The Huffington Post ran an article a few days ago in which the author, Kate Ascher of Columbia University, predicts that the future of American cities will look much like their past. The nation’s urban centers will continue to regain their human scale, and a typical US city will be an integrated collection of communities where people live, work, and play, much like cities have been throughout most of human history. The author points to trends already taking place around the country as people make their way back into the city centers.
This has been a topic of interest to me for quite some time, so the article didn’t provide any groundbreaking revelations for me. There is a number of authors and intellectuals who have been saying these things for years, and there’s no shortage of pushback from those who say that these people are overstating things, that there is a modest trend back to the city (if it can be called a trend at all), but that it is most likely temporary. It is natural, say the skeptics, to desire big houses with big yards and space between neighbors. And in the long run, Americans will always prefer subdivisions, freeways, big box stores, and parking lots to the dense, multi-use, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods of yesteryear. I don’t know who’s right. But I sure hope it’s not the champions of suburbia.
I think about my life here in Shanghai. I walk out of my house in the morning, and I take a quick, ten minute stroll to work. I do the same when I want to pick up something from the little grocery store nearby, the pharmacy, the bakery, or (maybe one of these days) go to the gym. And whenever I want to go somewhere that’s not walking distance, I have a myriad of public transit options at my disposal. There’s a bus stop in one direction, a tram stop in the other, and just a couple of blocks away is the metro station that can take me anywhere I want to go in this vast city. Whenever I go out to run an errand, I’m surrounded by the life of the community: young people, parents, children, grandparents, business people, factory workers, teachers, and retirees. The vibrancy helps keep me connected to the world, realizing that I’m a part of it. And it’s such a more desirable way to live than my experience in the Sunbelt sprawl of Southeast Georgia.
Further highlighting just how far the majority of the American built environment is from human scale is the fact that, even with all of these elements, my part of town is considered rather suburban by Shanghai standards. A friend of ours who lives in Puxi (the West side) will be moving to our neighborhood next year. And he’s mentioned a time or two his apprehension about moving to this sterile, quiet little corner of the city.
I don’t know if the disconnected way that we’ve built our cities, towns, and suburbs in the US has caused or simply mirrors the isolation and lack of community that so often characterizes our country. Or perhaps it’s more complicated than that. Perhaps it isn’t a clear cause and effect, but our social and physical environment are negatively impacting each other in this vicious cycle of disjointedness.
We love our lives here in Shanghai. But this may not last forever. There may come a time when the pollution chokes us out of here, or China-US relations sour enough to give us cause to relocate. The illusion of stability is just that. And if we were to leave, where would we go? I’ve been to countries in Asia and Europe, and I could see us making a life for ourselves in any of those places. But the thought of needing a car just to leave my front yard, of never randomly coming upon a friend or acquaintance while on my way to buy a loaf of bread, not hearing kids laughing outside my window, or seeing senior citizens laughing, chatting, or exercising together as I go to grab some breakfast from one of the street vendors, has me dreading the thought of readjusting to American life.
If and when we find ourselves back Stateside for any extended period of time, I hope to find that the predictions of Ascher and others like her have come to fruition. But for now, Anna, Eden, and I are set to continue our adventure in Shanghai.