We Are City

We are City is an effort focused on our urban fabric; they send out a daily newsletter with informative items and thought-provoking short essays.  Today’s “Think” piece comes from Brad Beaubien, an urban planner, and it is well worth sharing and contemplating.

The agora was a public space filled with government buildings, religious temples, and public markets. It’s where the great philosophers of western civilization developed their arguments. It’s where the priests, military commanders, and legislators ruled. But it’s also the place where you did your daily shopping. While I don’t want to overlook or diminish the fact that in Greek society women and slaves were prohibited from public life, the concept of the Agora is vitally important. It’s a place where citizens of all means had a part and a place. They all mingled. And that was a critical physical manifestation of democracy.

You see, people only know what they know. And they only know what they experience. The value of the agora was that the rich and the poor, the aristocrat and the laborer, and the philosopher and the priest, all co-mingled in one physical place. While they certainly did not agree with one another, that experience and exposure helped provide the grease that makes a democracy work—compromise.

Fast forward to today. We get into our cars, leave our garages, drive with our windows rolled up and music playing out of our subdivision where everyone looks just like us, down highways and streets designed to minimize disruption of our travel, into the parking lot reserved for our coworkers, and into our cubicles, where we promptly put in our earphones and get to work. The design of the modern city and its transport systems has virtually eliminated the necessity to experience anyone other than those just like you. The main street shopping districts where the beggar and the banker co-existed have been replaced with sanitized malls we visit if permitted. The streetcar the businessman and the immigrant youth both waited for has been replaced with a city built solely for the private car. Our grand public parks crumble while private HOA’s tax themselves to maintain members-only trails and swimming pools. Even our old stadiums, where some seats were better than others but all got wet when it rained and everyone ate the same hot dog, now have luxury box suites with climate control and a catered feast. We don’t have agoras anymore. We don’t experience one another anymore. And as a result, we don’t understand one another anymore. It’s easy to demonize the poor when your only experience with them is driving as fast as you can through their neighborhoods on the way home. It’s easy to demonize the 1% when your only experience with them is glancing up at their feast in the glassed-off skybox.

I’m in the design professions, and I see things through the eyes of a designer. I know there are other lenses. But when I look at the state of our democracy, the state of our legislatures, and the state of our public discourse, I see the consequence of the decline of the American agora. We can’t work together because we don’t understand one another because we don’t experience one another. It’s a vicious cycle.

Fixing our zoning code, our transportation network, and our natural systems are noble and necessary causes for a host of reasons. What I’m most encouraged by is their ability to again create places, neighborhoods, and cities where we again experience one another, again understand one another, and again are able to have a thriving democracy.