Our Cities: Engines Of Fluidity, Impermanence & The Shared Environment

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The draw of our urban cores is a force to be respected once again. The awesome power of cities large and small and their ability to attract us with their changing scenery and limitless potential is transforming how we see and experience our city centers. They hold us in, captivate our senses, move us to great dreams, pull us together, and blur our differences. Ironically, cities aren’t ushering us back into their arms with the shackles of permanence… instead, the elements that are reviving our urbanity are decidedly small, fluid, temporary, shared and adaptable. Not exactly the American Dream for the last 100 years, is it?

For decades, America was a place where a mortgaged home with a yard in a suburban tract with two cars and children was the dream. And that dream is still alive and well, and likely will be for the foreseeable future. But the last decade has evoked a fascination, nay, an activation of our urban cores once again. Lofts, apartments and city living have become so popular, cities can’t build residential dwellings fast enough. Entertainment and night life have consumed our urban fabric as the bones of manufacturing are born again into their new roles as Mecca’s for unique food and elaborate beverages.

As our jobs move downtown yet again, our lunches come to us in the form of food trucks, with a portable dose of culinary creativity. Pop-up parks and weekend festivals close our streets and activate areas that routinely go unnoticed.

Communal office space is all the rage as business incubators and shared work environments drive ingenuity and creativity. Bike share, ride share and an increased focus on transit give more and more people reasons to leave their car at home, or not own one at all.

What does this new urban excitement tell us? It is that more and more, we are a nation that values fluidity, impermanence and the shared environment. The former consensus of permanence that was a 30 year mortgage and a white picket fence may be slowly changing as more and more, we gravitate to the wonders of the fleeting, the flexible and the commitment-light.

Apartments over houses. Shared public space over fixed back yards. Mobile food trucks over restaurants, collaborative space instead of a solitary office, mobile tech over a confining cubicle, chance encounters over scripted meetings. Transit, walkability and bike infrastructure that is inexpensive, fun and immersive over cars that cost over $700 per month and highways that decimate the fabric of our urban communities. Side jobs like Lyft, Uber and Grubhub that let you choose your own hours over mall retail for a second source of income… I could go on and on.

The power of cities today is quietly based in the reality that Americans, especially young Americans, are beginning to value impermanence, flexibility, fluidity and sharing over permanence, entrenchment, solidification and ownership.

Perhaps the recent recession and housing market collapse is still fresh in the minds of young adults. The trauma of seeing families challenged by an unstable economy, job loss and financial strain can have a profound effect on the life choices and commitments. This may play a significant role in the movement away from permanent dwellings and land ownership to apartment living and smaller families.

Student debt is likely a key contributor in the movement of impermanence as large scale, long term investments and goals may be financially impossible for more and more people in their 20s and 30s. And by the time this group does attain financial stability, there is likely a strong segment realize they enjoy the more temporary lifestyle of city living, transit proximity and lack of ownership burdens and commitments.

Another possibility for the gravitation toward a shared, impermanent environment is the explosion of the service-oriented economy, coupled with the click-of-a-button ease of acquiring these services that mobile technology provides. The frustrating act of flagging down a taxi, negotiating with a driver and balking at the rising meter has been replaced by a tap of a cell phone and a more transparent cost. Apartment living means mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, replacing windows, fixing the water heater and all the other chores of household maintenance are no more, allowing the resident to focus on career, family, partners, friends, enjoyment, travel and life in general without the feeling of neglecting the home. It’s easy to view millennials as “lazy” in the context of traditional measures like home ownership. The truth is likely that the services industry and mobile technology has allowed Americans to focus on other aspects of life that are important to us. When more time is made available to us by eliminating the need to maintain our financial and physical commitments, it allows us time to address other career, life and personal priorities.

Finally, the role that working women continue to play in the transformation of the American lifestyle cannot be understated, especially when we discuss the move toward impermanence. Women have traditionally been the primary caretakers of the home and family, but in the last 50 years, the stay-at-home-mom has become more and more rare. The role of the two-income family has changed the form of the permanent dwelling, as time to maintain such a home has become more and more scarce. Furthermore, studies show that while women are increasingly becoming career-driven, women are still manage a majority of the household chores and child rearing responsibilities. Smaller families, waiting longer to marry, remaining single and choosing not to have children are all likely responses to the changing role of women in our country and the world. The power of the working woman has likely changed our traditional priorities forever and as a result, permanent dwellings are likely a choice to be made later in life, if at all.

Our cultural move toward fluidity and away from permanence, to proximity and away from sprawl is likely driven by a multitude of economic, lifestyle and technological variables that have transformed our American environment. In the past, we have seen the movement away from the traditional measures of permanence and “stability” as lazy, undisciplined, erratic, unfocused and uncommitted. With regard to our cities, this could not be further from the truth. The draws of cities today are in the endless possibilities, the scaleable potential, the socially diverse and the creatively engaging environments they provide. It is a changing landscape, one that surprises and comforts all at once. It is the embracing of the fluid, the temporary and the ever-changing, a world where we can quickly and easily scale and adapt our focus, our commitments and our lifestyle without the shackles of traditional idols of permanent life. The technology that is available, the density that cities provide, the choices that transit options give us, the sharing of space, time and resources and the freedom from the age-old measures of success are changing the way we see our urban centers, and our cities are changing to welcome our temporary, OR permanent desires.