I made a presentation the other day entitled “Teachable Cities.” I looked at 10 cities from around the world that had lessons for us as we shape our own urban places, lessons about water and waterfronts, about cars and traffic, about alternate forms of urban mobility, and about constructing or reconstructing a public realm meant for us to inhabit rather than to whiz through, and past.
During the conversation that followed the presentation, someone asked me this: “In the cities you have visited, what is the single biggest problem you have discovered?” I think they thought I would say cars. I said this:
Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon – Vietnam
Mumbai, India (yes, that’s a temple folks are lined up to enter)
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Near Bangkok, Thailand
No city is unscathed. Perhaps a better word is uncompromised. Some cities have fared better than others (often for complex reasons mixing intent with serendipity), and perhaps a top ten list would make an interesting post sometime. But the loss of the local, or the supplanting of the local with the not-local has done enormous damage to our places of human habitation. And I am not talking here about locally grown free-range chicken. Well, not about chicken alone.
Our own American version of this phenomenon looks like this:
Or if we’re feeling particularly cranky, like this:
Increasingly, from Lima to Louisville, everywhere is more and more like everywhere else. By design. In fact we have devised whole building types that assure that we have no idea where we are. A good example: airports.
You might not believe me if I told you where these places are, but they are on four different continents, and yet they are completely indistinguishable. From the top: Toronto, Warsaw, Sao Paolo and Singapore. No local chickens to be seen here….
In futureworld, those places that are most resilient, most able to withstand the vagaries of change in whatever form it may come, those places that are most rooted in their local soil, most like themselves, least tempted to appear in any way to be like somewhere else, are those places that will thrive most gracefully, most successfully.
Or to say this in a different way, if you can choose to be anywhere (thanks to technology and global economics) won’t you choose to be somewhere unique? Won’t you choose to be somewhere that is not like everywhere else? Current analysis says yes, you will.
Take a look at this listing of the value of local character, compiled by the Ministry of Environment in New Zealand:
“Key findings (of our study include):
Urban design that respects and supports local character can:
•attract highly-skilled workers and high-tech businesses
•help in the promotion and branding of cities and regions
•potentially add a premium to the value of housing
•reinforce a sense of identity among residents, and encourage them to help actively manage their neighbourhood
•offer people meaningful choices between very distinctive places, whose differences they value
•encourage the conservation and responsible use of non-renewable resources.”
Readers: the local is nice, and homey, and makes us feel good. AND – don’t miss this – the local is worth real dollars.
At the heart of any place – Rochester, for example – are a host of specific details that are of enormous importance to any real place, any place that values its local character. Geography – eight miles from a Great Lake on a river flowing north, with a waterfall in its midst. History – a canal makes a hamlet into a city thanks to the relentless lobbying of the guy the place is named after. Climate – 120 inches of snow in the winter, a relatively short growing season, and a great place for grapes, apples, peaches. People – one particularly successful businessman caused the establishment of countless institutions of culture and education. Neighbors – in 1975, the Swillburg neighbors succeeded in assassinating an expressway that would have leveled their quarter of the city, and truly wrecked the place beyond the mid-century car debris that was already everywhere. We have a lot of local that we can foreground – certainly better than we do now – as we build our local “brand.”
It is increasingly important that we resist any force for homogeneity exerted on our home places.
While it is perhaps true that the Ginza in Tokyo (above), or Times Square, or Piccadilly in London derive their characters from the presence of non-local schlock (Ricoh is a Japanese company we admit), and interestingly they are oddly quite similar, study after study underscores that we want to live a local life, and a local life has substantial economic value.
And now it’s time to find our way home.