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Fantasy of a City
Dana Williams
Many great thinkers have debated the “ideal city”. Peter Kropotkin, Paul Goodman, Murray Bookchin, and David Harvey all have strategized, planned, theorized, and reminisced. Although none completely worship the past, they all point to previous cities as useful guides for the present. Even in Kropotkin's time, he referenced a pre-industrial society that was scaled to its needs, in his book “Fields, Factories, and Workshops”.

What are the elements of a sustainable, diverse, and liberating city? If I had the power to design it, how would the “perfect” city look? Here's my humble attempt to fantasize about what a good city should have and how it would fit together.

On a very basic level, cities are organic entities, and correspondingly they need variety and diversity. They need mixed housing so the poor can live next door to the affluent. They need mixed use zoning so people can live next to the goods and services they require, their place of work, and their places of recreation and education.

Cities need streamlined routes of transportation, but not ones that rely only on automobile transportation. The main arteries should be accessible via underground subway and aboveground bus. Easily navigatable bike lanes (not just aimless “paths”) that are safe and free from car interference. Good zoning and planning can help to eliminate much need to travel clear across town to buy things, eat dinner, etc.

Building designs that are flush with the sidewalk eliminate the ugly strip mall appearance, encourage curious window-shoppers and foot traffic. Diagonal street parking buffers those on the sidewalk from the continuous threat of high-speed cars from jumping the curb. Mixed use zoning should also encourage housing above businesses and storefronts on second and third levels. This allows workers to live close to where they work.

Public space, quite a commodity these days, should be a primary focus of an ideal city. Turning some of the endless miles of paved roads into public car-free parkways can create boulevards that encourage people to hangout in, meet people, play, discuss, and lounge around in. Parks, plazas, and squares should be littered throughout the city, to allow people to congregate, trade ideas and news, eat lunch, perform music, and so forth.

An organic city should not only function organically, but should be as integrated into nature as possible. In order to thwart “urban heat islands” which drastically raise summer temperatures, cities should utilize bright/white colors for paved surfaces, rooftop gardens, lots of greenery and wooded areas, and liberal use of fountains, ponds, and flowing rivers and streams. Green areas not only help to moderate temperatures, but add many other benefits, such as wonderful natural smells, lush animal habitat, aesthetic beauty, and in the case of community gardens, a wonderful source of food and community. Instead of wasted space like parking lots, abandoned buildings, and other decrepit human-made structures, we should convert such land uses into green space, with a focus on how it enhances its community.

Important resources requiring centralized locations should be in the city's core areas. Other resources that can be decentralized, should be. For example, a main library ought to be in the city center, with branch libraries throughout the city. The same should go for post offices, grocery stores, department and hardware stores, schools, etc. It should never be the case that people have to travel more than a couple miles to reach any of these places, and hopefully far less than a mile.

Schools should be the center of educational life in all the neighborhoods that comprise the city. Meeting houses and town squares should be the center of political life, serving the need for meetings, councils, and committees, and for the most basic of public expressions like speeches, rallies, and debates. Market places should serve as a venue for small vendors and distributors to exchange their goods in a fair environment that values public space and does not monopolize it as corporate space does. Parks, plazas, coffeeshops, discos, pubs, and other public spaces should be the center of cultural life, for people to hear music, see theater, enjoy spoken word and poetry performances, goto dances/raves/parties, and so on.

Anything that can be done to enhance the sense of community should be encouraged in cities. They should emphasize the need for individual choice, but collective responsibility. As a result, people should be endowed with diverse options to suit their personalities and desires, but also be held responsible for their decisions and the foreseeable consequences of their actions. There would need to be a quality recycling program, childcare services, educational system (that is open to creative and empowering ways of learning), quality mass transit, health care, and other programs and services that allow resources to be pooled for collective benefit.

Finally, cities need to embody the very essence of democracy. Repressive institutions and tendencies should be kept at bay. Workers, citizens, and consumers need to be empowered with the tools, means, and information to make decisions and carry out actions that support their needs. If there is to be an organized form of centralized government, it ought to only be one that serves to coordinate the will of people organized at the smallest levels of community. Cities should be responsive to the people who live in them, not the moneyed interests who commonly dominate most cities. The landlords, property owners, business owners and managers, real estate dealers, and other interests should have no more say than any other resident. Cults of personality-- that most mayors devolve into-- should be fought and dismantled. The perfect city would never have a mayor's name sprawled out on city park signs, but would have a mayor who is the lapdog for the lowliest citizen.

Of course, some of these elements exist in many cities, but many others do not. Some of the more fundamental things rarely exist anywhere in US cities. It is the creative and organized interaction of these elements, programs, and dynamics which can lead to powerful, safe, sustainable, exciting, and inspiring cities. We can gain these things by organizing citizens to fight for reforms that will achieve some of the ends, and also by acting directly to create them ourselves-- with or without permission from existing power brokers.

The city was intended as a way of living for the benefit of everyone, and it's about time we acted like it. Let's create something that would make Kropotkin proud!

06/06/03