the concrete of big cities

From Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building:

“Each one of us has, somewhere in his heart, the dream to make a living world, a universe.”

Roman Mars produces an amazing radio show called 99% Invisible. I think there’ve only been a few episodes I haven’t been fully enthralled by.

There’s a theme that recurs (purposefully or accidentally) in his podcasts. These are stories of the human response to architecture that man has designed.

Crammed flop houses in the Bowery neighborhood of NYC.
Questions about tables and chairs (why are tables so low? why are chairs so perpendicular?).
Ugly buildings on college campuses (ironically many of which house architecture programs).

I listen to these podcasts as I walk around NYC’s East Village; I spot the hulking Lower East Side projects that Roman talks about.

Or after the episode on street width, I really do wonder: “Does the combination of narrow streets and tall buildings make me unhappy?”

Lately, 99% Invisible spurred another thought that I can’t seem to unthink. Why are our cities so concrete? What does that say about our relationship with our world?

Many of the things I see in NYC are awe-inspiring when looked at in isolation. But taken together with everything else, there seems to be a dullness, a drabness, that remains, regardless of how vibrant and noisy and lively the streets are during brunch time.

There’s so much damn concrete. It’s as if we designed our cities to escape the natural world. Trees, grass, critters, parks — these are mere amenities confined to neatly packaged squares. 

Occasionally, this makes us overtly antsy. So we go to the beach with some friends to unwind and take in the calming, intimidating beauty of the world. Then we complain about bug bites.

The concrete that surrounds us has probably developed a toxic relationship between us and the world. Instead of trying to harness nature so that we and it can coexist, we suppress it and, in its stead, try to approximate it with our toys.

Replace wood with concrete, gravel and sand with pavement.

It’s seems lazy! What if instead of concrete, we had streets dominated by trees; roads and sidewalks that crunched naturally under our feet; filtration systems that weren’t just a series of underground pipes?

I think we’d be a happier lot. Our innovations would look much different, maybe even better than what we see now.

I say all this to try to shake off my own city-induced neuroticism. I'm a (slowly) aspiring hippie.