Sarah Goodyear opts for “You Kids, Get Off My Lawn” Urbanism in NextCity

I’m glad that NextCity actually has women write about the city, but this entry from Sarah Goodyear strikes me as ill-conceived: Against the Cutesifcation of Urban Design. She’s arguing against swings and pong games, based on the following points:

More broadly, the focus on expensive and often impractical “playful” solutions that can’t be scaled up diverts designers’ and planners’ attention from the real challenges at hand. City-dwellers don’t need garbage cans with sound effects, they need more garbage cans, and more frequent trash pickup. Regular bus commuters don’t need swings, they need shelter from the elements and reliable information about bus arrival time. Pedestrians don’t need to play games at the crosswalk, they need shorter crossing distances, longer walk signals, and better separation from cars.

She’s making a lot of assumptions here. First, that the cute solutions are expensive and can’t be scaled up. I’m not sure that assumption is warranted, and it’s presented without evidence. Hello, Kitty is cute and it’s delivered on scale.

But oh, boy! The latent modernism and its language of efficiency is rather front-and-center here. We need efficiency, not delight, damn you kids with your widdgety-bibbity toy urbanism! We’re serious grownups here!

Ok, but one on her list of problems (the last) has an extensive, existing body of urban design work (so it’s a matter of implementation, not necessarily design) and the first two problems have little to do urban design, not really. It’s possible that that the German city that installed the pong game at traffic lights doesn’t have enough trash cans….oh, no, wait, it’s not possible. If there is one thing German cities have, it’s way the heck enough trash cans.

But the point is that cities that do not have enough trash cans are cities who are not necessarily bad at urban design; they are probably suffering from either bad city management or a low tax base or both, and they may have bad design, too, but the root problem is not design. Ditto with the bus problems. Urban designers are in charge of keeping the buses on a timetable? Since when? Does Goodyear really think that the dollars a few swings at bus stops cost will move the dial on transit service or understanding service?

And actually, I think it’s wrong to get all sniffy about swings at bus stops. I could care less about them, but if they make the time pass faster for some kid waiting for the bus with his mom or dad, why not? I do wonder about how safe it is have something swinging on the sidewalk, I’m assuming people thought of that and the swing has limited range.

The cutesification of urban design may make for fun tourist attractions, but it infantilizes the very people who use a city most: residents and commuters. The parent walking a child home from day care on a rainy night, worrying if the cars will stop for them. The older person who needs a bit more time to cross the street. The construction worker waiting for a bus in the blazing sun.

Oh, I can just hear Fanfare for the Common Man playing in the background as she wrote this. I’m not sure NextCity writers get to appoint themselves the voice of the proletariat, for one. But for another, the parent walking the kid home might really like some things to serve as landmarks and diversions for his/her kid in an otherwise boring commute. Infantilization assumes that everybody in the city is an adult. Some urban residents are actually infants.

For another, the design solutions to the last two problems are important, but the reason we don’t have them is not because urban design suddenly got cute. It’s because cities don’t spend money on design (or anything else), cute or otherwise, in neighborhoods where people rely on buses. And while it’s good to point that out, Goodyear’s apparent inference tha this is, somehow, an urban design problem instead of a fiscal equalization problem or a justice problem strikes me as pretty tone-deaf in the usual urban design way: I care about design, and thus everything is design. Design and designers go where the money is (just like everybody else) and the reason why construction workers sit in the blazing sun is not that urban designers are too busy making swings. It’s that urban politics keeps the money for both the cute and majestic in particular spaces, and those spaces are not occupied by working-class urbanites.

Finally, tourists are important to cities. I get that it is a fine New York/East Coast tradition to kvetch about tourists, but for crying out loud. Their use of the city does not preclude residents’ use of the city. Tourist dollars are important to supplement local tax bases for all the things that Goodyear says urbanites really want and need. You want more money for transit? Encourage those tourists, and encourage them to eat at restaurants as much as humanly possible. Let them grow fat during their vacations, as that is sales tax revenue for the rest of us, while their little kids strain their home tax bases and not ours. It’s as close to taxing foreigners living abroad as you can get.

And ditto with her last line about the sinister corporate-ness of the cutesy design which means we should all be worried by the corporate takeover of urban space, but well, that horse is waaaaay out of the barn and has wandered down pretty far down the road. With tax bases where they are, and demands for service at the level Goodyear wants, tourist and corporate dollars are the urban reality, cutesy or otherwise.

If Goodyear wants to flat out say it: cities spend money on design when they should be spending the money on services, then that’s a fair point. But her argument seems to be that designers aren’t solving urban problems, and it strikes me that many of the problems she’s listed aren’t designers’ problems to solve, except insofar that designers are part of the democratic/deliberative world of urban problems in general.