Episode One Hundred and Twenty Four: When You’re Tired Of Cities

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Technically, this episode is late, because it’s being sent past midnight, which means that a newsletter episode was not sent during the 24 hour period of Tuesday July 15, 2014. But it’s my newsletter and my rules and I’m still writing one anyway. So there.

We bought a new car. It has eyes and can see. It can see if I wander out of the lane I’m in or it can see if I’m getting too close to the car in front (or if a car in front suddenly appears, as certain American cars are wont to do because Jesus Christ won’t you people please learn how to signal and not just drift all over the place.)

It feels like my co-pilot is Rimmer, the kind of anal character from Red Dwarf, but perhaps a more competent one. This car literally has tunnel vision – its eyes have the equivalent of a super primitive visual cortex that only and obsessively cares about a) lane wandering and b) being too close to the car in front. Its eyes have a direct line to the brake discs, it can only really beep at me, plaintively, if I wander over.

But, it’s a new car and the car seat fits in it and it goes up and down hills, and it talks to my phone and yes, the user interface is practically terrible but not unusable, because if it were *actually* unusable, then it would be – well, you know.

It is supposed to be getting cooler in Portland soon. For that, I’m grateful.

1.0 When You’re Tired Of Cities

Or, rather, when you’re tired of {insert tier one city} then you’re tired of life. I struck a nerve with yesterday’s episode[1] where I threw out the hand grenade of cities not being fit for purpose, for which there were instantly a number of replies ranging from the equivalent of “out of order? YOU’RE out of order!” in the sense of “no, you/we’re just getting old”, that bringing up families in a-list cities has always been the preserve of the top n percent, where n is certainly smaller than 3 (and yes, I realise that I’m being *horrendously* middle class and elitist here, because there are obviously people bringing up families in such cities in much less comfortable circumstances than my own).

But. I think I’m going to qualify my position a little, because it’s my newsletter and that’s my prerogative. Let’s just say that it’s not that *cities* (the idea, the concept of them) that are no longer fit for purpose, because I can agree in the Jane Jacobs sense that they’re the marketplace for ideas and engines of growth. Sure, I buy that. But I think I *can* say that many of a tier one cities are creaking with infrastructure (Christ, I sound like a regular Victor Meldrew[2] and that a lot of the services and infrastructure that they *do* have, either aren’t fit for purpose or are on the verge of becoming so.

That is to say: the list of things that irritate and that are shortcomings of tier-one city living are becoming longer (and such inefficiencies in established systems are being disrupted with a kind-of-capital D by intermediary services afforded new delivery methods through technology, like Uber), and the list of things that are benefits of cities are possibly becoming shorter. Or, their relevance to certain groups of people changes and decreases over time.

So: not necessarily unfit for purpose, just, well, not as fit as before. Which, you know, seems reasonable enough to me. In other words, just because a whole bunch of benefits about cities are *true* doesn’t mean things aren’t necessarily getting worse or that the true things are any less true.

One reader was kind enough to unpack my argument for me and to tease apart a couple of issues, the first of which was clearly: how do you make cities more manageable for young families, the short answer to which is: people are going to have to get used to less space (ie not every kid gets their own back yard), which is fair enough provided it’s paired with easy-to-access public space (and by public space, presumably we mean *really public* space, not corporate-controlled space that’s got metered usage. It’s interesting because some of the solutions like better, cheaper and easier to access childcare, education and healthcare aren’t necessarily physical infrastructure, but better planning (and delivery) of services. Some of these things, naively, and from the outside, don’t *seem* hard, they just seem like failures of policy. To which the question is: what kind of people do our politicians want living in our cities?

I’m going back to Liverpool later this week to speak at TEDxLiverpool, which theme this year is home and away[3], a celebration of talent that’s rooted in the geography of Liverpool, whether they’ve made it at home, or whether they’ve made it far away. This time, I’m one of the far away, having grown up on the other side of the Mersey and gone to secondary school on the Wirral. It’ll be interesting going back; Liverpool was one of the big port cities that did an excellent trade in shipping and the merchant navy, and with shipbuilding gone, it’s been going through an exercise of trying to revitalise itself. There’s a new downtown live/shop/work/play area that’s famously privately owned with its own police force, and Liverpool, like many other cities around the world, is trying to navigate the downturn that hit it when manufacturing moved away to the East.

While I’m thinking about this (and going back and referencing Matt Jones’ The City Is A Battlesuit For Surviving The Future[4], part of me thinks that instead of bemoaning the difficulty about going back to somewhere like London or joining the bandwagon and nodding furiously whenever anyone says the Bay Area is an expensive place to live, but whaddaya know, you gotta go where the jobs are, is that I already have a city that I like, and I have the opportunity to make it better.

Portland, Oregon is – for the moment – one of those cities that isn’t too big, isn’t too small (just, nearly) and has, as I’ve described it to other people, “about one of everything, but no more”. Almost a minimum viable city. It’s got a river with bridges, it’s got green space, a moderate to problematic public school system (some short-sighted decisions to do with how you fund public education from public funds, perhaps), a stupendous amount of public transit for an American city, and an attitude to bikes that is nigh on communist if you ask a red-blooded American. Plus, the coffee’s really good and there’s that TV show. But, as I was saying, there’s insufficient density in the kind of jobs that I’m interested in. The tech scene is small but growing (and it is growing – Pinterest are setting up and so on, eBay have an office) so perhaps it’s the *boring* kind of interesting, but the one thing that the city does have going for it is the (for now) relatively affordable housing for young families. If only I could start something and find some way of luring people to live and work here…

So on the one hand, I can poke holes at startups like Airbnb and how on the one hand they’re publishing shared city manifestos[5] and on the other hand they clearly have a bunch of different things going on: circumvention of (possibly outdated and needing to be tweaked) legislation and regulations surrounding short let accommodation, the ability to offer those with capital the opportunity to copy-and-paste multiply their capital through that legislative and regulatory circumvention, the offering of supplemental income support to those who’re in financial distress, where the new normal is that you let out a spare room (or your own room) every now and then, and increasing access to travel and business accommodation through providing more options. Fine. There’s all of that. But do you see any particularly good innovation coming from civic or local leaders *on the same scale*? It takes Google to offer to Fiber up Portland and suddenly the council doesn’t exactly assume a position as become quietly supplicant and fine, it’s not like Comcast were going to do anything in the meantime.

I guess my point is this: it’s easier to build and prototype a small battlesuit in a small city – perhaps, than it is by moving to the tier-ones. And maybe that’s a really interesting thing to do.

[1] Episode One Hundred and Twenty Three: Station Ident

[2] Victor Meldrew

[3] TEDxLiverpool

[4] The City Is A Battlesuit For Surviving The Future

[5] Shared City

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Best,

Dan