What It’s Like to Live in a Non-Place

November 6, 2014

The contrast was stark, the transition unsettling. We entered the subway on West 86th, near where it meets Central Park West, with the sounds of horns, children’s screams and sirens ringing in our ears. We could see the local grocer, and the homeless man who had staked out his piece of sidewalk. It smelled like pretzels and sewers and fresh coffee. A whole world existed within a couple of blocks, colliding, shattering, unfolding all around us. When we finally emerged from the city’s depths, four (delayed) trains and three hours later, we were in the stark white arena of the airport terminal. Staff wore uniforms. The walls were white. It smelled faintly of citrus floor cleaner. It was hard to tell it was New York City at all. There was no hyper-local culture here, only the dehumanizing experience of being trapped in a tunnel with numerous angry strangers while being shuttled between one drab and unfamiliar station to the next, followed by being made to feel less valuable than my luggage by the vast majority of the airport staff.

If you have ever been to an international airport, you probably know how we felt. This is a non-specific experience for a non-specific age. Travel is dehumanizing precisely because it is efficient, and often takes place as a transitional stage between places, not as a destination in itself. In fact, we experience this a number of ways as the world copies and pastes bits of itself over and over in different countries.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tal Bright

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tal Bright

And yet we crave uniqueness and belonging. This is why many of us travel for pleasure in the first place, to experience new ways of living. It’s also the reason neighbourhood restaurants still survive in an era of chain restaurants’ economies of scale, and why Cheers makes people sigh with nostalgia. Online, we carefully cultivate very specific and personalized networks of imagined communities in the virtual world, circles of people who share our interests or backgrounds. We celebrate the nooks and crannies of places.

A few posts ago, I wrote about what makes cities great, in the form of a Hierarchy of Urban Needs, and suggested that at the top level (the “self-actualization” stage), a city becomes a beacon that represents ideals. Through a virtuous process, as a city of the imagination, it attracts others who identify with what it represents and who work to build networks within it and help it achieve its potential. It becomes a place.

And the opposite…

Just as it is said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, the opposite of places that draw people in and foster their passions must be a generic, interchangeable non-place, a freeway, perhaps, or an airport or suburban shopping mall. This concept of the non-place, or non-lieu in the language of its birth, was initially put forward by Marc Augé, a French anthropologist. Augé has defined non-lieux as “spaces in which no lasting social relations are established.”  These are generic anyplaces that are unknown but somehow familiar, in the sense that instead of this particular grocery store you could be at any grocery store, in any town in North America (or, with a few tweaks in language and symbols, the world).

Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniele Frediani

Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniele Frediani

Non-lieux are notable for producing unanimity, and also for their ability to dehumanize. If people are just passing through, there is obviously a benefit to utilitarianism and ease of use, both of which often come at the expense of beauty or uniqueness. (Think: bus stations, highways, or airports.) And there is little incentive for those doing the passing to improve the spaces, or individualize them, rendering them anonymous. [1]

I have been grappling in my everyday life with the sense of being in a non-lieu for a while, and wondering if (ironically) it is the place I’m in that lends itself to such unspecificity. I stumbled across a description of where I live recently that seems to sum this idea up perfectly, and it’s worth quoting at length (particularly for lovers of Burt Bacharach tunes):

Reflecting on the tune, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” [Dionne] Warwick was quoted as saying: “It’s a beautiful little city. I was made an honorary citizen. I’m accused of putting it on the map and overpopulating it.”

I contemplated that statement for a long, long time. She was accused of putting the city on the map. Not thanked, not congratulated, not applauded, but accused. For me, it put everything into perspective, since now, 40 years later, it often seems like many people in San Jose still don’t want to city the be known for anything. They live here because they don’t want it to be an interesting place.

In my opinion, the San Jose condition will always involve the conflict between urban and suburban, small town and big town, or what constitutes a “major city” and what doesn’t.

A-ha! A veritable non-place in my midst, and one I’ve written about before as feeling transitional, and slightly unrooted. It’s ironic, really, because that song is about how San Jose is an anchor that provides a home and peace of mind in contrast to the “great big freeway” that is L.A. (another non-place!).

But I have started to wonder about the distinction between somewhere being a non-place generally, and a non-place to me. As Augé says, in non-lieux one finds “a total absence of symbolic ties, and evident social deficits.” This sounds a lot like the experience of being an immigrant, doesn’t it?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Emerson

Image courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Emerson

Moving to a new city can feel like entering a “non-place.” As a newcomer, you are unfamiliar with its norms. You move inefficiently through it because you aren’t aware of traffic patterns or even the geography. You have yet to demarcate what will become the familiar signposts of your life (the coffee shop on your way to work with the friendly staff; the quirky graffiti on the brick wall near your apartment; the alley you cut through as a shortcut that erupts into a riot of flowers and stray saplings each spring).

Changing places

And thus a non-place might be a matter of time, not of the place itself. Usually a sense of place is built with repeated exposure. Little parts of a space become “yours” and you build community through enjoying them with others. Eventually you begin to share your discoveries, recommending restaurants, giving directions, and encouraging others to join you there. You might even join a community group to improve it in some way, to give back what you gain.

Non-places may also just be another word for loneliness. I read recently that space “has been viewed as container of populations with particular demographic characteristics, and as stage on which networks of social interaction take place. The boundaries of spatial experience are seen to coincide with a social world rather than with a particular area.”[2] In this way places hold different meanings for different people at different times. Perhaps they are only non-places insofar as they are lacking in connection, not anything inherent to the spaces themselves. Airline employees feel differently about an airport that they see every day than passengers who are just visiting once. Those who feel more rooted contribute more to platemaking, and this can be to the detriment of the diversity of the place since newcomers don’t often feel this way.

A place in time?

A place, in time? [3]

It seems that the strength of a place is in its social bonds. [4] In order for places not to feel like the hotel rooms, supermarkets, and airports Augé talks about, we need to invest in them. So in order to feel rooted, I’ve learned I had to give something of myself away. Even in generic suburbs, which Augé wrote were (merely) areas of “circulation, communication, and consumption,” people eventually develop an affinity or sense of rootedness based on having grown up or lived there, and known others there. They become … places.

So here’s hoping for a place, in time, for everyone passing through a non-place time, whether airport or grocery store or city. Explore. Connect. Make it count.

Some Notes

1 It should be said that some airports have tried to overcome this sense of placelessness. I saw one excellent exhibit on Louis Comfort Tiffany and another on old and new doors from around the world while waiting for a late-night flight out of San Francisco Airport recently.

2 This is from a lovely 1976 essay by Anne Buttimer titled Grasping the Dynamism of the Lifeworld.

3 There are roughy five thousand photos on flickr of signs to SJ, riffing on the song. This is one of them, courtesy of user John ‘K’.

4  I’ve just realized that a suitable one-line summary of this post/blog, and my life, may be: Social capital is the answer; I don’t care about the question! Thank you, Robert Putnam.

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For the love of the car: how our desire for autonomy has taken us — and our cities — hostage

October 30, 2014

One bright March morning, a seventy-year-old man set out from New York City Hall, aiming to walk across the United States to San Francisco — in 100 days. He encountered terrible roads, uncooperative weather, and more than the occasional blister. But, as a professional pedestrian, this was his life’s work: walking, often more than 50 miles a day.

The walk occurred in 1909, and is the subject of a marvellous new book by Wayne Curtis titled The Last Great Walk. The man was Edward Payson Weston, who was credited with the rapid rise to fame of pedestrianism as a career choice in the late nineteenth century.

Highway crossing

How could someone attempt such a feat today? Sadly, even with an iron will and an uncommon constitution, it would be near impossible to replicate. The land along the route has been parceled out and privatized nearly the whole way, and most of the roads Weston walked are now interstates or other major highways. We’d probably just drive it instead.

Bipedalism has yielded to the speed, convenience, and autonomy of four wheels. But what have we lost, in gaining the automobile?

Treading lightly upon the Earth, then taking over

Obviously, the environmental concerns are well-known. Single-passenger cars emit over 10 times more greenhouse gases (through their production, use and disposal) than bicycles do in their lifetimes. Add to that the sheer cost of having one, two or more cars per household (the North American average is about $10 000 per year) and the toll on our bodies of sitting at a wheel rather than moving on our own steam. It’s a huge cost.

In a book designed to introduce children to various modes of transit, Brazilian architect, mayor and urbanist Jaime Lerner characterizes the auto (“Otto”) as a grumpy and irascible character. “He is invited for a party, he never wants to leave. The chairs are on the tables, and still drinking — and he drinks a lot. And he coughs a lot. And he asks always for more … He’s very demanding person.” Demanding: more freeways, more parking, more space. (Accordion the bus, in contrast, can carry 300 Brazilians “or 275 in Sweden.”)

What’s wrong with this picture? Imagine planning your parties around someone like Otto – drunk, egotistical, demanding. And yet this is exactly what we have done with the automobile. We have planned our lives around it. We keep building more and wider roads to manage congestion, when more roads only lead more people to take up driving, which exacerbates the problem. And we’ve paved paradise, everywhere, to put up parking lots that are underutilized to the tune of billions of dollars, covering land that could be used for parks, residential buildings or open public space.

Yet living without a car is still an unusual (and in some places suspect) lifestyle choice. Few would give up their wheels, even with the downsides, because of how we’ve planned our cities and neighbourhoods, often without reasonable alternative transit options. We’re trapped in our car dependency.

old Ford sharpened

It’s ironic, because when they first came on the scene in the early 1900s, cars were heralded as freedom on four wheels, a return to democracy after the previous century of rail tyranny. Unlike trains, which were fixed to specific routes that may or may not have led to where you wanted to go, automobiles could be driven door to door. They were touring vehicles par excellence that would allow unparalleled access to the corners of the world. In a car you could get as close to nature as you wanted. You could drive right into a national park and appreciate its sublime beauty. And thus automobiles were seen as a way to feel closer to nature.

Gone too were the days of segregated rail cars by class, the luxury of the Pullmans with their route-specific china and flatware contrasting mightily with the wooden benches of third class. Automobiles would be available to all comers. (Never mind that the only people who could afford cars in their first decade or so had to be wealthy enough to lay out the cash for the machine in the first place, then have enough time to spend fixing its inevitable breakdowns, or paying someone else to do so. In this way they were the early-twentieth-century equivalent of Tesla owners driving from one battery swap station to another.)

VW Ad 1980s

Democratic, autonomous, “natural.” It didn’t work out that way.

Ego-pods

We all know cars are a status symbol. Having one at all still signifies independence, and the type further distinguishes the economizer from the sport racer from the lover of luxury. Cars became a $1.7 trillion business because, like all consumer goods, they form part of the image we want to project to the world. They feed our egos.

Transit by automobile has proven to be a significant factor in dividing societies. Consider commuting: for most of human history, people lived where they worked, or very nearby. A daily commute in the nineteenth-century was more likely to take those who could afford it further from their workplaces into better neighbourhoods. But even then communities remained relatively heterogeneous because it was difficult to go any serious distance on a daily basis.

Jam

Today most North Americans commute an average of 30 minutes per day, and mostly by car. The ability to cover a greater geographical distance day-to-day has resulted in “privatopias,” communities segregated by economics, politics and other affinities. In the Bay Area, reports of 60-mile commutes (almost 2 hours each way in traffic) to work a minimum-wage job in an area that doesn’t support its employees being able to live there are not uncommon. So we end up with communities segregated so much they barely interact, and know so little of each other it becomes easy to forget they even exist. Contrasted with the interactions or even just exposure that walking, biking or transit can provide, it’s easy to see how automobiles increase social distance.

Of course, California has a historic and well-known car dependency. Where I live, in the downtown core of one of the ten largest cities in America, automobiles are still the undisputed kings of the roads. Sidewalks end abruptly, and without warning. Properties are evaluated by their distance from local freeways (the more quickly one can get stuck in traffic the better, it seems). In the lead-up to an interview with the local public transportation agency, a friend received directions to the nearest parking lot.

The light from the oncoming big yellow taxi

Yet things are looking up. With over 50% of the world’s population now living in cities, forward-thinking planners are building better non-automobile transit options every year. The rise of the so-called sharing economy and with it companies like Uber, Zipcar and BikeShare mean people no longer need to privatize the utility of time and place, and can have a more flexible relationship to cars without ownership. Every year more parking spaces are turned into “parklets,” even if just for a day, to show the alternatives to having huge swaths of land dedicated to parking spaces. People under 30 are buying fewer cars than their 1980s equivalents. And not owning a car is a kind of new status symbol, one that shows a sense of environmental acuity.

Park(ing) Day

But until we take to the streets — literally — to make them what they used to be, public ways for all and not just a place for four-wheeled speeding bullets, the dominance of the automobile will continue. It’s worth remembering the ways traversed by our pedestrian hero Edward Payson Weston, who completed his 4000-mile walk to San Francisco on schedule, even while taking Sundays as rest days. Some years later, he was hit by a taxicab in New York City, and never walked again.

So consider not taking the car today. Take a walk and smile at a fellow traveller. Ponder how healthy it is to be outside using your feet. Fall in love with a building detail you can only see from the pavement.

Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.


How people we hardly know cause us to have more serendipitous, lonelier, busier lives 

April 11, 2014

Imagine you live in a small town, circa 1750. Your daily life is spent working – maybe farming, or maybe you make shoes or are a teacher. You eat, drink, sleep, look after children, and socialize. Your social circle consists of others in the same class and gender, for the most part, and you will most likely spend your whole life living with, farming with, marrying into, reproducing with, and dying with the other families that live in your village.  You know these people really, really well.

Perhaps someone in your family emigrates – to London, or to one of the settlement colonies, say – and so you spend a bit of time every month writing letters to them, but know that it’s a bit pointless, because anyone who had moved more than a few hundred miles away would likely never come back. Every so often a traveller or vagrants will come by, and sometimes people will move in or away, but for the most part social circles are set. There is no networking to change your lot in life, or make new friends, just living.

Now imagine the richness and diversity of your current social circle. It is probably more like a multi-national organization than a village. It probably includes people living in several countries, from different backgrounds. It is probably quite large. You probably don’t know many of them very well, but may spend a lot of time, like I do, writing emails, talking on the phone, or communicating in other ways with them. I spend much of what time I have leftover in my day feeling guilty that I haven’t spent more time writing more emails or making more phone calls. When I lived in Toronto, I must have had 25 people at any given time that I had honestly been meaning to “catch up” with for about six months. Now I live further away, it is even more important (and time-consuming) to keep up links with everyone back “home.” (I am that immigrant mentioned above! Doubly so. So many letters.)

Of course, this doesn’t even include time spent on the more common definition of “networking” – the kind that makes me want to take a shower – which is to purposefully make connections with the hope of them being useful at some point hence, in a search for a new job or piece of advice.

Network Proliferation

The abundance of methods of communication and social networking technologies has made all kinds of networking almost unconscious, but quite time-consuming. Modern networks are kept alive by either the acceptance of an inferior means of communication (email, letters, FaceTime) as satisfactory grounds to sustain them, or the faint hope of a better way of interacting occurring again in the future. But it appears that quality decreases even as time spent increases, and we are left accepting many more threads of connection without time to forge many into lasting companions.

If we are being honest, it is highly impractical to spend so much time maintaining friendships with friends of friends, those who live outside of our immediate geography, or people who were major players in our lives years ago but no longer cross our minds very often. So why do we do it? What is so inherently appealing about having far-flung networks of others who share our interests and experiences?

I see the main points of the cost-benefit analysis as follows:

  • The social inclusion high. With the breakdown of actual barriers of geography through telecommunications and easier global travel, and imagined barriers of social class, we are much more likely to find others who share commonalities with us. And most of us are willing to spend time and energy building a social circle of like-minded peers, over and above the time and energy required to simply exist in the world with those who may not necessarily (e.g. colleagues, extended family members, baristas at the coffee shop, the mailman, etc.).
  • Imagined future benefits. Slightly more self-serving, but no doubt also a factor is the potential usefulness of knowing an old travel companion who lives in Auckland, NZ in case you ever need a place to stay, or a contact in the federal government in case of a future career change. This is, basically, the only reason LinkedIn exists.
  • Guilt. It’s harder to terminate a relationship than keep it vaguely open-ended. It is much easier to have friends from elementary school connected by a thin thread on a Facebook feed than acknowledge that there is no real reason to be part of each other’s lives. In this case the cost may be low (provided they don’t constantly spam us with game requests or multiple smarmy medical school acceptance status updates), but it also makes me wonder if our village-dwelling ancestors were more comfortable with saying goodbye and just letting go of outdated relationships.

Dunbar redux

There are very real advantages to having large, loose networks of connections, but the cost of all of this network upkeep is time and anxiety. According to a well-known study by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the optimal size of a human’s social network is about 150. This number refers to how many people we can cognitively sustain stable relationships with, and is directly related to the size (and thus functionality) of our neocortex. (For a fantastic and hilarious illustration of Dunbar’s number, see this piece.)

Dunbar’s number has obvious applicability to real-world organizations, but has more recently also been found to apply to our online social networks, in the number of people we frequently interact with online. But with ever-larger networks to maintain, something has to give: the quality of the relationship, the amount of time humans are willing to spend communicating with others, or a shift in our physiology so that we are able to cognitively adjust to a greater size of stable connections.

It seems that quality is the first thing to go. A 2007 study showed that Facebook has many positive social attributes, in that it enables us to “keep tabs” on others very easily, thus “convert[ing] latent ties into weak ties,” increasing the serendipity factor in our lives. As is already widely known, however, it also carries costs. The constant identity curation necessitated by Facebook and similar social networks is exhausting. We want to project an image of ourselves as (relatively) happy, successful and social. It’s stressful, and it also makes us lonely.

I pick on Facebook, but we use the same techniques to keep up appearances across networks with all of our weak ties, and this is facilitated by not being near people for sustained periods of time in person. And it isn’t just in our personal lives. Image production has become an increasingly useful skill for knowledge workers who have to justify the value of their work through self-promotion or “personal branding,” either within an organization to get that excellent performance review, or to win more business as a sole proprietor. Such conscious displays of our better sides (I won’t go so far as to say artifice) would have been impossible to keep up in the village with so many strong ties and so few weak ones.

Back to the village…

Perhaps it is a symptom of our modern greed that we expect to have so much capital interpersonally and intellectually, as well as physically. Since we have “progressed” beyond the village, we can now create and maintain more opportunities: opportunities for more knowledge about the world, more interesting friends, better social activities, and better jobs. This is good news if you don’t want to be a shoemaker who sees the same 50 people every year for the rest of your life, but bad news if you want to have an empty inbox and be ulcer-free.

I see it as a social manifestation of the “paradox of choice” (a book I highly recommend for anyone feeling swamped by choice). Having more options actually makes us less happy, because the stress inherent in choosing between them, and the time it takes to do so, often outweighs the potential benefits of a better choice (if there even is a better choice). More weak ties naturally means more choice, and more stress.

So maybe those who withdraw from frequent socializing are (intentionally or not) limiting their options, and maybe they are happier for it. They moved back to a slightly bigger village, and they’re enjoying the lifestyle.


What makes a city great? Toward a hierarchy of urban needs

April 3, 2014

A few years ago I created a conceptual model of national needs, shown below, based on Maslow’s hierarchy of (personal) needs. It has become one of the most read posts on this blog, indicating that our identification with both nations and Maslow’s framework both continue to resonate today, decades after their creation.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Some context: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, for individuals

Of course, it is difficult to map the idea of progressive needs of an individual cleanly to a political entity. Nations, like people, continue to evolve, and the role of nations in the world is changing too. Nonetheless, the idea of a hierarchy, in which basic needs must be satisfied before one can progress to a higher level of actualization and fulfilling one’s whole potential, can be applied to countries in various stages of development.

Since writing my National Needs post in 2010, a new country was created in South Sudan. It is still struggling (as indeed are many other nations) with the lowest level of securing territorial integrity and peaceful borders, and this remains its primary focus. The struggle for survival must come before feelings of security, esteem and morality.

Exon's Hierarchy of National Needs (Click for a larger version)

Exon [Smith]’s Hierarchy of National Needs, c. 2010 (Click for a larger version)

Yet there are other geographical entities with which we commonly identify, and which are becoming more and more important as centres of culture and economy as a greater percentage of the world’s population moves into them: cities. It is estimated that for the first time in human history, more people live in urban areas than outside of them, and cities are becoming important political players in their own right.

Since moving to California in late 2013 (and spending a lot of time on the Atlantic Cities channel), I have been thinking about how fundamentally important cities are. What makes them truly great? What makes them “cities” at all, in a sense apart from the obvious population requirements? For example, I live in San Jose, which is the third largest city in California, ahead of San Francisco in both population and area, and yet its own inhabitants curiously refer to San Francisco as “the city.” Why? What has to happen for a place to transform into a world-class city from a mere urban area?

So, as I am wont to do, I created a new model to explore the needs of a city, also along the lines of Maslow. I’m calling it the “Hierarchy of Urban Needs.” Note that I am assuming that this city exists within the context of a nation that ensures the rights and privileges of, as well as general governance over, its citizens.  Some discussion of the stages is below.

hierarchy1.pdf.001

Exon Smith’s hierarchy of urban needs (Click for a larger version)

Basic services 

At the most fundamental level, cities need key services delivered in an efficient and cost-effective way. (This is true even if such services aren’t necessarily paid for by the cities themselves, as is the case with, say, healthcare in Canadian cities.) This includes fire, police, and ambulance services; waste management; housing inspections to ensure both safety and affordability of housing; water treatment, and the like. For many cities, this means being able to control the tax base and be able to levy taxes on the population as necessary.

World-class cities will also have exceptional healthcare options and a focus on sustainability woven through even these fundamentals, such as extensive recycling and compost programs. San Francisco, for example, deploys teams to examine what its residents recycle properly and what they don’t so the city can mount better educational campaigns.

Of course, the basic running of the city must be free of corruption, and be able to pay its bills so it avoids a Detroit-like bankruptcy claim, or the succession of mayors Montreal has recently had.

Infrastructure

Historically, cities developed around major ports and, later, railway depots. Even today, no major cities exist without some kind of harbour, airport, train station or freeway linking them with the outside world. Inter-city transportation, undergirded by solid infrastructure, is a critical component of economic progress.

Cities with poor transit are at a huge disadvantage. Jakarta, a city of nearly ten million people, and the largest city of its size with no metro of any kind, has notoriously been working on an underground transit network for 20 years. Traffic congestion is thought to cost the city $1 billion a year. In another cautionary tale, it can take 12 hours to travel 40 miles in Lagos, Nigeria, and the way is fraught with crime and other dangers, a threat to legitimate trade.

Intra-city transportation is also a key factor, and how best to support the movement of people within a city is a subject of almost universal debate. Subways vs. light rail, bike lanes vs. car lanes, pedestrian-only roads and congestion pricing – these are major issues for all cities, and the thinking on public transportation keeps evolving.

This is one area in which San Jose currently struggles but has big plans for the future. My theory is that older cities, built before car use was predominant, have an easier time planning for pedestrian and bike access. Those (like San Jose) that were built after the advent of freeways and a Cadillac for every nuclear family tend to struggle to retrofit density in the downtown core when its points of interest are already quite far-flung.

And yet. San Jose is a critical location for high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as a hub for transportation around the San Francisco Bay (linking to San Francisco and Oakland), and has reserved space downtown for new transit links. It is planning for increased density to accompany the new transportation. Hopefully use of public transportation within city limits will also increase, because at the moment the city is hugely dependent on the car. Inefficient public transit routes poorly serve the population, resulting in, for example, 78% (!) of San Jose commuters travelling to work in single-occupancy vehicles.

Central Park

Infrastructure also includes sewers and other large-scale public works, including parks and other green space. More and more research indicates that green spaces make for happier communities, and many major cities can be identified by their parks alone (e.g. Central Park, Golden Gate Park, Bois du Boulogne, Sanjay Gandhi National Park). As I’ve said before, I love sewers, water mains and bridges, personally, and think more campaigns should be fought around securing funding for them. The recent, tragic gas explosion in Harlem only underlines the need to think the way the Victorians did about how cities really run and how we can leave a legacy for the future that is perhaps not glamourous, but that is critically important. One of Toronto’s great strengths, as is the case in many other cities, is the numerous cranes on the skyline building new architectural wonders (as well as a few duds). Would that we could focus on what lies beneath the soil as well.

A brief interlude on mayors…

Thinking about these lower levels of needs, it strikes me that the level of a city’s discourse (and thus position on this hierarchy) can often be seen through the lens of its mayoral elections. Toronto’s 2010 (as most likely will its 2014) election centered on the issues of transportation and waste in providing city services, leaving little room for discussion of higher-order issues (such as, ahem, drug use among elected officials). New York’s 2013 election, in which Bill de Blasio won almost three quarters of the votes, turned largely on issues of income inequality and pre-kindergarden education, the next level in my hierarchy. And the major issues of London’s 2012 election, won by incumbent Boris Johnson and his hair, were the economy, tackling crime, public transportation, and affordable housing.

Boris, Campaigning on Transit

Boris: Campaigning on Transit

It makes sense that the basics need to be taken care of, and continually improved upon, before a successful cultural scene can take root, in the same way that humans must be fed and watered, feel physically and emotionally safe, and feel a sense of belonging before they can achieve self-actualization.

…and then back to the hierarchy: Educational and research institutions

A strong educational foundation at every level is critical, and a well-educated population requires relative equality in the quality of schools. This is one of the main reasons cities should not fund their schools through neighbourhood taxes (and thus subject schools to the vagaries of house prices), as many cities in the United States do.  A well-educated citizenry contributes more to the economy than a poorly-educated one.

The presence of leading research and teaching institutions draws in talent and sows the seeds of innovation, which is why “cluster economies” such as Silicon Valley are the next big thing, because they focus research and development into localities with populations educated enough to feed them with employees. Every one of the world’s greatest cities has a leading university at its heart, without exception – this cannot be a coincidence.

Diversity is the key here. Cities built around just one industry are like monocultures: potentially dominant for a short while, but vulnerable to disastrous decline. Take any of the grand old cities in the Rust Belt: Buffalo, for example, was one of America’s greatest cities one hundred years ago, built on a strong grain-milling and shipping/railroad industry. After almost a century of decline, it is, well, no longer great – but it has managed to slow the decline by diversifying into the education and medical fields. Glasgow, once the premier city of Scotland, faced a similar decline due to its emphasis on a resource-based economy and de-emphasis on education.

Robust arts, sports and cultural scene

This stage is where the jump occurs from a merely livable city to one that is great. A safe, well-run, working city is lovely, but a city with a thriving cultural scene is one to fall in love with. In fact, social offerings, a broad category encompassing art, music, sport, religion and other community activities, are among the most significant contributing factors to residents’ feelings of attachment to their community. This is even above security or the state of the economy.

This stage of course includes both major municipal institutions such as museums, symphonies and ballets, but also spontaneous or smaller-scale, citizen-led activities. Being able to participate in a Sing-A-Long Messiah or see an independent movie at a film festival is as important as having the Bolshoi nearby, and also makes the arts more accessible to a wider population. Having Old Trafford around the corner is great, but so is the local curling league.

Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art

 

An arts and culture scene, moreover, is a key driver of tourism, which in turn feeds the economy on general feeling of being in a place worth being. (Just imagine Paris without the Louvre, or New York without the Empire State Building.) Older cities naturally have an advantage here because of the in-built history in ancient cathedrals, palaces or public art, but some newer cities have benefited by investing heavily in creating an arts scene. Doha, once little more than an oily afterthought, is planning for the time when its resources run out by creating a strong film industry and thriving place for modern art. It is also newly host to a major international economic forum, and will host the 2022 World Cup. (Probably.)

Openness to influence; becoming a symbolic beacon

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free !

These words adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty  and represent what I have spoken of before, being a city of the imagination. These cities are the subject of books, films, Broadway musicals, and countless daydreams, and have a romance and level of impact that serves to draw people to them, for a visit or for good.

These cities, in turn, receive their tourists and immigrants in a more or less accommodating way, taking from them the best of their cultures and using that to strengthen and further diversify the metropolis. Cuzco, Islamic Seville, and the Florence of the Medici were all historical examples of the power of such “mixing bowls” of culture: out of their cultural milieu came the starting point for a massive empire, the Golden Age of exploration, and the Uffizi Gallery. Modern equivalents spring to mind precisely because they have this pull on our hearts and minds.

The last two levels of the hierarchy are quite iterative: the greater the cultural scene and economy, the greater draw a city has for immigrants, who then enrich the culture further. It is difficult to find a world-class city without a large percentage of immigrants, who bring with them new traditions, great ideas, ambition, and excellent food. It is in fact difficult to overestimate the importance – both historically and in the present day – of immigrants to cities’ successes, which is why openness to influence and disruption may be the most important trait a city can have.

 

So there’s the model. I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Nations of Extroverts and the Friendliness of Americans

February 3, 2014

Picture this: a bus full of people, mid-day on a Tuesday. A passenger with a seeing-eye dog chatters away about her experiences to the lady beside her, who also has a dog. She then asks a family visiting from Italy what sights they have seen in the area. Further back, two men joke about how their knees are too old to bend sufficiently to fit into the seats. When one gets off the bus, he shakes the other’s hand, saying “Pleasure to meet you!” An elderly couple asks a young, pregnant woman about her children and say “God Bless!” to every passenger that exits the bus.

This is a typical bus ride in San José, at least in my experience riding public transit. Far from scowling at the lack of elbow room, passengers seem to use their proximity to other travellers as an excuse to strike up a new friendship, or at least pleasant conversation for the duration of the ride. On my way back from a book club once, a man told me about his opinion of every Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje book he’d read after finding out I was a recent transplant from Canada.

It’s all very unusual for me, and left me wondering: why are Americans so friendly? Several transplants I know from Europe think it must be false, that a waitress in a restaurant can’t genuinely care whether you liked your cajun pasta or had a good day – but is it?

To get a sense of whether there might be a national character at all, and if that might explain my transit experiences, I looked into what is often referred to by psychologists as the “Big 5 Inventory” personality test, or “five-factor model,” which measures the following traits:

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

My hypothesis was that Americans might, on a stereotypical, national level, score highly on the extroversion and agreeableness scales. Many have noted that at least two thirds of Americans are extroverted (see, for example, Susan Cain’s excellent book and TED talk on Introversion), and high levels of extroversion have also been correlated with traits such as assertiveness and individualism, other behaviours oft noted as common to Americans.

I wasn’t the first to have this idea. I recommend watching this short video, which maps out the Big 5 by nation:

It’s a fascinating study, and largely confirms that Americans are likely to be, on average, more extroverted than people from other nations, and more agreeable. They are also more calm and “hardy” than the average, and able to withstand setbacks, and are extraordinarily conscientious and disciplined.   These would all seem to be important traits for immigrants seeking to build new lives and a new nation.

The French, to take a comparison, are among the most introverted nations on the map. They also tend toward disagreeableness and prefer stability and routine to variety and new experiences. (Interestingly, they are very organized and conscientious, even more so than their German neighbours, which may surprise some in European politics.) An individual with these traits would undoubtedly find the can-do friendliness of the stereotypical American quite unpleasant, and the American, in his turn, would find the reserved Frenchman similar to the fellow below (which I found while searching for “American perceptions of French people”):

Image

It would also seem that my experiences in Argentina were not abnormal: Argentines, according to this video, also tend to be disagreeable, yet quite calm and emotionally stable, enjoying variety. This would explain the tendency we noticed to shrug in an irate fashion and bemoan the state of the economy with no expectation of it changing, then stomp off to dance a tango.

It may also be possible to explain the friendliness of Americans as a lack of the formality and respect for hierarchy that characterizes many Old World nations. There is no easy correlation with any one five-factor model trait here, but it would make sense that a society founded on principles of extreme meritocracy would support individuals bypassing the usual deferences common to aristocracy and other Old World power structures. If all men are created equal, why not say hello to those tourists on the bus?

A side note

Their friendliness doesn’t spare Americans the derision of the world in other areas. Keying in “why are Americans so…” into a search box does not yield very friendly autofill results: “stupid” and “ignorant” are the most common hits.

This perception might also be explained by the Big 5 model. In the “Openness to Experience” dimension, Americans score at a fairly average level. Examples of this trait include being “intellectually curious, open to emotion, interested in art, and willing to try new things.” (Denmark scores highest on this trait. Might explain Lego, The Little Mermaid, and vikings.)

Certainly, Americans are inventive and curious. However, many have also noted a national pride that can extend to an inward focus, a lack of interest in or awareness of the world outside its borders. The persistent and oft-debated data point of fewer than a third of Americans having passports would support an argument for isolationism.

Why bother to travel, though, if everyone will only respond to their friendly overtures with disagreeableness and scorn? Fortunately, there is a place where, according to this map, the locals are even more friendly, sympathetic, and kind, perhaps so much so that they’re willing to forgive some old bad blood and show American tourists around…

Russia.

Have fun at Sochi.


Some Loose Thoughts on Americans and Trains

March 9, 2011

Apparently there is a movie version of Atlas Shrugged coming out soon, and while I have neither seen it nor read the book (something I plan to remedy within the next month or so), I have read a few of the many criticisms and laments out there about the book and philosophies contained within it. These come from all sides of the political spectrum, but one of the more interesting ones to me concerns the role of infrastructure and the changing nature of support among conservatives and libertarians for large-scale rail projects on American soil. While Ayn Rand’s magnum opus features libertarian railroad moguls who plough vast sums into railroad development, railroads today are pariahs of American transportation infrastructure, and to none more so than the political right.

David Weigel on Slate summarizes the opposition to high-speed rail (and rail in general) from the American right mainly as opposition to state subsidies. There is a widespread belief that money pours from government coffers into railroads – at a cost to the taxpayer of between 13 and 30 cents per passenger, compared with between 1 and 4 cent subsidies for highways and other roads. Whether these numbers are accurate is not the point of this post; merely the perception of it being true is (as with most subjects in American politics these days) enough to colour the popular and official debate substantially. I’ve heard others comment that rail travel is seen as a form of communism.

The irony of that idea, of course, is that railroad owners were among the first übercapitalists of American business, sucking profits from their trade with an almost monopolistic hold on the industry. Names like Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan and known to us now because many of these obscenely wealthy railroad barons wanted their legacies to live on in the form of grand houses, universities, and other large-scale public charitable works.

I’ve written before about how cars in the early days of automobile travel were seen as a “less technological” option than railroads, more rugged and democratic and, well, American. Travelling by car in those days was both challenging (tires exploding or parts falling off every few miles) and exhilarating (unprecedented access to tourist sites that railroads just didn’t go to). The ideal of the open road, and by extension the “open West,” has echoed down through the annals of American history from beat poets to “Boys of Summer,” and was undergirded by the Eisenhower administration’s creation of the extensive Interstate Freeway System in the 1950s.

But I never picked up on the “communism” angle, in part because that wasn’t a concern or a term bandied about frequently in American political discourse until the second decade of the twentieth century at least. Today, of course, high-speed rail and trains in general aren’t seen as feats of American engineering and technical prowess, but symbols of European- and Chinese-style communism.

Attitudes have changed: both railroads and cars have largely lost their breathless romantic and innovative associations and have become part of the humdrum reality of everyday transportation. Many people view their cars more as prisons (especially when stuck in rush-hour traffic) than gateways to the wonders of nature. And while European-ness today still has some cachet if it involves sitting in a café in Paris on vacation, Americans are confident enough in their own government that they certainly don’t aspire to managing their infrastructure like the Europeans.

The last paragraph of Weigel’s article clearly illustrates the link between railroads, communism and other un-American ideas:

Before and after 9/11, George Will was talking up rail as a way to take more people off planes and make America less vulnerable to terrorists. That argument has more or less vanished. Why? “It helped that somebody bombed a train in Spain,” says O’Toole. “If you concentrate people in one vehicle, then the vehicle is vulnerable. You concentrate society, and it’s vulnerable. So maybe it’s not a good thing to concentrate people.

Makes sense. People concentrated together in one vehicle are vulnerable to attack without the ability to pick up and go whenever and wherever they want to, as in cars. Similarly, people who have a shared and singular collective mindset are vulnerable without the influence of democratic choices. Looks a lot like communism, right? So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised the next time a state governor turns down a billion-dollar high-speed rail line subsidized by the federal government. He’s probably imagining that it’s the last stop on the Lenin line before Revolution Station…


Uruguay: An Outpost of Excitement and Calm

January 29, 2011

There comes a point on holidays when one gets a little tired of picking up and packing up every few days to get on a bus or a boat or a plane. The lack of spices, particularly pepper, starts to take its toll, and one yearns, even just a little, for the comfort and predictability of home. The lyrics of Frank Sinatra’s “It’s Nice to Go Trav’ling” start to play themselves in one’s head (particularly the part about the pizza):

It’s very nice to go trav’ling
But it’s oh so nice to come home

No more customs
Burn the passport
No more packing and unpacking
Light the home fires
Get my slippers
Make a pizza

Fortunately for the weary traveller, the final leg of our month-long journey took us to Uruguay, a calm and stable retreat of a nation across the Río de la Plata. It was just what we needed. Tiny Uruguay, with its fierce but muted pride, moves at its own pace, is confident in its beauty, and feels a world apart from both of the other countries we had visited, despite being culturally and historically very much the same. It is off the typical path for those from outside of South America, which gives it the feeling of being a corner of the world, instead of a thoroughfare.

I still can’t believe this country holds more World Cup victories than England. But more on that later.

Sunset in Colonia

It seems to the casual tourist more a province of another country than one in and of itself – not that I would ever say that to a local. American dollars, Argentinean pesos, and Brazilian reals are accepted almost everywhere, in addition to the local currency. Nearly everybody we met spoke fluent English and Portuguese. Clearly, Uruguayans are aware of the immense value of tourism to their economy. We had seen massive billboards featuring a (surprisingly) smiling Diego Forlán, hero of the 2010 World Cup and recipient of its Golden Ball trophy, on highways across Argentina and Chile, advertising the best of Uruguay: Punta del Este, an Ibiza-like beach resort on the Atlantic coast, Piriápolis, a quieter town that was Uruguay’s first commercial beach resort, and Colonia del Sacramento, a historic trading post and UNESCO World Heritage Site an hour across the river by ferry from Buenos Aires.

Colonia del Sacramento, a calm and quiet retreat across the Rio de la Plata

Our first stop was Colonia, and so we joined the throngs of tourists departing Buenos Aires on the Buquebus rapid ferry that all-but monopolizes transport between the two nations. The old part of the town, known as the Barrio Historico, is about the size of a postage stamp, and is filled with  snap-happy Argentinians (it is a favourite getaway spot for porteños). Buffeted between Spain and Portugal, and later Brazil, for centuries, the town still contains the markers of an old port and defensive outpost: thick, high city walls, cannons, and the remains of the central colonial household that would have been at its heart, along with a neighbouring church. We loved the cobbled streets, old yellow lamps, and central square where we spent the day reading and napping without fear of being attacked. In the evening, as the ferry returned to Argentina, taking most of the day-trippers with it, we sat in a cafe overlooking the river plate, munching on grilled meats and watching the sun set  in a blaze of pink and orange as the lights of Buenos Aires appeared in the distance. Live music spilled out from cafés all around us, and twinkle lights were laced through the trees along the roads. It was a welcome shift from the noise and emotional weight of Buenos Aires, and we could have stayed longer in the peace and quiet.

Our schedule, however, took us on to Montevideo, the nation’s capital, the following morning. Here was a place that seemed content just to exist. Home to about half of the country’s population, most of whom seemed to be out enjoying the city’s many public parks and plazas, Montevideo is simultaneously charming and everyday. Beaux Arts buildings in good repair dot the main streets, interspersed with the typical concrete fare of most cities that grew up after the 1950s. With art galleries, beautiful theatres, and artisan fairs on every street, there is a thriving arts scene. And one can enjoy it all without fear of tripping, as the sidewalks are wonderful. After a week in Buenos Aires, Hubs stopped dead in his tracks and gaped upon seeing a bit of uneven sidewalk that had caution tape around it.

Palacio Salvo, once the tallest building in South America, and still one of the most interesting

Instead of venturing further along the coast to a resort proper, we decided to make Montevideo our base for the remainder of the trip, taking various field trips and enjoying the local wine (tannat), steaks, and excellent beer. A journey on a bus that eventually emptied out completely took us to the city limit, to a beach that was largely untouched with hardly a soul in sight. On the way back we travelled along la rambla (the boardwalk) that stretches for kilometers along the coast and back into the city centre.

And then, the highlight: futbol. Being the height of summer, it was unlikely that we would see a match, but with amazing luck, there was the annual superclásico on our last night there, the oldest major derby outside of Britain, between Uruguayan arch rivals Nacional and Peñarol. It took place at the site of the very first World Cup (and first Uruguayan victory), the 60 000-seat Estadio Centenario, which was packed. The match itself started at 10pm, but there was also a “warm up” match between two foreign club teams beforehand that nobody in the crowd paid any attention to whatsoever, so busy were they chanting, jumping, and banging their giant bass drums. Yes, giant bass drums were allowed in the stadium, as were fireworks, enormous banners that travelled the length of the stands, and smoke machines. Alcohol was not. (The fans didn’t need it, as most were toting the mate mugs ubiquitous in the country, little gourd-like thermoses that contained a liquid resembling strong green tea.)

Smoke and fireworks from the Penarol supporters

It was a very different experience from a Toronto game. On our way we had seen entire city buses taken over by devoted fans in their colours on their way to the match, cheering and hanging out the windows, bus driver and all. The fanfare that greeted the arrival of the two teams on the pitch involved so much confetti, smoke and general excitement that kick-off was delayed while the pitch cleared. And though the passion was tangible, and the volume almost overwhelming, the crowd was happy and I felt safe throughout. Husbands and wives and groups of friends came supporting opposite sides and clapped at all good plays. Most of the second half was 2-1 until (as some had started filing out to avoid the post-game crush) a brilliant goal at 90’+3′ that set the stadium alight with fireworks and raucous cheering. The match went to penalties and Nacional took the win, but most left satisfied with a good show.

And then home. As Frank says, it is very nice to go trav’ling, and find unexpected charm, a change of pace, and even places that don’t live up to the ideas you have of them. But, despite the 50° C drop in temperature, it is oh so nice to come home – home to friends and family, speaking English, and even ethnic food. Our “perfect European honeymoon” was neither perfect nor very European, but it did alternately surprise and delight us, and I would do it again – this time with my own pepper mill.