something we can do with it.

Overextension never did anybody any good. The British Empire overextended; look where it got them. Look where it got every other empire that ever dared... imperialize. (I like impericize better; can I use that?) If you spread your feet too far apart, you're going to fall over eventually. Modern suburbanism is a form of hyperextension that can only go on for as long as an extensive support system is in place. When it becomes too expensive to support, it's all going to collapse. I used to think that city life was polluting and wasteful. Now I'm realizing that the suburban lifestyle, as it's currently conducted, is the real evil.

I'm going through graduate schools now, making a list, checking it twice, etc. I'm looking for big, interesting cities with state universities where I can study urban planning affordably. Suggestions are welcome. :)

(This entry is brought to you mostly courtesy of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I have been doing a lot of thinking about this stuff latetly, thanks to this amazing book. Go read it!)


    relevant blog

  2. Thanks! That's really interesting. (Sorry for the delayed response.)