The Welcomed Demise Of Urban Formality

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Three years ago, a live BBC interview was interrupted by a couple of kids being kids. Instead being treated like a perfectly natural and understandable occurrence for a man who was obviously working out of his home office, it was discussed and debated for many days following. Some criticized how the parents handled the situation. Some thought it was an adorably human moment. But it was news, and it was news around the globe.

Why was this such a hot topic? Simple… Because it didn’t happen that often. The formality of an official interview of a credible individual was suddenly interrupted by the reality that we are all humans, living messy human existences, with kids, families, and the complicated balance of life.

The realm of self-imposed professional optics are fascinating. While most of us feel like we live lives of constant surprise and unexpected chaos, we do everything we can to create a professional persona that gives the appearance of being in complete control. Even though we all struggle with the complicated, imperfect, and sometimes painful realities of day-to-day life, we rarely let it cross over into our professional contexts, fearful that it will pull back the proverbial curtain and betray our carefully manicured workplace image.

Until now.

Last night my wife was watching a country music show on TV, where some of the top country artists were performing from their homes in the name of social distancing. I’m not much of a country music fan, but I was entertained by the artists that were performing with their children in the room, or from a horse stall, recording on a mobile device and singing an unedited piece while strumming an acoustic guitar. The formality of polish was gone. The mix, the sound, the tone… all were imperfect. No 360-degree jib camera costing millions of dollars, no lavish lighting setup or professional makeup job… just people singing real music, entertaining and giving hope to Americans with their talent. There will be no performance critics, no “what was she wearing” comments or suggestions of seedy scandal. Instead, people will just be happy that some of their favorite artists found a way to inspire them, even in these difficult times.

My wife and I are, for the most part, working from home. And where video meetings and conference calls used to have a scripted formality, lingo and expectation, today they’re arenas for acknowledging that the barriers between work and personal life are suddenly and completely vanquished. Finding the most creative background photo for our teleconference, or seeing how many cats we can have in our lap while participating in Zoom meetings… these are the new and beautiful bulldozers of a false professional world we have been trying so hard to maintain since the beginning of the workplace. Suddenly we start every meeting with an honest account of what we are going through, how we are feeling, and the human reality that is daily life in a Covid-19 world.

As so many of us are forced to work from home, or teach our students through the always-sketchy platform of video conferencing, or digitally share our craft with an audience that loves what we physically make, we are being pushed beyond the world we can control into a realm where control is sparsely possible. We are doing everything we can to be patient with those who are not technologically savvy or psychologically equipped for this… especially when that person is ourselves. The script has been terminated and the veil of tidiness has been lifted from our life projections as we all begin show the world who we are behind the scenes, voluntarily or otherwise.

How does this apply to our cities? The late Jane Jacobs, one of the most revered city advocates and Urbanist authors, believed in acknowledging the “messiness” of cities and communities, and the ability of neighbors to take care of each other in an imperfect world. Where others saw “blight” she saw closely knit neighborhoods where people helped others through community problems, instead of ignoring their existence. She saw past the imperfections of urban neighborhoods… instead, she focused on how members of a functional community can come together to help solve individual and community issues with the motives of compassion and common good.

When the rest of the urban world looked to “clean up” our cities, Jacobs acknowledged that cities were simply collections of imperfect people, and that the sterilization of this reality would diminish the simple power of urban communities. She was right.

Perhaps this is a stretch. But I believe that the new reality of blending home and work life more than ever before is “dropping the ranks” of the professional world and reminding us all that the CEO and the minimum wage worker all have a home, a family, and a humanity. The transition from the boardroom to bedroom, home office or living room gives a glimpse into our real lives, with kids crying, dogs barking, cats meowing, and everything in between. It is a reminder to all of us that no matter who we are, life is beautifully messy.

Perhaps this realization about ourselves and each other will help us understand our cities, communities and neighborhoods just a bit better. There is no productive formality of city life… cities, like collections or people, are informal, spontaneous, imperfect and messy. Any attempt to sterilize their environments or build walls in an effort to segregate, negates the human element… and it is this humanity, not buildings or GDP, that truly makes our communities great.