I referenced the architect Jan Gehl not too long ago while enjoying the comforts of urban living — even if that meant traveling across the United States during most weeks of the year. I experienced the suburbs and the urban core of Atlanta, Phoenix, Denver, Seattle, and Houston. In my prior post (link) I shared a video of Jan Gehl highlighting the importance of centralized public spaces. Urban density has proven to reduce human friction from the lack of public dialogue, increased environmental awareness by understanding shared resources better, and created palpable energies from urbanized lifestyles. Master-planned cities attract people, not bland, master-planned suburbs.
The pandemic briefly reversed this trend towards gentrification. Once again, cities recognize that public spaces and centralized amenities hold the treasures that attract new residents. In my prior travels, I enjoyed places that had a strong urban core ensuring features remained walkable to each other. NYC, San Francisco, London, and Tokyo are elite cities because they embody Jan Gehl’s principles. Houston, Dallas, San Jose, Atlanta, and Phoenix are glorified suburbs. Central Austin is moving in the direction of the elite cities while improving its public spaces. Cities flourish by creating memories. Austin has become as instagrammable as the elite cities.
Austin’s biggest gap is the lack of mass transit. It needs to do a better job with bike lanes. Like other major metros, Austin is addressing homelessness and crime. Austin’s pristine suburbs are bland and lack energy, like the rest of Texas. I don’t know who most of my neighbors are. I’m not sure I want to know. In a time of political polarization, the suburbs of America are designed to prevent people from crossing paths and having conversations. We hide in our McMansions, shelter our kids from those who look different or belong to a different religion and watch horror movies on big screens showing urban life happen in the least expected ways. The children of America who grew up in languishing suburbs seemingly don’t want to return. Except me. Kids dart away for college and go further away towards the bright lights and big cities.
I chose a languishing, yet upscale suburb of Austin, but now recognize that what I most needed was the noise, grime, and nonstop hustle and bustle.
The pandemic paused our common humanity from living like humans. We languished remotely. We lost the frameworks which come from beautifully designed cities. In a post-pandemic world, we return to normalcy and embrace the designs that bring our world closer. The cities that don’t improve public spaces will languish, allowing the cities that embrace them to flourish. The people will go where they can meet other people and have the freedom to become whoever they want to be.
I’ve always wondered how America manages to elect incredibly boring and unintelligent people to the U.S. Congress. It all makes sense now. Most are products of its uninspired suburbs. All the land which constitutes America’s suburbs needs to go back to nature and farm animals. Humans need to live with each other again in cities.