Communities of the Pacific coast are tied together by the ribbon of road known as US Highway 1. One grueling day took us across Los Angeles. We found that many disparate communities were shockingly proximate to one another. The limitations of bicycle travel did not prevent us from seeing spectacular beaches, hillside estates, beachfront mansions, and urban blight all within a few miles of one another. Cities have always provoked the human spirit with their visible geographies of inequality; after all, it was the hellish and urban factories of Manchester that inspired Marx and Engels against capitalism. The landscapes of pastoral agriculture rarely incite our passions in quite the same way. Cities seem to bring out the worst in humanity and yet somehow provide the structure for all of those terrible little demons to coexist so productively.
Cities are here to stay. The world continues to urbanize. Opportunities and human possibilities abound in cities and usually cannot be found outside of them. The spectacular and unexpected means of progress within cities is what makes The Economy of Cities one of the most important books to my personal intellectual development. The city has grit, romance, rubbish, flash, and jazz writ large across its complex landscape. In this city of Los Angeles and every other great city I know, I am hopelessly intrigued but also troubled. My roots in rural North Dakota have bred a fierce and rugged individualism rooted in a supportive, tight-knit community. I’ve been blessed enough to travel to some other corners of the world, with college in a New England town and terms abroad in Peru and the Czech Republic. I’ve never truly lived in a city but I’ve spent enough time in them. I know only what I see and I do see a city in my future. Which city – who knows? Perhaps any one where I can ride my bicycle to work and to get groceries and to escape. There is something disconcerting about that inevitability, however. Embedded in the city are decades of infrastructure and regulation and decisions and history upon which the matrix of modern life is negotiated, for better and for worse. There are car commutes full of angry souls imprisoned in speeding vehicles, ossified social roles and city cultures, zoning codes and permits and endless asphalt and city lights that sparkle to dim the stars. There is also the critical mass of diverse people and passions, boundless opportunity, and the promise of progress and new ways of doing.
What if we could dissolve the boundaries between the parallel urban universes we encountered by bicycle in Los Angeles? Can one shrink social distance and eliminate the dehumanizing anonymity of the city? And can it be done while preserving the urban diversity and freedom that produces ever more spectacular expressions of the human spirit for innovation and prosperity and joy? These are just a few thoughts that occupied our minds and our conversation as we crossed the great cities of southern California.