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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

One Man's Perceptions of Today's Urban Environment

Growing up in an older suburb of a Midwestern metropolitan area, I pictured the city as a dirty, unsafe place.  Even considering a youngster's boatful of misconceptions about many aspects of life, cities were relatively unsavory places during this time, the 1970s and 1980s.  So, upon graduation from a state university in a "college town" in 1993, where did I move?  The logical choice, of course, was the city.  I loaded up the Chevrolet and headed to Denver, Colorado.

I have lived in Denver for about five years, and have been lucky enough to travel to many of our nation's cities throughout my life.  Based upon these experiences, I want to devote this column to a "meatball analysis" (hey, I am writing a column here, not a research article) of the benefits and shortcomings of today's urban environment.  Let me state my bias at the outset:  I heavily favor the urban style of living.  With that in mind, I will discuss two promising aspects and two evident pitfalls of cities in the present day, as I see them.

One of the more positive characteristics of cities is that they are constantly changing in relatively dramatic ways.  We are always finding new uses and functions for building and land.  Warehouses become lofts.  Office buildings constructed in the 1890s are converted to art galleries.  In less preferable situations, an open space becomes the site for another "blank skyscraper."  The physical landscape in an urban area is continually shifting, in both positive and negative ways.  Much like our lives, change is a constant.

Most urban areas are also highly accessible.  I can make my way from point A to point B by pedaling a bike, driving a car, catching the bus, hopping on the "light rail," riding the subway or (believe it or not) walking.  This highlights one of the most significant differences between the city and suburbia:  in the city, you can survive (even thrive) without an automobile;  conversely, try making a trip to the grocery store in suburbia without a car.  No thank you.  That is one six-lane road too many for me to cross on foot or a bike.

Understanding that we derive many benefits from the automobile, it is also evident that their obvious (and not so obvious) costs contribute an irreversible amount of damage to us and our environment.  In the city, it is easier to take one small step toward our long-term self-preservation of ourselves and this planet by walking, biking, or using public transportation to get to work, the movies, or the ballgame.

There are many other benefits to living in the city.  However, as with most matters of life, there are also some shortcomings to the urban experience.  Two of the more serious ones center on the concept of homogeneity, the first one less troubling than the other.

One of my observations from living in Denver and traveling to other cities is the increasing presence of the same retail establishments from one city to the next (with the blissful exception of New Orleans).  This point speaks to the same sensation I receive from the inside of a suburban shopping mall.  Am I in Cedar Rapids, Iowa or Westminster, Colorado?  For me, this creates a bizarre feeling of disconnectedness.  Place is irrelevant.  My only way of determining my location is to locate the requisite Foot Locker and examine the college sweatshirts on sale.  Recently, I've come to feel this same sensation in the redeveloped sections of cities.  As I sip my Starbuck's coffee and wait for my wife to exit The Gap, I become aware that the recent spate of change in cities (that has gratefully produced an economic boost) comes with a price.  Welcome to the global economy.

My other concern about present day urbanism is more serious.  It begins within the framework of ideas established by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that center on the challenge to "create a more perfect union."  In my opinion, this challenge is still a powerful guiding principle for the internal workings of this country.  Nonetheless, when I look at the increasingly  segregated populations within our public schools and neighborhoods, it is obvious that the fabric of our union is being stretched.

On the one hand, it is irrelevant to me whether all of the students in a school or all of the residents in a neighborhood are black, white, Asian, or Hispanic.  We are responsible for providing each citizen, regardless of race, with an equal opportunity.  I also realize that most of us, for many reasons, live around folks that are similar to us.  However, in my opinion, a homogenous population in a school or neighborhood reflects deeper social problems (both racial and economic) that strain our union.

In my opinion, an obvious and difficult solution relies on individual choices.  We can choose to live and send our children to school with folks that are both similar and different.  In other words, we can live in an integrated neighborhood, along both economic and racial lines.  By living in such a place, you viscerally realize that we are fundamentally one and the same.  All of us love, hate, are courageous, are fearful, and are concerned about food, shelter, family, friends, and work.  My generation's challenge is to move beyond affirmative action, multiculturalism, and busing and recognize the humanity in each of us.  This can only truly come from individual experience, not legal mandate.  From interacting with our neighbors in the evening on our front porch or over lunch at our dining room tables, not from our exurban living room as we watch an overly sentimental documentary on Martin Luther King, Jr.

To me, the city provides an opportunity to live in a continually changing and highly accessible environment.  In addition, it also forces me to more directly deal with the unflattering side effects of both the "free market" and racism.  Quite a prospect for a kid from the 'burbs.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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