Tragedy in the Culture War

old farm

We don’t talk about them that way, but “urban” and “rural” are fuzzy things. Town and country may have been cleanly divided in medieval Europe, where landed barons ruled the fields and merchants plied their trade in tightly-defined non-feudal centers. But now that we’re all (ideally) free merchants of our time and energies, now that the private corporation has become something very different from the public corporation, urban and rural are just geographic – or demographic – terms.

But not necessarily to the political right. According to conservative scholar Victor Davis Hanson, urban and rural still determine how we view the world. In “The Oldest Divide,” published in City Journal (also in the LA Times), Hanson defends the wounded honor of rural America. As a city-dwelling progressive, I can’t say I felt wholly comfortable with Hanson’s piece. But it was a good read.

Hanson portrays urban America as a bloated and elitist place, cut off from the land, its residents totally ignorant about how food gets to table. The ideals of Jefferson and the gentleman farmer have steadily corroded, weakening the American republic and its citizens. America needs its greatness again.

It’s easy to argue that Hanson has it all backwards. That rural places, not urban ones, are over-represented in state and federal government. That the gentleman farmer is just that: white, male, and fairly well-off. It can be argued that Hanson’s dual residence in a Central Valley farmhouse and a Stanford University apartment lets him sample both places, shielding him from their problems. And his disdain for ecology and conservation places him vaguely out-of-time, an intellectual emissary from the early 20th century. A case can even be made that Hanson romanticizes rural America: exactly what he accuses city-dwellers of.

But aggrieved right-wing rhetoric aside, I found Hanson’s article insightful in a number of ways, and it feels good to escape my usual online echo chambers for a while.

“Living safely” versus “living together”

Hanson writes, “For rural residents, existential issues on the national level are seen as magnified versions of personal considerations: Does the country have enough food, fuel and minerals? Can America defend itself, protect its friends and punish its enemies? These concerns differ markedly from the urbanite’s worry about whether the government will provide services to take care of vulnerable populations or whether those of different races and religions can get along in such a crowded environment.”

This election season (if two years can be called that), disbelief about Donald Trump is the refrain from progressives. We can’t believe people are falling for his coarse, xenophobic nativism. He’s a dabbling bully, a liar, a frat boy idol. But for rural white people, living in declining places with neighbors “on the take” from governmental aid programs, current Republican rhetoric satisfies these “magnified personal considerations”.

I’m reminded of a theory that uses colonial origin in England to explain America’s clashing political ideologies. According to the hypothesis, New England settlers and their liberal politics emigrated from urban and lowland England, places associated with royal and parliamentary London elites. Those who settled the American South, by contrast, hailed from rural upland areas further from government control. Hence the worry, in Hanson’s piece and among conservatives at large, about urban “elites” and their regimented, tight-lipped greed. They’re worried about a new serfdom, a new aristocracy.

Which “culture of dependence”?

Since they’re closer to the land, says Hanson, rural people see only weakness in “dependence,” especially on the government that may be the predominant authority they encounter. In cities we live differently. Certainly, social programs do exist and some people may be unduly dependent on them. But any dependence on government – the public corporation – is eclipsed by an all-encompassing cultural dependency on the private corporation.

There is very little to do in the modern city that doesn’t involve paying (or being encouraged to pay, or working to pay) for some non-essential product or service. Government authority is present in the background; commerce is front-and-center.

In his article, Hanson described an Obama administration bulletin like this: “Its dependency narrative defined the life of an everywoman character as one of cradle-to-grave government reliance — a desirable thing.” Multiply that little message a thousand-fold, Mr. Hanson, and realize that urban life is a dependency narrative of cradle-to-grave corporate reliance, hammered into us as a desirable thing by a million commercials, ads, and the constant strain to live like those “elites” you imagine comprise the entire urban population.

Perhaps agrarians see corporations as enablers, as providers of seed and equipment, as those who purchase what they coax from the earth. And that leaves them the luxury to see government – where they get their subsides – as the necessary evil in their midst. Of course, actual farmers are a minority these days. The aggrieved small-town population has been slighted, not by the government, but by the corporate culture that outsourced their jobs and is returning to its natural metropolitan home. The fact that neighbors turn to drugs, drink, or federal alms is tragic but predictable. After all, didn’t the cities turn to drugs, crime, and government aid when the economy abandoned them last century?

Rural tragedy, urban therapy

It turns out Hanson is a classicist, a defender of the rural ideal not only on Jeffersonian terms, but through a republican lineage going back to Greece and Rome. While that background may account for his conservative outlook, it also enables him to observe the following:

“Physical and mental balance, practicality, a sense of the tragic rather than the therapeutic — all these were birthed by rural life and yet proved essential to the survival of a nation that would inevitably become more mannered, sophisticated and urban.”

I think that’s one of the key statements in Hanson’s essay, a point of divergence that does much to explain the great impasse of American politics. If rural politics amplifies personal problems, a tragic view makes sense: life ends in death, and nothing stays the same forever. Progressive urban politics soothes and solves; people learn to live with their differences. But they may fall prey to utopian and ahistorical thinking.

It could be argued that today’s Republican politics aren’t politics at all, but a tragic personal narrative written on national scale – a narrative of decline, anger, inevitable change. It is bizarre (see Donald Trump) because it isn’t really about living together, it’s a tragic drama where the old ways go out with a bang and fade to black.

If progressives really want to confront the old rural values Hanson defends, maybe we should take the time to understand them and explain ourselves on their terms. We’re not all yuppies and “elites”. City life can be tragic too.

Photo credit: Mark Engelbrecht via Flickr cc

“Culture of Liberty” or Cultural Liberty?

las vegas

In an article published in the conservative-leaning City Journal and the LA Times, Aaron M. Renn takes the urban left to task. City activists, he contends, “increasingly find their own goals stymied by laws and regulations, and they’re demanding that these restrictions be overturned or limited.”

For the sake of marijuana, food trucks, and even beekeeping, leftist city-dwellers oppose regulations their ideology says they should support. More sweeping issues than beekeeping aren’t immune. Pricey urban housing has leftists agitating for looser rules and greater density. Meanwhile, the same leftists rally against polluters, big-box retail, and land developers. Hence Renn’s title: libertarians of convenience.

As one of Renn’s “urban progressives,” I feel a need to refine what that phrase means, especially as it concerns the age-old libertarian debate over regulation. Confrontational it may be, but Renn’s critique is also valuable as we figure out what it means to be progressive today.

The distinction between progress and progressivism isn’t new. On one hand we have those who do – the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the rainmakers. And then there are those who prohibit, preserving human rights in the face of threats.

We trust leftist progressives to instinctually defend regulation, support unions, and look warily on the engines of material gain. The 20th-century libertarian parries in good form. To quote Renn, “absent a wider culture of liberty, calls for selective liberty will probably go unheeded.” Culture of liberty. That phrase stuck with me, and I recognized why as I read on.

Somewhat patronizingly, Renn suggests that “urban progressives—typically on the younger side—are just beginning to experience how excessive regulations can suffocate life in the city.” Hemmed in by our thou-shalt-not ideology, callow young leftists stumble into a world of plodding government and dynamic business and must choose the better side.

There may be truth to that narrative, at least for young people who enjoy political rhetoric. But not all urbanists are ideologues. Some of us just want cities to be good places to live and work, places where diverse people have a fair chance to build lives at liberty.

Renn writes, “Many of the bans and rules that progressives impose on cities not only make life difficult for muffler shops, hardware stores, plumbing firms, bodegas, and other unglamorous operations; they also harm the enterprises that they love.”

Beloved enterprises, of course, being the usual slew of hipster boutiques, indie bookstores, urban gardens, and coffee houses people my age supposedly rave about. In reality, “unglamorous operations” appeal to a modest Millennial price point. I might find an artisanal soap store interesting, but in the end I’m using Dove.

And sure, Target and Walmart are affordable, but they’ll do a good trade whether urban progressives support them or not. Any urbanist worth the name appreciates the role utilitarian stores play in the urban fabric. We’re skeptical about suburban multinational uniformity. We’re all for small business, especially if it’s affordable!

After a nod to the endearingly ignorant Millennial generation, Renn unveils this thesis:

“But it’s hard to avoid thinking, too, that some of the inconsistency reflects elite biases. The things that liberal-minded city residents like and want to do—eat from hip food trucks, smoke dope, and other ‘bourgeois bohemian’ pursuits—should be left as free as possible, consequences be damned (raw-milk advocates downplay the nearly 1,000 cases of illnesses caused by it from 2007 through 2012). Those that they consider déclassé—Big Gulps, Marlboro Lights, McDonalds—should be restricted or even shut down. It’s regulation for thee but not for me.”

Renn’s diatribe omits a crucial detail: the hipster projects leftists want to deregulate are predominantly local and small-scale. They’re start-ups. They’re small businesses. But most of them harbor no Silicon Valley dream of billion-dollar empire. They are culturally self-aware, often minority-owned, and give little thought to a left-right culture war.

Leftist urbanites, for their part, usually oppose large-scale uses and operations. This is not “elite bias.” It’s a classic American love of the underdog. And when it comes to regulatory targets, the public-private divide doesn’t matter as much as impact on local quality of life, especially for poorer city-dwellers.

A street-crushing retail supercenter and a neighborhood-gutting 12-lane highway are equally odious (and equally likely to bulldoze over a poor community of color). But a second-floor pot dispensary and the corner post office are benign, even beneficial. Urban progressives are less default regulators than instinctively suspicious of large-scale systems of control. This we share with libertarians. For us, government isn’t a cure-all, it’s a necessary counterweight.

Besides, can we not agree that the systemic health impacts of Big Gulp, Marlboro, and McDonalds (think nationwide obesity, diabetes, addiction, cancer) slightly outweigh the horrors of raw milk from an organic food store? It’s not a matter of which cultural niche a business occupies. What counts is relative scope of impact. And in a society managed by large-scale entities both public and private, only large can counter large.

For all its faults and follies, public government needs to check private capital, so the creators of wealth don’t devolve into its hoarders. But that regulation shouldn’t choke out local innovation. Urbanists understand that local enterprise needs room to grow, and that cities, like greenhouses, provide the necessary fertile ground.

But libertarians like to throw down the gauntlet, saying there are no half-measures when it comes to regulation. Either you have a culture of liberty or you don’t. This is a profoundly ahistorical and, shall I say, reactionary viewpoint. Its adherents mistake liberty for some abstract ideal floating above our heads, rather than a collection of human dramas and their outcomes.

In a city of freeways, are you at liberty if you can choose which car to buy, but cannot take the train? In a city of trains, does liberty mean choosing which line to take when you’d rather drive? Perhaps I’d appreciate the liberty to cheat my neighbor. Perhaps a bank would like to finance home-buyers beyond their capacity to pay. Is my neighbor at liberty? Is the home-buyer?

I’d rather not spout the standard arguments against libertarianism, since I’m actually a fan. But liberty means different things to different people, and that disagreement intensifies in diverse and multifaceted cities. Renn has the right to talk about liberty, but I’ll decide what that word means for me.

So far as progress truly is the goal, urban progressives (and conservatives) should explore, and not fear, the grey spaces between public and private, small and large-scale, liberty and control. I think that’s part of what Renn argues. Urban life and economics is in a continual state of flux, and the law should let people evolve along with it.

But that evolution is cultural as well as economic. Freedom and liberty cannot just be understood in economic and political terms. Culture – the stories we tell ourselves – is and always will be the most important factor influencing liberty on the individual level (for good or ill). To be influenced by the culture around you is not a sign of intellectual weakness. It’s a vital part of being human.

Image credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr

Go small or go home

tiny house

walden 2015

 

About 300 square feet. Enter what some commentators have called the future of city living. This is the cozy-cramped dimension of the “micro-unit”, a new class of studio apartment designed with social and unconnected young people in mind. Developers wager that high-end urban neighborhoods confer enough location value to offset increased cost per square foot. Among the micro-unit’s other selling points are airy design, quality fixtures, and innovative storage spaces. The Urban Land Institute has assembled an in-depth report on this trend from an industry perspective. And here’s a construction photo of My Micro NY, a tiny-housing darling of Michael Bloomberg now completed in NYC.

Micro units are starter pads for young professionals, a room of one’s own between days at a new media venture and nights on the town. It’s almost enough to conjure a certain hip charm. Almost. I am a member of the micro-unit’s target demographic, and it seems others share my mixed feelings.

While life in a glorified dorm room would surely detract from the well-being of couples and single parents, is it really a good thing for anyone? I might not experience any measurable psychological deprivation in a micro-unit, but there’s still a lingering suspicion that these plans are private-sector project housing, destined to symbolize stalled dreams.

concrete modular

innovation units

 

Pilot micro-housing developments will no doubt be quite well-built and sited. But what of the second and third waves of construction, given a growing market? Bad building investments will be made, and bad leases signed. It would be too easy for developers to pack aspiring city-dwellers into substandard micro-units, marketing them as “fun units”, “launch pads”, and even “innovation units” (terms mentioned in the ULI report). You might be laughing, but I assure you this kind of branding will be used (if it isn’t already).

Which brings me to a point I made in my post on the self-driving car: we aren’t actually babies. There is a definite infantilizing tendency among those who want to engage people my age, whether through Youtube ads, apartment promos, or IPhone commercials. Surfing for music last night, I sat through a Sprint ad featuring two goats, a donkey, and 80s funk. Apparently playtime remains important. Far from desiring anything in the way of lasting products, we are told to value ephemeral experiences alone. Smaller is better, less is more, having friends beats having things. The ILife.

ping pong

we demand a bare minimum in office equipment

 

The last three are valid points, especially from the environmental perspective. Living in an urban apartment is demonstrably better for the planet than supersizing it in a suburban McMansion. But at the same time, people don’t want to stay in college forever. In a sharing economy arranged the usual way – from top down – we will pay various worthy entities to provide us with everything we desire, for a limited time, for arbitrary prices.

There’s a theory going around that people my age prize cell phones and mobile connectivity over the automobile. Even more than the car, mobile devices (and the wireless services they access) are designed to empower both user and facilitator, with the facilitating agent preserving hegemony in the relationship. Same goes for the internet economy. Amazon hooks up supplier and buyer, cuts out the middleman only to take his place, and assumes monopoly status in a new commercial space.

A similar process may govern the newfound market for super-tiny houses. We must live in certain cities, hence the sky-high real estate in those cities, hence the attractiveness of dorm room plus kitchenette. And then we’re all living in stacks of pre-fab modernist boxes, making a parody of Asian overcrowding’s worst excesses. It’s clean and new for a while, until one day it isn’t. And then we had better hope the broken windows school of crime is mistaken.

hong kong

30 years later…

 

Even from a green perspective, it would be foolish to imagine we can rent and share everything we need and remain autonomous, self-directing people. While the opposite proposition – private property taken to the extreme – has given us the unsustainable suburban model, the micro-unit capitalizes on a knee-jerk reaction against the suburbs. Neither is ideal.

We’re missing the middle ground. So why are only extremes worth talking about? Why, in the midst of regular articles about the city’s more excessive real estate, does Curbed LA hold a Micro Week: tiny homes and tips for living small? What happened to finding the strange in the ordinary, the remarkable in the unremarked upon? Maybe those questions are too daunting for a blog post like this one. But extreme living should not equal good living (thus rendering most of our lives unfulfilled).

In a mill of activity around worthwhile developments like electric cars, waste reduction, and sharing economy solutions, humble installations like the Little Free Library harness the spirit of small from the bottom up. Miniature book repositories, stationed in front of homes or wherever a landowner feels like, LFLs operate on an honor system: take a book, leave one in return.

little free library

now with data tracking by genre and publication date

 

Despite having the potential to foster a cottage industry – LFLs one-upping each other like manger displays – the system is gloriously free from both public and private control. Sure, they could be vandalized, their contents stolen – but what’s the point really. LFLs could never serve any coherent research purpose, but they do well at sparking neighborly conversation. Can the suburbanists or the new urbanists say the same?

In a micro-unit heaven, the LFL could never thrive. Nor could any bottom-up amenity, in public space or private, not designed and pre-encoded into the built substrate. Craft beer bars: okay. Free lending library in yard: not okay, since, no yard. Middle-ground space-saving solutions are necessary, but let’s move past the patronizing “innovation unit” aesthetic. Less stark, less hip, more lasting. Could this be such a solution, or are these glorified trailers? Open question.

This is clear: we need to live small for the planet’s sake, but that shouldn’t mean we cede our right to own and use things with dignity.

 

Photo Credits: CozyHomePlans via Compfight ccghw201491 via Compfight cc7 w d via Compfight ccdavebloggs007 via Compfight ccLudovic Hirlimann via Compfight cc; Justin A. Wilcox via Flickr cc

Train: the original driverless car

train

Please ride me?

We can take heart from the fall of Google Glass. And not just because it reveals a limping good sense in the consumer marketplace. The failed launch is a lens, if you will, that pinpoints deeper weaknesses in mainstream tech hype. Most obvious: myopic and self-glorifying tunnel vision when it comes to culture, embodied in the attitude that because Silicon Valley finds something cool, everyone else should be forced to love it also.

To the chagrin of us critical humanists, that’s exactly how it’s gone down time and again over the past few decades. Not all bad, of course. Personal computing, the internet, and mobile tech have revolutionary benefits. But so do roads, bridges, and tunnels. Electricity, water, waste disposal, public health measures: these too have us living in luxury undreamt of by preindustrial kings.

The problem is, our digital age overlords insist that their offerings transcend mere infrastructure. Their gadgetry is – must be – an end to itself, an accelerating culmination of human endeavor, science, and art rendered immaculate by the Law of Moore and the Prophecy of Kurzweil.

This gripe isn’t new. You’ve heard it before and you’re ready to yawn this off as another ideological rant. Which is bad news for me, because I’m just about ready to delve into matters even more boring. I’d like to talk about transportation.

underpass

What Man hath wrought.

Uber. Lyft. Teslas and Priuses. Solar cyclists. The walkable bikeable neighborhood. There’s no shortage of hip/hipster rhetoric about how we should move ourselves around cities. And this time the hipsters are right: we ignore the changing urban dynamic at our own peril and that of the planet.

Not to fear though: tech gurus want to save the world again, and this time they’re doing it by making cars drive themselves! After an interminable wait nearly cured younger folks of the driving bug altogether, Google is R&D’ing a perfect storm of self-driving app-summoned pods to whisk us away from all our troubles.

It won’t work. As Team Google Glass found out soon enough, regular Americans aren’t too fond of overwrought, unapologetic nerd-grandstanding they can’t even afford. If the self-driver catches on, the movement will be gradual, stylistically integrated into the current crop of cool cars. It’ll also be optional, a mightier cruise control that can revert to manual when the traffic gets tough.

Besides, there is still a lot of doubt whether the auto-tuners could handle a scenario as complex as LA’s open roads. Our human reflexes have eons of evolution to their credit and we can barely handle rush hour traffic. What chance does a sweet, innocent robot mind have out on the mean streets?

But if the past two decades have nothing else to teach, we should never understate our own ability to innovate technical solutions. I say that without irony – we live in a wondrous age, and I’m this century has a good number of game-changers left to unveil. To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, science is just like religion, except it works. And yet there’s still something off-putting about Silicon Valley’s self-driving solution.

I remember the utopian way places like Disneyland and Lego Land imprint themselves on the young mind. Quality amusement parks are a better plane of existence where everything works and it’s all for kids! That is, until closing time rolls around and we leave janitors and mechanics to rekindle the magic for another morning.

It’s not real, and neither is a city where childlike creatives call pods drop them two blocks north of Mickey’s ToonTown. Silicon Valley’s solutions seem predetermined to treat us like children. But even children don’t want to be treated like children. These plans serve the Eloi alone, with not a word said about the Morlocks.

Despite self-help’s fervor about energy and initiative, we’ve let a degree of passivity become acceptable. Even lauded. The internet has made it simpler, for example, to earn passive income. We are encouraged to automate, to make it so we can relinquish control. We must become owners, not employees – even if most of us only pretend at ownership. Being driven about by your own car represents not so much freedom as a final admission of incompetence.

Well then, you ask, what in all your wisdom do you propose in place of the electric self-driver? To cite the thinking of current urban planners, I give you the TRAIN, original driverless vehicle. (And the bus too.) Yes, these have conductors and drivers, but the classic mass transit modes are driverless in terms of user experience. They also free up urban space and long-term road funding, making way for infilling and human-scaled communities.

way out

…of auto congestion.

Like the self-driving car, riding in a train or bus is a passive experience. But it’s also a public one. As the auto-traditionalists would have it, the public is dirty and unpleasant, a brutal street reality far removed from the safety of home and office. The car’s air-conditioned bubble allays that fear, while effectively amplifying the pedestrian’s psychical prowess by orders of magnitude.

In Los Angeles there is a marked distinction between drivers of newer and higher-end vehicles, who keep their windows shut, and drivers of fewer means, who keep their windows cranked down. It could be that well-heeled drivers run their air conditioning with greater abandon; perhaps there is a justified concern over air toxins. But might the trend also tell us about how different kinds of people feel about the public realm?

In America today (and especially in Los Angeles), the mass transit demographic skews toward lower class and people of color. Buses and trains develop a corresponding reputation – they become ghettos, they become unsafe, they lose all prestige. It’s also political: recall the glorious Moscow Metro, the grand stations beneath suffocating Pyongyang. Our society is allergic to anything with the odor of socialism, and mass transit gives off that stink.

Cars do appear to favor individualism over the collective. But is this truth, or just a story we’ve told ourselves for a long time? Compared to walking or riding the train, auto traffic mutes our human differences. We end up a mass of heavy metal tanks, trundling down assembly-line highways with Fordist regularity. The rules of the road restrict free movement with an authoritarianism surpassing the elementary school line-up. And through it all we have the police, empowered to detain at their leisure.

How cars handle winter:

IMG_5564

How trains handle winter:

Trains and buses may be dirty, crowded, understaffed and undernourished. But that doesn’t mean they’re a bad system, just an underfunded one. If Google implemented its app-summoned system of pods for general use, they’d soon lose their elite veneer and become a glorified bike-rental. Useful, but only for some of us.

The train and it corollaries (buses, trams, various light rail and BRT) are a genteel and well-tested form of social transport. They encourage the rider to envision a common project, by turns social and capitalistic. If class distinctions are absolutely necessary, the train model can preserve them – just look at our airlines. But let’s be serious: business versus economy means a hefty payment for a few hours extra legroom. It’s easy on a plane or a train to see how silly the whole distinction is. Not as much when a guy in a Bentley pulls up next to your old Camry.

As Barack Obama likes to say, let me be clear. Automation and digital tech have unlocked new riches for all of us. And Silicon Valley’s dedication to visionary experiment might be crucial to tackling today’s challenges. But we shouldn’t let a niche aesthetic take the wheel and drive us away from whole-system solutions.

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Is this Ray Bradbury’s storytelling secret?

palms

Just because Ray Bradbury lived in a house for 50 years, that doesn’t mean the house shouldn’t be demolished for new development. At least that’s what prominent architect Thom Mayne thought when he spent $1.76 million to tear down the Cheviot Hills residence.

The demolition is jarring to some, an affront to LA’s most beloved sci-fi writer. But it goes without saying: Bradbury’s stories are his living legacy. Sun-drenched So Cal suburbs make way for twilight in Illinois, the dazzle of Hollywood fades into technological dystopia, and cowboy astronauts vanish into an ageless Mars.

For all the reverie of Bradbury’s tales, I found it incredibly interesting that the man never owned a car, and never even sought fit to acquire a driver’s license. Only for an avid walker could the city – LA no less! – be living room and kitchen, backyard and front porch.

Walking and biking: Bradbury’s LA success formula

Fashionable urbanism condemns Bradbury’s LA of yesterday as an auto-happy wasteland of smog and false hopes. Only now, so the claim goes, is Los Angeles finally stepping up to the plate on mass transit, smart development, and walkable neighborhoods. And maybe not even.

When Bradbury drafted Fahrenheit 451 on a typewriter beneath UCLA’s Powell Library, he’d hop over to Venice on his bike or just walk there, not an inconsiderable distance on foot. In The Pedestrian, published in 1951, Bradbury’s protagonist finds himself on the wrong side of the law for taking a midnight stroll.

His nightmare future has its sedate civilians planted in front of screens, and to venture out on foot is a crime against the ruling order. Now I’m not saying our reality maps onto this, but the underlying principle seems to be free movement, free thought, free expression.

Ray Bradbury, as far as I can tell, really loved him a good urban hike. Maybe ambling through the City of Angels made him a unique storyteller, or perhaps he eschewed the auto because he was a unique storyteller, and that’s what unique storytellers do. One thing is certain: countless Angelenos vie to be one-of-a-kind creatives today, but very few take strolls from Westwood to Venice on a whim.

Urban hikes might just make you a better person

For climate hawks nationwide, the occasional wilderness hike is a sacred ritual, a way to demagnetize connected life and get back in sync with the earth’s deeper rhythms. But what about urban hikes? What do our crowded, car-clogged, ecologically decrepit cities offer that the mountains and forests lack?

Well, people, of course. But more than that, walking around populated places awakens us from our online phantasmagoria of words, ads, and politics. In the Digital City, we can pick and choose our emotions. On the street, spontaneous anger and joy find us unbidden and we embrace them or shut ourselves away.

It’s a weird experience to explore a street on foot that you’ve traveled a thousand times by car. The poles are reversed, and you become one of those people out there, so exposed without your steel cocoon, a living breathing part of the scenery. Landmarks once close together now take half an hour to pass. And the little hidden places, the characters who spend their lives there, become known to you.

In short, urban hikes are frightening enlightening time-wasters that can make you a better citizen if you let them.

Take the red pill – take a walk

Nature-lovers often distrust politics, especially picky back-room politicking that shuts out voices unwilling to become part of the problem. But that’s not all politics can be. Ray Bradbury understood the political power of stories set in the human geography of everyday life, and not the kind of everyday embodied by the requisite single mother fidgeting at a State of the Union.

Urban hikes, more than anything, offer those willing a chance to absorb stories, even if the explorer only observes and talks to no one on the way. In Fahrenheit 451, the protagonist Montag fled into the woods to join a few legitimate storytellers still free from the controlling authority. Montag is a preserver, but like the house of his creator he can never return to the world, except in memory.

We’re lucky. We can come back from urban walks knowing more about how other people make their lives work. And that knowledge, that empathy, is key to a 21st century environmentalism that accounts for nature, social justice, and enterprise.

 

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