Conscious Urbanism: Slowing Down Our Cities

I grew up in Suburbia, and my mother once asked me, "Why on earth would you want to move to the city? It's so busy and noisy and crowded." To which I responded: "I love it when you answer your own questions."

Still, there are times when the urban environment can get a little overwhelming. While I love it dearly, I'll be the first to admit that the nature of a dense environment can be -- and is -- exploited on many levels. Take, for example, advertising. The high concentration of people in high-density city neighborhoods provides advertisers with a sizable market for visual ads. High-traffic transit lines and highways provide the same kind of mass viewership. Think, for a minute, about how many billboards you pass on your walk, ride, or drive to work each morning. Try actually counting them tomorrow.

This visual noise has been attracting a lot of attention lately, it seems. Beijing's mayor, for example, is speaking out against proliferating ads for high-end luxury goods in the growing Chinese capital. Meanwhile, on the literal opposite side of the globe, Sao Paolo made headlines by enacting an ordinance that forced the removal of all of the city's outdoor advertising. The massive billboards that once formed the city's urban landscape -- even served as its landmarks -- have fallen like scales from the city's eyes, to paraphrase one NPR commentator's description. Now, apparently, the city has been exposed to some of its more unsavory elements; the 'boards dispensed with, impoverished favelas have been exposed along high-traffic routes. (And you'll have to forgive me this indulgence, but knowing the very vertical nature of Sao Paolo, I keep picturing stacked slums sandwiched between office towers. It's a bit fantastical, and neither here nor there, but I wanted to share nonetheless.) According to one reporter from the city, it's like walking through an entirely new city.

The fight against excessive urban ad-age is taking place Stateside as well. Los Angeles' famously commercialized cityscape is littered with illegal ads that were recently legalized due to some shady political maneuverings. Meanwhile many of New York's rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods are seeing their historic charm "draped like a giant burrito in enormous vinyl signs" in the words of Kevin Fry, the president of Scenic America.

This brings us to the issue of visual noise, a highly potent but often overlooked piece of the overstimulation experienced in cities. Many of us take the sinage around us for granted; in a hypercommercial society, it's hard not to. But the effect of all of this sinage is a decreased capacity for independent thought. We are constantly bombarded by images of things that we should want, near-subliminal messages (thanks to the aforementioned taking-for-granted) that hold us in a state of distraction. The mayor of Beijing's argument illustrates the deeper problem associated with this phenomenon: increased advertising, especially for high-end goods and services, increases tensions between social classes, the haves and the have-nots.

Vinicius Galvao, the aforementioned Paulistano reporter, describes the current situation in his city thusly: "It's amazing, because people on the streets are strongly supporting that. The owner of the buildings, even if they have to renovate a building, they're strongly supporting that. It's a massive campaign to improve the city. The advertisers, they complain, but they’re agreeing with the ban." And while it's impossible to say for sure without being there, his description makes it sound like the urban pulse of the city has been calmed somewhat. Perhaps, even, slowed.

Part of the fear of density in people comes from a fear of intensity. Cities are busy, noisy, crowded places. And while some people will always thrive on that, modern cities are large enough to provide a wide variety of different environments. Density, however, is an extremely important part of creating sustainable, high-quality urban environments. Thus, it is inspiring to see support growing for "humane density." Neither Too Slow Nor Too Smart, a paper by Richard Bender and John Parman, calls for a sensible, regional approach to population density. Another quote for you: "[We need to] fall in love again with a region that, for many of us, captured our hearts when we first set eyes on it, tasted its delicious food, savored its wine, walked its captivating streets. We know what it is and what it can be. Something this beautiful demands our indulgence, our generosity, and our commitment. We know how to treat it well, and yet we have so often failed to do so. Time to change."

While these words were written about the SF Bay Area, they can easily be applied (perhaps with a few alterations) to most major cities in the world. People choose to move to cities for many reasons, but they generally have the same reason for staying (given the option to leave): they fall in love with the place. And while there will always be a high concentration of activity in urban centers, cities extend far beyond their cores. Residential neighborhoods could benefit greatly from a general calming; be it through the removal of visual clutter, or just more careful planning. There is no reason that density cannot be calm and enjoyable; we just have to slow it down.

(Photo from Flickr user H111.)

Beijing mayor blasts billboards promoting luxury (Breitbart.com)

Clearing the Air (NPR)

Billboards vs. A 'Greener' America (Washington Post Writers Group)

City of Panic (Occupied London)

Neither Too Slow Nor Too Smart

No comments: