Is Seattle’s real advantage how adorable it is?
by Michael Luis
Is it enough for a city to be “livable?” You know, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly with a convenient mix of homes, apartments and businesses in compact, transit accessible neighborhoods complete with local coffee shops, bars and bookstores. In other words, the sorts of places that the Millennials are thought to flock toward with an eye to lightening their environmental footprint.
Similarly, is it enough to be “competitive”? You know, the kind of metropolitan region that hosts world-leading businesses and institutions and attracts top talent from around the globe to work in them. In other words, the sorts of places that those same Millennials seek out when they leave their hometowns.
The answer to both questions is: No. In many ways, the concepts of livability and competitiveness are technocratic and not well focused on emotional connection. Most of us want something more — to feel a personal attachment to the place we live. We want to fall in love with our city. If we do, we are more likely to put down roots and participate fully in community life.
We need to think as much about a lovable city as about livable city. Metro areas need to compete for hearts as much as for career aspirations. …
Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter notes that successful regions have both magnets and glue, and that glue is what lovability is all about. The most obvious glue in the Puget Sound region comes from the natural environment, which seduces newcomers and causes them to invest in Subarus and kayaks. But people will spend most of their time in the built environment, and that is where true love must blossom. Yet, our approach to planning and managing our cities rarely includes emotional attachment as a goal.
The lovable city exhibits beauty and charm, and these are often at odds with contemporary ways of building cities and regions. Livability, as generally conceived for urban areas, requires a high level of density to support transit and to ensure that walkable neighborhoods have enough customers to support local businesses. But lovability often grows out of more intimate settings with older, inefficient buildings and streetscapes where quirkiness can thrive on low rents. Lovability and livability often operate at different scales.
The bigger challenge for lovability comes from the prevailing ethos of modernism and its hostility to the kinds of detail and ornamentation that bring charm to buildings, parks and streetscapes. Modernist architecture can, of course, be quite striking and beautiful, but it can be hard to love. …
Even if we acknowledge the need to create lovable cities we face an inherent challenge: Lovability implies authenticity. We tend to fall in love with urban environments that are older and speak in real ways to earlier eras. …
And yet the old, authentic neighborhoods are in very limited supply. In the Seattle area they are mostly full and often quite expensive and not available to the working-class residents for whom many of them were built. Everyone deserves to live in a place they will fall in love with, yet most will not have the opportunity to enjoy the charms of century-old homes, streetscapes and Olmstead parks. Cities and some developers around the region, to their great credit, are tackling this challenge, with “placemaking” strategies that try to include lovable components in otherwise contemporary designs. …
As the region grows, those in charge of designing our public and private spaces need to broaden their perspective beyond economic and spatial efficiency. They need to be mindful of warmth and the sticky little details that put a smile on our face and give us reasons to love our neighborhoods and cities. We cannot create authenticity, but time does soften the edges of the new. In the meantime the important thing is to create neighborhoods and public places where people feel good about spending their time and within which they will forge memories. Authentic experiences give rise to lovable cities.