Tuesday, July 12, 2011

on the reading list

About a week ago I read a short essay in the New Yorker titled, "Get Out of Town; has the celebration of cities gone too far?," by Nicholas Lemann. Lemann essentially makes the argument that while cities may certainly be forever praised, the suburban or out-of-city life won't simply disappear. There are qualities of the suburban and town-scale form and living that recall the age old American dream - privacy, a lawn, a peaceful place to raise a family, a small town and close knit community. Many of us, myself included, make the argument that the American dream is irrelevant in the 21st century and instead we will find fulfillment without green lawns, acres of private space and a dominant reliance on the car.

However, Lemann makes a point that many of us in younger generations don't think about when arguing for a revision of the American dream: where will we eventually want to raise a family? Many of us were born and raised in suburbs, played in ultra-wide streets and cul-de-sacs or perceive the notion of community based on our evolution in a suburban setting. We then grow fed up with the suburb and migrate to the city. However, at what point - if there is one for certain individuals - will those who left the suburbs eventually return?

Cities are cool. No doubt about it. They provide unique experiences at every turn of the corner, are home to a creative class, offer proximity for the development of unpredicted friendships, relationships and coversations and are simply fun to be in.

After reading Lemann's essay I have to admit that my admiration of the city and it's idiosyncrasies hasn't faded, though I have significantly re-thought my understanding of what suburban really means. Working on developing an opinion means coming to know all angles of an issue - this certainly includes a multi-generational analysis, which is quite hard to imagine unless you read or listen to the opinions of those from different generations.

Additional reading:

Elijah Anderson, "The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life"

Richard Florida, "The Rise of the Creative Class" and "The Great Reset"

Edward Glaser, "Triumph of the City"

John D. Kasarda/Greg Lindsay, "Aerotropolis"

Doug Saunders, "Arrival City"

James Russel, "The Agile City"

Sunday, July 10, 2011

technology is...

Rapid and unpredictable, fun and confusing. It gives us something new to look at, read, play, among a plethora of other things, on a minute by minute basis. So, how much have our brains become wired to crave that same level of newness and unpredictability in the world around us, the landscape that we call home?

After being so far away from anything resembling New York or New Jersey for quite some time now, I've realized that, at least for me, I'm pretty damn wired to need a fast paced, traffic filled landscape to feel something along the lines of normal. Oddly enough, I find it easier to find relaxation in the midst of busyness than I do in the middle of the mountains. From a mental standpoint, my brain is always craving something novel, whether it's people watching or filling a day with numerous and wildly varied activities, because they so abundantly present themselves (in the Jersey context).

It's more fun to do something relaxing when there is so much going on all around. I fall into the category of park and wilderness as refuge more than urban as refuge in the sea of wilderness. There is a sort of over compensation, both consciously and subconsciously, in regards to finding things to do that are constantly changing and unpredictably varying while I'm living in the mountains.

Now, while this may seem like a blatant criticism of extremely rural living, it isn't. It's an analysis of how the brain (in this example, only mine - until I can find a bigger pool of willing participants) has evolved based on the reliance of technology and the general pace of life I've grown used to. I'm used to parks providing a bit of respite from the hectic pace of daily life - a duration that I can choose and, for the most part, the selection of parks is diverse enough that I can find an activity I wish to participate in quite easily. Ultimately, as soon as I've had enough of that activity, I can plug right back into the system I just left and quickly do this, that or the other thing.

It's pretty amazing to think about the power that the landscape can have on the evolution of the individual. So, that makes me wonder, how important parks really are in highly urban environments? At the end of the day, the park or sliver of green space, is a refuge from the hustle and bustle of every day life or it is an escape from the computer screen or any form of technology. It can be a piece of solitude or any arena for reflection or a medium for achieving a desired mental and physical peace.

What happens to kids who have no exposure to parks, to nature, to the understanding of the world outside of concrete and asphalt?

It's rather undeniable that people who have evolved in the context of dense urban or suburban living are losing the understanding of or the ability to exist purely in nature. Many of us need to be occupied with technology minute by minute, or with friends, or just on the move. Nature is a bit different, it requires that you look inside yourself more, that you rely on your own self to keep you occupied.

Not everyone will exist purely in nature in the middle of the mountains or will ever want to. But, the ability to have that sense of refuge or escape from the busyness that surrounds most of us in an urban or suburban environment, is undeniably important.

This ramble was inspired by a talk I saw at the 'Aspen Ideas Fest' by William Powers, author of "Hamlet's Blackberry," which addresses the question of solitude in the digital age.