I remember hearing it for the first time about 12 years ago. I think it might have been a JC Penny commercial. The ad showed a woman in a flowing summer dress, dancing in the sun and wind as the voiceover confidently declared “I’m all about style.”
Next time I heard it was in an interview with an actress. “I’m all about gratitude.”
Not long after, I’m sure I uttered it for myself the first time, making reference to something I was really “into” at the moment. Now, this statement is everywhere, a sort of McSummary of our goals, intentions and our mantra… a one sentence personal bumper sticker that conveniently allows us to show the world who we are in 2 seconds… “I’m all about (full in the blank here).”
My mom said something interesting, and as I get older I see exactly what she means. She told me “people are becoming commodities, always feeling like they have to sell themselves.” As we are constantly bombarded by advertising, branding and marketing, we too have learned to paint our thoughts and interests into neat little parcels, colorfully branded for the world to consume. We can sum up who we are, what we do, what we value and what we bring to the table in 20 seconds, a sort of pre-packaged, speed dating inspired, fast food version of our complicated existence.
While I have no evidence to back this up, I believe that this desire to bundle everything we are into a few marketable bullet points has actually made us as individuals, as well as a society, think that we are these summarized versions of ourselves. Our personal stories have become the CliffsNotes version instead of the content-rich original. In all, I believe that the societal pressure to market ourselves in so many interpersonal and digital venues (job interviews, online dating, facebook profiles) has made us believe that the abbreviated versions of ourselves are the extent of our worth.
This psychological compartmentalization has manifested itself into where we shop, what we post online, how we vote (as seen by our polarizing political climate) and most importantly, where we live. Are you “country?” Are you a “family man” in a small town? Or are you a “city girl,” enjoying the fruits of the urban lifestyle?
As people continue to move away from our urban cores in a sort of “event horizon” fashion, we are forced compartmentalize our existence, living in one place, working in another, shopping in another. We are one person at work, another at home, and another still on the weekends. We have to drive to our jobs, our shopping centers, and our “entertainment districts” to fulfill our desire to “check off” the respective boxes on the survey list of who we are. Our self-definitions have become exceedingly one dimensional, and our lives have become increasingly compartmentalized.
Finally after nearly 500 words I will tie this back to the world of New Urbanism. Those who are choosing a more centralized lifestyle, one that blends our diverse interests and responsibilities as well as one that caters to our multi-dimensional selves rather than the compartmentalization effect of suburban sprawl, are tired of the disconnected life. We are bored with the traditional version of The American Dream, choosing instead a life that reflects our diverse interests, passions and desires, while honoring our need for community, family and tradition.
The great urbanist minds of today recognize that our cities must reflect this newly-awakened desire to banish the societal walls, erected for decades by the subsidization of sprawl. Our urban cores must transform into inviting environments that excite us, comfort us, and allow us to grow and explore as individuals and as a society. An emphasis on walkability, bike infrastructure and public transit must replace the hundred-year-old dependence on the automobile as the coveted mode of transportation as we seek to make our cities more equitable, more social, and more environmentally sound.
Our leaders and designers must recognize that even urban dwellers require convenient access to green space, both small and large. Cities are not the antithesis of nature… the greatest cities are the ones that provide meaningful density and opportunities to enjoy the sunshine on a lunch break, a family picnic, a brisk morning walk under a canopy of fall leaves, or a mid-summer evening concert with grass underfoot and the moon shining above.
We must move toward an urban structure that favors the person over the car, while increasing meaningful density and building a city that can be traversed in a multitude of convenient and environmentally conscious ways. We must work with local business leaders and skeptics to show the benefits of promoting walking and biking as a means to financial success, not economic failure. This means creating urban spaces that are designed for safe, convenient and attractive travel by means other than the car. If our cities are to become more livable spaces, we must make “alternative” forms of travel and access to resources more accessible, efficient and even fun.
Most of all, we must retrofit our cities to comply with the changing desire of more Americans to live a life with less compartmentalization and more integration. Our urban cores must become places where different areas of our life can blend more seamlessly, with a diverse set of options that encourage us expand our self-definition while catering to our multi-dimensional interests. Cities will continue to move forward, if an only if they respond in contrast to the decades long push toward a segregated, segmented, summarized human existence.
For many, this is trivial. To others, it might ring true. And to others still it might sound like blasphemy. But for those of us who are growing older, having kids, buying homes and constantly trying to figure out who we are as our lives change, cities offer us a unique and powerful venue that caters to the whole person. For us, for me, for people like me who want to better blend our own interests with our evolving responsibilities and expectations, the New Urban model is exactly what tomorrow’s American needs.