It’s been nearly 13 years since we moved downtown, and during that time the refrain most often heard goes something like this:
“Can’t we make this (fill in blank) look better?”
Hence, constant discussions about beautification, clean-ups, porch appliances and facades, and almost no consideration of fundamental reality, i.e., how did it get to be (not look) that way in the first place — and how much of objectionable appearance is quantifiable versus subjective?
If “physical manifestation of our preferred lifestyle” goes no further than theme parks and a coat of paint on a dilapidated building, I’m not sure it can be termed progress. Yet that’s the way it’s constantly phrased.
Does the local leadership class merely parrot these phrases out of failed consciousness, or does it do so owing to resignation that nothing substantive can be done, hence the importance of grotesque “ooh, that’s nice” Potemkin villages designed by Oz and Mr. Disney?
I don’t know the answer. All I know is that quite a lot of evidence points to matters like streets as basic determinants of these fundamentals, and yet fixing them is the very last thing we’ll do, if at all. That’s either intellectual atrophy, moral cowardice, or both.
But it’s the local political default.
Your book touches on a critical aspect of city planning that is often overshadowed. In addition to important considerations like income, education, and public works, you argue that what city residents really want is “infra-culture,” or “the physical manifestation of our preferred lifestyle.” What does this infra-culture look like in our current and future cities?
I try to make the case that infrastructure is not only a tool for moving people, water, or information around. It’s the foundation for our economy, for our social and cultural life. It matters what kind of infrastructure we build. It affects how we live our lives. Instead of addressing culture—or even our local economy—directly, too much of our dialogue about city planning today revolves around large, abstract concepts. People have a hard time translating how they affect their day-to-day lives. Perhaps out of sheer frustration, however, that’s changing. In every city I go to, people are reclaiming obsolete infrastructure—from old railroads to degraded waterways and obsolete roadways—as new conduits for urban life. When these efforts embrace a broad, inclusive vision for what this infrastructure might mean for their lives, they are tapping into the real opportunity for infra-culture.