The Perfect City

As far as planners go, I am a grumpy social scientist. I have little of that winsome visionary and romantic nature that makes my planning colleagues so utterly delightful at times and maddening at others. They dream of cities, while people like me tend to measure and analyze them. We measurers are the Kahn; planners are Marco Polo.*

The other day I was grouchy about David Byrne’s bit on his perfect city in the WSJ, while many of my planning colleagues liked it. I didn’t actually explain my grouchiness, other than to say that his perfect city sounds like pretty standard Bobo-in-Paradise fare to me. The whole WSJ setup led there: as part of their “perfect X” series, cities got lumped in there with pints of beer and books. Now, I am a huge fan of both pints of beer and books, but cities are not merely objects of individual consumption.

So anyway, maybe I can’t do any better than Byrne, but for today I will dream instead of analyze. It’s harder than it looks.

Here goes:

1. The built environment of the perfect city is ubiquitously beautiful and yet diverse, engaging the eyes and minds of the people within and throughout. The materials of the city are lovingly crafted everywhere, not just in penthouses and coffee shops, pleasant as those things are. In the perfect city, beautiful buildings do not contain people working for slave wages in terrible conditions while affluent onlookers stroll by, insulated from the reality of others’ lives through cushions of class and space.

2. The built environment of the perfect city is hospitable, offering comfort to everybody there, not just the ones that can afford to spend $6 on a beer to sit down and not just the ones young enough to sit in those thicker-than-ticks-on-a-coondog-in-downtown LA elevated barstool chairs made (I swear) out of barbed wire. The perfect city is a commodious place; there is time, always always time, for those with walkers and canes or without legs; there are smooth, ample spaces for those with wheelchairs, and good tables for them to sit with their friends like everybody else.

3. The perfect city recognizes the role that low-wage workers play in cities and offers places–good places–for them and their children to live and be a part of the fabric of the city, not relegated to the margins of either long commutes or miserable housing. Work is not invisible or treated as unsightly; work with computers is held to the same standard of sustainability as logging or farming. Play among the affluent–like jetting off from global city to global city–is evaluated as an environmental issue with the same level of scrutiny that planting soybeans is.

4. There aren’t merely eyes on the street; there simply are no strays in the perfect city. No stray children, no stray dogs or cats, no stray seniors with empty days. In the perfect city, nobody suffers violence or exploitation. Nobody is hungry, cold, desperate, dying of heat, uncared for or alone. People and resources are recognized as utterly unique and precious and treated as such. Nobody has to hear the word “fag” on the subway or experience bad treatment because of who they are, how they look, or who they are with. We aren’t needling in each other’s business, but we aren’t robots who turn away when somebody is hassling a teenage girl on the street. We got each other’s backs because it’s the right thing to do.

5. In the perfect city, people are aware of and take responsibility for how what they do affects others, both near and far. They do not shift externalities. If they want pork chops for dinner, they pay for meat that is humanely raised in sustainable settings or they raise it in their own backyards and smell the stench rather expecting somebody else to do so on the cheap. Or they do without. In the perfect city, we know where each object we consume is made and how it is made. People in the perfect city do not enjoy their own environmental comfort and security if it means the diminishment of others’–anywhere, anytime. No compromises. No I-bankers on bicycles in Manhattan giving themselves tennis elbows patting themselves on the back for their sustainable selves if on the job they are destroying retirement savings or demanding layoffs elsewhere. No.

6. In the perfect city, people have access to the resources they need to grow in mind and body, and at a (high) baseline, those resources are not determined by how much money individuals make. Whether you can buy caviar is a matter for the market: whether you can get fresh fruit is a matter of justice.

7. Children have space and time to be kids in the perfect city no matter how much money their parents have; they have a place to lay on their tummies and look at ants; they have a place they can look at the clouds; they have a place to run around and shout their heads off. All of them, no matter what, breathe good air, have good food, and can put their eyes on the stars. Children, all of them, are surrounded by adults who, even if they are not related, will look after them, share their resources with them, be committed to the best for them, sacrifice for them, show them the best in themselves, and help them grow into stewards who will do the same for those who come after.

8. In the perfect city, everybody’s civil rights and liberties are taken seriously. It doesn’t matter who you are: you have the right to due process, equal protection, and property. Even if the city wants that property for a TOD, even if the rest of us think you have done bad things, and even if you are not part of our tribe. We have standards. We do not violate those in the perfect city.

9. In the perfect city, change is recognized as a source of both joy and grief. We understand that change can mean loss, and we treat loss with kindness and respect. We do not slap the NIMBY label on people simply because they make change difficult. Instead we respect them as people speaking up to demand the best they can for the places they cherish. And people never abuse that respect by demanding the exclusion of other people as a matter of policy or design.

10. In the perfect city, we as a collective make and keep promises to each other as a matter of course. If the collective “we” promise a community that a new rail line will offer new jobs to them and mobility to us, there had better damn well be new jobs for them and not just mobility for us by the time we’re done.

11. In the perfect city, we own past injustices and try to make them right. We don’t just move on, expecting people to get over pain, discrimination, and marginalization so that they can play along with our future plans and give us what we want. We take responsibility. If we screw up on #10, we try to fix it in good faith both through apology and restorative acts. We don’t wonder why people in Leimert Park aren’t sold on the Expo Line when we haven’t delivered what we promised with the Blue Line.

12. The perfect city is so wonderful that we who live there are ready to sacrifice our own lives, not the lives of impoverished people we don’t know, to defend the way of life we enjoy in that city. We know what we are willing to die for and why, and as a result we know what we are asking from young women and men in service and abroad and thus we do not ask it of them lightly.**

13. In the perfect city, disorder is viewed as part of the the city rather than as a pathology that requires control.

14. In the perfect city, people recognize, every day, the caring work done around them, both paid and unpaid. Teachers are paid as well as doctors; hospice nurses get medals. Cleaned gutters, changed diapers, oil changes, laundry all take their place as worthy of celebration and thanks in the same way finished book projects or merger negotiations do.

15. The Lakers. The perfect city needs the Lakers. And a 21 choices.

So here’s the deal. I have no real problems with mixed uses or anything else Byrne laid out, save for that inexcusably classist comment about how danger is sexy (boot to the talking head’s head). But the WSJ tossed those things around as measures of perfection. Now, perfect is way different from “nice” in the way San Francisco and Manhattan or London are nice. With perfect, you gotta go big or go home.***

*See Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities for the reference.
**See Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates
***With affection for the big dreamers (and doers) I know like Robert Garcia, Damien Goodmon, Jacky Grimshaw, TH Culhane, and James Rojas. I appreciate your big, beautiful visions and I hope they happen. I’ll go back to my analyst’s shell again and leave dreaming to the ones who are good at it.

2 thoughts on “The Perfect City

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t comment on what Byrne said about Los Angeles. RE: #15, I prefer Yogurtland over 21 Choices.

  2. I don’t actually expect somebody like Byrne to up on the facts of density or measuring density. So he made a mistake and didn’t check his perceptions against empirical data, and neither did the fact checkers. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me more is that he aims pretty low in the “perfect” city realm.

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