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Is Seattle’s real advantage how adorable it is?

A view of Downtown Seattle from Kerry Park on Queen Anne (March 2015) Credit: Jonathan Miske/Flickr

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.

This is not an idle, romantic notion — much of its basis regarding Seattle comes from discussions between local urbanist Chuck Wolfe and Crosscut — but one based in the fundamentals of what makes cities and metropolitan regions successful in the 21st century.  There is much to criticize in Richard Florida’s writing about the “creative class,” but he did make one important observation: Metropolitan regions have become the aggregators of talent in our era, a role formerly played by big business.

In the past, young engineers or managers would attach themselves to a large corporation and prepare for a nomadic life, accepting relocation as their company saw fit. Today, in contrast, a young person will attach herself to a metro area and prepare to shift among employers in that area as her career progresses. Silicon Valley tech firms set up shop in the Seattle area because they want access to talented people who will happily leave Microsoft or Amazon but will not leave Sammamish or Capitol Hill.

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.

The underlying assumption of the Weimar-era Bauhaus theorists was that the proletariat had little use for the decadence of ornamentation and that workers would gladly trade charm for efficiency. This is condescending nonsense. At the same time the Modernists were writing their manifestos, builders in Seattle were creating beautiful brick apartments and working-class neighborhoods with craftsman and Victorian bungalows that ooze charm from every shake. The Modernists did get their way in the post-war suburbs, with their ranch houses and split-levels, but very few of these are lovingly restored in the way their older counterparts are.

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. We like the designs and the materials and the patina that age imparts to them. It is hard to fall in love with new neighborhoods, even when they slavishly copy the architectural styles of the past. This jumps out most notably in places like the Florida cities of Seaside (the setting for the 1988 movie The Truman Show) and Celebration, which demonstrate how hard it is to engineer lovability.

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.

This raises another challenge of creating the lovable city: the danger of crossing the line into kitsch. A clock tower tacked onto a strip mall does not exactly make the heart flutter, and modernism has made us so chary of ornamentation and representational art that anything less than perfect execution will make more sophisticated observers wince. It is much safer, but far less lovable, to stay within the safe confines of a clean, modern design, especially of public spaces.

Bellevue's Downtown Park hosts a July 4 celebration Credit/City of Bellevue/Flickr
Bellevue’s Downtown Park hosts a July 4 celebration Credit/City of Bellevue/Flickr

We need to get over this. The formal arrangements and abundant ornaments of Bellevue’s Downtown Park make it a warm, inviting place that attracts large and diverse crowds. The delightful Kirkland waterfront is enhanced by a friendly but somewhat middlebrow collection of bronze sculptures. Fremont would not be itself without the Troll, Waiting for the Interurban, J.P. and Vlad. A wise observer noted that if we take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.

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.

 

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