A recent article in The Atlantic Cities entitled The Dramatic Makeover of New York’s Streets Under Bloomberg featured a before and after video of the changed urban landscape from 2005 to the present. Upon viewing, you see bumper to bumper traffic disappear, replaced by tables and chairs in Times Square, unpaved industrial roads transformed into designated bike lanes, and the integration of greenery and formalized bike shares, creating an entirely new experience for those who stop, stay, or move throughout the area. The landscape is moving from scenery outside a window to earth under our feet. It is theorized by planners and mayors that those who experience a place from touch and feel, are perhaps more likely to take care of it. Facilitating human involvement will ultimately lead to greater care taken. These changes are executed with the underlying goal of increased interaction, engagement, and visibility for both humans and place.
City planning is presenting the opportunity for people to get outside, sit down, and slow down; spending a few key exploratory minutes engaging with their environment in a different way than previously possible. An emphasis on making cities walkable and bikeable aims to remove people from cars and give them the opportunity to walk or ride. The way our landscapes develop changes the way we interact, and are able to interact, with the surrounding world. Cities have created more opportunity for us to see a place by walking, rather than driving through. They’ve cleaned up parks so people can experience urban greenery, rather than avoid places filled with menace and illicit activity. Giant chess and checkerboards activate spaces, presenting us with a new way to experience that which surrounds us. Building or creating a place with the intent to engage makes a community feel cared about. But what of those places that don’t benefit from this care? A revolution in digital technology has created both unprecedented communication and connection and a gaping digital divide between those who have access and those who do not. What about those places on the other side of the “livable divide”?
Bikeshares and circulator routes help individuals and families access a greater area easily and more quickly, but for those without that access the absence of transit options keeps whole neighborhoods segregated from greater opportunity. The absence of landscaping improvements or streetscape installations in these clusters of poverty demonstrates a lack of attention and communicates indifference, giving off the air of not caring to engage the people or not caring about them at all. Those who live in these places are left only with their own resilience. Lack of investment represents not only neglect, but abandonment.
That impact on the psychological landscape is the most crucial element, especially for the young. Just as the digital revolution is transforming intellectual development in children and providing an unprecedented opportunity for self-expression, the transformation of the physical landscape is shaping young minds. The openness and care embodied in livable places both reflects and inspires the purpose-driven life millennials are so eager to pursue. From obesity to economic opportunity, the built environment for those on the wrong side of the livable divide is stifling that promise. As we work to open up our cityscapes and build a meaningful sense of place where people can flourish, planners and politicians must not close their minds to those whose everyday existence prevents them from getting to a better place.