Kaid Benfield Archive


David Byrne, stop making sense: your perfect city is just about perfect

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 18, 2009 at 1:55PM

, , , , ,

I confess that the Talking Heads were more a band that I thought I should like rather than one I actually did.  Maybe that's because I grew up in the South in the 1960s, where the good music had a backbeat, soul, and maybe a bit of twang.  The Heads were all intellectual and Yankee and couldn't possibly have been whiter. 

But I did sort of admire the arty pretension of it, and liked Byrne's eventual dabbling in international genres (or was that only Peter Gabriel?).  The movie was especially cool.  So I knew there was stuff to respect.

  Sydney (by: Christopher Chan, creative commons license)

But I never predicted that Byrne would turn out be an urbanist of the first order, an uncredentialed but keenly astute observer of what makes places work.  Jane Jacobs, whom he obviously admires, would be proud.  In general, I agree heartily with his descriptions of what is best about various cities he knows and what a perfect mashup of their best characteristics, minus their shortcomings, might yield:

"The permutations are endless. Maybe I'd take the nightlife of New York in a setting like Sydney's with bars like those in Barcelona and cuisine from Singapore served in outdoor restaurants like those in Mexico City. a station in Kyoto (by: silgeo/Mauro, creative commons license)Or I could layer the sense of humor in Spain over the civic accommodation and elegance of Kyoto. Of course, it's not really possible to cherry pick like this-mainly because a city's qualities cannot thrive out of context. A place's cuisine and architecture and language are all somehow interwoven. But one can dream."

He really nails it (this is in the Wall Street Journal) in listing some key ingredients:

  • Size ("A city can't be too small. Size guarantees anonymity-if you make an embarrassing mistake in a large city, and it's not on the cover of the Post, you can probably try again. The generous attitude towards failure that big cities afford is invaluable-it's how things get created")
  • Density ("It's human nature for us to look at one another- we're social animals after all. But when the urban situation causes the distance between us to increase and our interactions to be less frequent we have to use novel means to attract attention: big hair, skimpy clothes and plastic surgery. We become walking billboards")
  • Sensibility and attitude ("New Orleans is a city where people make eye contact")
  • New Orleans' French Quarter (by ang/3 girls, creative commons license)Chaos and danger ("I do believe we do need some laws and rules to guide and reign us in a bit, and I don't just mean traffic lights and pooper scooper mandates. But there's a certain attractiveness to New Orleans, Mexico City or Naples-where you get the sense that though some order exists, it's an order of a fluid and flexible nature . . . a little bit of that sense of excitement and possibility is something I'd wish for in a city") (KB note: I can do without the danger part, myself.)
  • Human scale ("Some sort of compromise might be more ideal-the tall towers mixed in with the modest-sized shops and restaurants")
  • Parking ("lots and parking structures are simply dead zones, which hurt the businesses around them") (KB note: here, DB reflects the reigning smart growth sensibility, but it's one I don't buy completely. I find life best when I have an easy choice to drive or not, depending on my needs. I think urban idealists may seek to swing the pendulum too far in the direction of choking off traffic and parking.)
  • Boulevards (not too wide, "lined with trees and beautiful buildings of different types")
  • Mixed use ("A perfect city is where different things are going on, relatively close to each other")
  • Public spaces ("We don't necessarily need massive acreage in our parks. Bigger is not always better, but we do need periodic breaks from buildings")

Byrne concludes with the admonition that "my perfect city isn't fixed, it doesn't actually exist, and I like it that way."  But keep dreaming, my friend.  I think you're on to something, Yankee or not.  Full article here.

Thanks to Alys Campaigne for the tip.