Ahh, the dating world… that wonderful symphony where butterflies, heart palpitations and exquisite ecstasy closely parallel crushing blows to our self worth that lead us down the path of cynicism and regret. And that’s just the first date.
The universal challenges of dating, love and relationships between people are well documented in literature, but very little dialogue exists on the subject of the relationship we create with our cities, or rather, the relationship it attempts to create with us, the people.
Let’s make the initial assumption that we as a city population are one entity, and that we are relatively “normal.” We have our pros and cons, our up sides and our bad habits… but when you sum it all up, we eat, drink, sleep, go to work, raise families and play on the weekends. Our online dating profile would read something like this…
“Looking for a city who likes to have fun but wants to build for the future. This special city should have a good job(s) and a solid plan, but these should not exclude an element of playful spontaneity. He/She must be patient, and must be willing to put up with my quirks and ‘isms…’ if my city does this, I’ll return the favor. I want to be swept off my feet, but in the end, I just want someone I can be myself with, grow old with, and feel a part of.”
I left off “long walks on the beach” but you get the idea.
Let’s say for a moment that your city responds to this online profile, and let’s say for kicks his name is Urbania. Unfortunately, Urbania is kind of a loser. No job, irresponsible spending, poor planning, and a lack of any ability to see the source of his limitations really make him an unattractive candidate for your future. He meets you for a romantic dinner at Denny’s.
YOU: Do you have any jobs?
URBANIA: Not really, I mean I do odd jobs here and there to get by. I didn’t go to school, I just thought it would be a waste. I’m really holding out for someone to offer me a management position.
YOU: Why would someone offer you a management position when you have no schooling or experience? You don’t really have anything to offer!
URBANIA: I just figure I can sweet-talk a big employer and it’ll solve all my problems.
YOU: What about school, or learning a trade? Or an apprenticeship? What about building toward something bigger so you can be more attractive to potential employers?
URBANIA: Nah, that’d take too long. Better to woo a big shot.
YOU: [while biting into your Moons Over My Hammy] but if you have no real job and are on a budget, why do you have that expensive phone, flashy shoes and that diamond earring?
URBANIA: Well I figure if I have good stuff you’re gonna dig me. [wink]
YOU: But you’re wearing a dirty t-shirt and jeans, you haven’t washed your hair in days and I’m pretty sure you don’t know what deodorant is. And you brought me to Denny’s.
URBANIA: Well see, I couldn’t afford laundry detergent, shampoo, deodorant or a decent dinner, cuz I blew it all on the shoes, phone and diamond. I figured you’d look past that other stuff if you saw my sweet bling.
YOU: But those other things are cheap, why didn’t you spend money on those instead?
URBANIA: It’s all about looking vibrant baby, I wanted you to know I’m all about the cool stuff!
YOU: OK, well what about your future? Any plans?
URBANIA: Well, that’s the thing, I don’t really have any plans… I just go where the wind takes me you know? I mean if someone wants to make me an offer, I’m just like “yeah that’s cool.” But you know, I’m not really into thinking about things like family, I’m just trying to be a fun guy. Everyone likes a fun guy right?
You leave the date laughing… I mean, what a joke right? Yet this is the conversation that so many cities are having with their would-be residents. No jobs, yet there is still the belief that they can entice a major corporation with tax incentives (which by the way every city offers as well) while having absolutely nothing else to offer an employer. Stubbornly or stupidly, your city refuses to engage the community by creating a fertile pro-jobs and pro-local environment that companies, investors and job seekers look for today.
Instead, these cities often focus on flashy and fun additives in the hopes that people will overlook everything else and see “the cool stuff.” And this pitch is always the same… “if we build flashy things, people will visit us and bring money into our city.” The problem is, more often than not, the impact of this revenue-generating plan is horribly overstated, and really nothing changes. Meanwhile, far more economically sustainable and approachable long term solutions go unrealized.
Finally, there’s the issue of a plan. If your city has no real plan moving forward, it becomes a sort of pinball at the whim of whatever random developer, investor or special interest party might want to take advantage. No plan means no connectivity between projects, visions and neighborhoods, causing a haphazard, disjointed result that is rarely in the best interest of people. I was talking to a friend recently about the tremendous growth in one local city as opposed to another one that was struggling. I attributed this to a strong city plan for its future. His answer was “yeah but that city has seen so much private investment while the other city hasn’t been so lucky.”
My answer was simple, “have you ever gone to the bank and asked for money without a plan? If one city has a plan and another does not, which do you think is going to see more investment?”
I digress. Let’s look at your next date with Citia. Citia meets you at a very nice restaurant… in fact, she beat you there and is already sitting at a table. You come over to greet her and see that she has a really nice top on, beautiful jewelry… she seems very well put together! You sit down and have a wonderful, intelligent conversation and realize you both have a lot in common! You pick up the extremely expensive tab, but you are happy to do so because you believe this relationship is really going somewhere! But just as your enthusiasm reaches its peek, you both stand up to leave the restaurant and you realize that her skirt is cheap and tattered, her legs are badly bruised and her shoes are simply falling apart. You didn’t even notice this because you were both sitting the whole time, so as politely as you possibly can, you ask her why she is dressed so perfectly on top while the bottom half of her outfit is in ruins. She answers with a laugh.
CITIA: Oh, well, you know, I’ve never really liked my lower half so I just kind of let it go. I try to buy nice shirts and jewelry and things like that, and I sit with my legs under a desk or a table so nobody sees anything below my waist. It’s just a little trick you know?
YOU: I don’t understand, why would you focus so much on your upper half while completely ignoring lower half?
CITIA: First of all, my upper half is what people see and like the most. Second, I guess my knock knees and flat feet are never really gonna look any better so, why make the effort?
YOU: Your knees and feet are fine, what’s not fine is the fact that you’ve completely developed one side of you while ignoring the other.
CITIA: Well, see here’s what I think will happen… if I spend enough money on my top half, eventually it’ll trickle down to my bottom half and make it look better.
YOU: That’s ridiculous, your blouse and earrings are never going to suddenly become your skirt and shoes! They are two different things and need different but equal care!
CITIA: Well, I’m just doing what people want, and most of the time, they only want to see my top half, so that’s what I focus on.
Obviously, this conversation on your city date deals directly with the horrors of gentrification and an unequal distribution of, and access to, city resources that lead to a better urban future for everyone. So many cities are building centers of urban vibrancy, only to ignore the needs of struggling city residents that deal with mile-high poverty rates and rampant crime. The cities that mishandle these situations will do what they can to contain and isolate the problems instead of deal with them head on and make improvements. And as always, the belief that simply catering to the wealthiest city populations will eventually trickle down to a better future for the poorest communities is inherently false. Poor communities are not going to be less poor because other areas of your urban center are wealthy… they will only rise up if resources, both physically (through transit and city design) and socioeconomically, are accessible to everyone.
Wow, those first couple dates were interesting, but we are far from done. Meet Downtownia, the gorgeous tailored-suit-wearing blond-haired blue-eyed GQ model of a man that picks you up in his Mercedes and takes your to a gorgeous restaurant with delicious food. Initially, this guy seems perfect. Fun, lighthearted, full of life with a good job and everything going for him. He orders the $90 steak, you get the swordfish. But then, there’s that one little thing…
YOU: So do you want kids and a family? I love kids, and I can’t wait to have them!
DOWNTOWNIA: Pff, no, are you kidding? I can’t drink around kids, and they will mess up my suit. I’d have to trade in my Mercedes for… a minivan? Are you kidding? Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. Not for me, I’d rather just have fun.
This conversation is a short one, and it’s short on purpose. You know you can have fun with this Downtownia, but this relationship is doomed to be temporary. No matter how much you love your city, no matter what it does for you, you WILL move to the suburbs if you feel your city doesn’t employ the amenities needed for a healthy family life. There is no greater power than the desire to provide a safe, livable place for children to grow and families to flourish. So few cities are “growing up” and dealing with the truth that urban centers will never be long term, sustainable options if they don’t begin to address the importance of catering to families. Bad schools, environments based on entertainment instead of livability and a lack of greenspace are all valid reasons for why so many new families immediately leave the urban nest and flee to the comforts of suburbia.
Finally for your final date, meet Sustainia, a slightly above-average looking woman who greets you with a smile and an approachable, honest personality. As you talk to her, you realize not only is she fun, she’s warm, smart and cool. She has some wonderful features, and frankly some that aren’t perfect, but the whole package is very promising. You sit down to dinner on a gorgeous summer night at a quaint outdoor cafe for wine and light fare.
SUSTAINIA: I realized a few years ago that I had to work on myself before getting involved in another relationship. I went back to school, shored up some debt and dealt with some old demons that were really keeping me from being open to other people and relationships. I realized I was really bad at communicating, and I made it a point to get back out there and date again… this time, I’m gonna share how I feel, and I want you to as well. I know what I want, but I’ll always be open to new experiences. I know my faults as much as my successes, and I’m always looking to nurture both. I have an OK job, and I don’t make a lot of money but I have enough to get by, and I’m slowly climbing that corporate ladder. It might take a little time, but it’s worth it. But more than anything, I just want to slowly build a relationship with someone… one that changes as we age and want different things out of life. One where we share communication and the responsibilities, and most importantly, values.
YOU: (Stunned to find someone this approachably perfect) You wanna get out of here and go back to my place?
SUSTAINIA: Haha, what’s the rush? We’ve got our lives ahead of us. Let’s have another glass of wine and get to know each other better. We’ve got allllll night.
In order to be attractive to others, we must first solve the issues within ourselves. This means being honest about the problems we have, and practical about the solutions. We must look to the future while not losing sight of what is in front of us. We must build our relationships with trust, honesty and strong values, and listen to the needs of one another as we grow.
Just like a strong partner, our cities need to address their own personal sanity before entering into a relationship with us, the people. This is far more complex than a simple sit-down over dinner, obviously. But the best cities today are the ones that put residents first while working to build a strong bond for now and for future life circumstances.
Most likely, your city is a blend of these four dates. Also likely, your city has a quirk of its own that hasn’t been mentioned here. More than anything, this is a great exercise for all of us when talking about our urban centers. Imagine you’re on a date with your city, working through the moment-by-moment nuances of the conversation as you slowly unravel who you are as individuals. Hopefully at the end of the “evening” you will come to the conclusion that you are really, really excited for date #2!
One difference between dating a city and dating a person… with hard work and dedication, we can be the change we want to see in our cities. Trying to change the person you’re on a date with? Well that’s just asking for trouble 😉
Also, make sure your city picks up dinner. Nobody likes to “go Dutch.” And no kissing on the first date either.
OK, I’m done, I promise.
But seriously… the next time you talk to a friend about your city, talk about it like you went on a blind date. It’s fun, and you might be able to better articulate the conversation and relationship between you and your urban home.