The downtown of my city looks so much better now than it did when I first came to know it in the seventies. The “greatest generation” may have made it through the Great Depression and defeated Hitler, but they were terrible stewards of the public infrastructure they inherited from their parents. The great Olmsted park I knew as a child was poorly run, poorly maintained, rotting, taken for granted, and treated with disdain. The city streets, plazas, and all public spaces were treated in the exact same way.
The public thing, the res publica, was nothing but a drain on the res privata to my parents’ generation. In the schools I attended there was bird guano measured in inches within light wells, holes in wood floors so large that teachers placed plants in them; this in schools which were architectural marvels built by my grandparents and great grandparents. The new public buildings which were built once the greatest generation took control were horrible, low quality structures with no ornamentation which gave no respect to the public realm.
As artless as their treatment of the city had become, the inertia of decades, centuries, millennia(?), of civilization had maintained a level of programming which today’s young people(in the United States at least) would assume could have only ever existed in New York or Paris. So much of what I have written here at rationalurbanism is dedicated to design, but design isn’t nearly as important as programming.
Over the last few weeks I’ve had the chance to walk up, down, and all around my neighborhood and I can’t help but marvel at the improvements that have taken place over the last 30 years: brick lined sidewalks, renovated historic storefronts, more public art, better maintained public spaces, replica lampposts, paved crosswalks…the list goes on. The understanding of how to renovate and restore historic buildings has improved, and new structures are built in ways which integrate them with the urban fabric in ways which the buildings of the fifties, sixties, and seventies simply did not.
In spite of all this the city will only come to life when the programming inside the buildings and even on the streets of the city becomes the kind of programming which meets the daily needs of residents; the way cities always had until the greatest generation deprogrammed them. More residents will be attracted to cities as urban neighborhoods begin to meet more of the needs of their residents, more people will attract more businesses to meet those needs. The great thing about a traditionally designed city center is that it can reinvent itself to meet these residential and commercial demands at such minute increments that once the process begins it can continue without disrupting the functionality of the whole.
The bottom line, in this case literally, is that we have (re)built it, now they can come.