“Good design” = bad cities

I meant to post this James Lileks bleat a while ago. He engaged in some “wretched, slanted cherry-picking of selected quotes” from a newspaper interview with professor Thomas Fisher, the dean of University of Minnesota’s new School of Design. The interview discusses “the Design Economy,” and Lileks uses some of Fisher’s quotes as a springboard to discuss cities (starting with Minneapolis), suburbs, and the economies that are tied to them. Starting point:

[I]f all you have is a degree in Design, everything looks like a design problem.

It’s a long post, but I recommend giving it a read, if only because it helps me justify my own life in the suburbs:

Boring people live everywhere. Interesting people live everywhere. People have reasons for wanting to live in certain places, and if someone wants to live in the city, it’s his business. If he wants to live in the burbs, it’s his business. I could argue that people who confine themselves to the city are removing themselves from the experience of suburbia, which is actually more germaine to understanding America’s future than experiencing some of the lousy blocks I drive through daily.

So there’s some Friday afternoon reading for ya, in case it’s a slow day at the office.

2 Replies to ““Good design” = bad cities”

  1. That was pretty good, particularly the shooting in the barrel parts of it. He argues unfairly in that he ascribes either/or values to arguments that are best understood as value added, but the underlying arguments of what he’s dissecting seem pretty nincompoopish. Still, when he argues that people want a bus that takes them home more quickly more than they want a bus that gives them an urban experience, he kind of sidles away from the argument that a bus system that delivers people more quickly involves urban planning (which is what I’d call it) as well.

    I’ve lived several different places, and they all have their benefits. I live in a small town right now, having moved in from the suburban neighborhoods, and am saving up to buy a place in the country. It’s only when you go to the Midwest, to the old manufacturing cities that are struggling to make the transition into service economies, that you can perceive the level of dysfunction in the way cities can function.

    His assertion about the suck-level of depending on streetcars and having to shop a bunch of different places is funny, but exaggerated. My grandfather walked to work in our hometown, taking the streetcar or his car when the weather was sucky. He lived close enough to downtown to do this, in a great neighborhood. There were suburbs then. And farms, where a lot of the city elders lived. But Grandfather liked being close to downtown. Between his work neighborhood and his hometown neighborhood he could do all of his shopping/banking/etc. at lunch and on the way home. But because of the way my hometown was built and spent money and gave tax breaks and apportioned city services and built its schools, those neighborhoods don’t exist anymore. It’s not the suburbs; I like suburbs. It’s the monolithic nature of the suburbs, of one kind of living experience. More choice is good; it doesn’t necessarily imply that the other choice sucks.

    Also, there are plenty of neighborhoods in Seattle with mix of socio-economic classes. I rented the first floor of a house next to a rich lawyer and two-doors down from a complex with people spending $250 less a month on housing than me. His assertion that all neighborhoods are bland because of socio-economic circumstances is wrong. That being said, he’s right in that suburbs can be diverse, too.

    Understandably, it’s probably hard for him to write about this in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, because those are nice cities. It’s like trying to write about the ravages of AIDS when the only person you know that’s HIV positive is Magic Johnson. He’d have a different attitude about this if he lived in Youngstown, Ohio.

  2. Excellent take, Tom! I give Lileks credit for noting from the outset that he’s selectively and biasedly plucking those quotes. I was trying to figure out how much of his take was “uniquely Twin Cities”. I don’t think he’d argue that that “faster ride home” requires planning, too, but that seems to be a different type of planning: namely, finding quick routes, as opposed to making the ride more arduous so people will have more time not to make eye contact with others.

    Now that I’ve gotten out of NYC after my 3-day stay this week, I’m happy to report that I’m starting to be able to breathe through of my nose again, and my skin is showing signs of clearing up.

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