The psychology of the urban mystique

25 March 2021
The psychology of the urban mystique


Matt Johnson, PhD :
Cities are one of the most important features of human civilization. They provide us with a sense of belonging, dictate the range of people we interact with, and shape how we see the world at large. As cities change, so do we.
The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the rise of remote work, has brought significant speculation about the future of cities. In order to understand these shifts and trends, I spoke with urban planning expert Josh Stephens. A writer specializing in cities, transportation, urban planning, technology, design, and places, Josh is contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report, and the author of the new book, The Urban Mystique: Notes on California, Los Angeles, and Beyond, a collection of essays on cities and urban planning, published by Solimar Books.
It seems clear that the place we grew up in can have a big influence on how we see the world in general. In general, how have you come to think about this connection?
The adage "you can't ask a fish to describe water" is common to the point of being a cliche, but I think it's axiomatic in the case of hometowns.
The varieties of human settlement are infinite, from Tokyo high-rises to Montana ranch houses to Sao Paulo favelas. When they're growing up, most people know little other than their home environments. To wake up and engage with the same world every single day is powerful. It's easy to assume that your environment is "standard." At the very least, "home" feels familiar and safe, even if it's not a particularly nice place.
Kids don't question whether their environment is ideal or whether it was built for the right reasons any more than they question whether their native language or their religion is ideal. Our places are built into us and they influence us so powerfully that we don't even know they're influencing us. And hometowns aren't just buildings and streets. They are also cultural norms: values, customs, ideas, styles, ideologies, and relationships. We approach the rest of the world according to those cultural norms.
I probably arrived at this connection to an extent through travel. I grew up in Los Angeles but spent a good deal of time with family in Manhattan. So, I was aware of the dramatic difference between the two. I was also vaguely aware that Los Angeles, at least my corner of it, was pleasant but not actually a great place to grow up. The connection between place and personhood really hit me in college when I got to know kids who had grown up in New York. They were palpably different from many other kids. They had a common air of maturity and sophistication. I was a little bit jealous. I wished my city had been more like theirs.
There has been a lot of speculation about the future of cities, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have argued that we'll see a 'de-urbanization' across the U.S., if policies towards remote work are maintained. Do you think this trend will be borne out?
This is one of the dominant questions in urban planning today.
On the face, I don't trust anyone who makes predictions about the impacts of the pandemic. I think the epidemiological evidence about the purported "dangers of density" is not remotely conclusive. I think companies do not yet know what long-term remote work would be like. And I don't think we have any idea of the sociological implications of de-urbanization. People who are excited about fleeing to the suburbs, moving into a large house, and dedicating a room to their Peloton and another to Zoom might get bored in 18 months.
For better or worse, I think we can't discount the power of fear in this situation. Whether founded or unfounded, some people are afraid of the (perceived) way that cities can spread contagion. (That's not new. People have been afraid of crime, pollution, vice, and, of course, unfamiliar people in cities for a long time.) More rationally, many people simply don't enjoy urban life when the best things about it - dining, entertainment, parties, events - are shut down. Once those "amenities", as we call them in planning, come back, people might come back too.  The offhand responses to the virus illustrate the achingly long-term timeframe of urban planning. People can make decisions in an instant. You can make an offer on that suburban house and move in three weeks later. Urban planning operates on timeframes of years and decades. One of the fundamental challenges of planning is to assess present-day best practices (which is hard enough), then try to imagine what people will need 20-30 years in the future, and then convince elected officials to vote for plans that purport to meet those needs. It's crazy to think that a 1-2 year pandemic could influence the look and feel of cities 40-50 years from now, but it all depends on whether planners are reactionary or deliberative.
What is YIMBY-ism and how does it contrast with NIMBY-ism? How have you come to see YIMBY-ism as a movement/trend/perspective?
Aside from the pandemic, this is one of the hot topics in planning these days. The housing crisis is crippling many cities, and planners are scrambling to prevent it from getting worse.
YIMBYism is a broad term with different definitions depending on whom you ask. That makes sense: if NIMBYs are against development, that's pretty easy to define. No means no. But "yes" can mean a million different things. Yes to market-rate housing? Yes to subsidized housing? Yes to housing here but not there? Yes to everything? Yes to a few things?  The movement is multifaceted and evolving.
It's motivated by a few factors. Some of it derives from young adults who suffer from high housing prices but are keen on urban lifestyles. Their advocacy for more housing is the political embodiment of the rediscovery or urban living that took place throughout the 2000s and early 2010s and then undermined itself once all the moderately priced housing stock got gobbled up by all of those eager millennials.  YIMBYism also provides a crucial counterweight to the power of homeowners, which has accumulated unchallenged for decades. Homeowners dominate urban politics because they are relatively sedentary, relatively wealthy, and relatively white (and often benefited from zoning laws and patterns that favor whiteness). They have financial, aesthetic, and sometimes racially motivated interests in maintaining the status quo-meaning under-production of housing. They are the ones who have traditionally dominated public discourse.
Of course, pro-development residents do exist. But they are often working multiple jobs, disconnected from local power structures, and completely unaware that a small group of people is working so hard against their interests. I reckon that the vehemence of many NIMBY groups is simply unimaginable to most everyday renters.
Even if YIMBYism doesn't have a completely coherent platform, the movement is at least trying to break the hegemony of homeowners. In many places, it's working.
How can urban planning help provide an opportunity for human connection, community, and social cohesion? Particularly for people from different walks of life and across socioeconomic lines?
That is a major goal for today's progressive planners. I, and many other planners, credit Jane Jacobs for articulating that goal most clearly when she was writing in the 1960s. Two generations later, her ideas are mainstream. Most planners who work on big-picture, long-term planning today strive for inclusivity, cohesion, community, and quality of life. And many planners are dedicated to social justice.
But, of course, a planner working today isn't going to have an impact for many years to come. And planners working today have to contend with an existing built environment that is often hostile to those communal goals. We built a lot of terrible, alienating stuff in the 20th century - think tract housing, freeways, strip malls, etc. Planners may be much more progressive in their thinking now, but that stuff-which urban critic James Kunstler inelegantly but accurately refers to as "clusterf*ck nation"-isn't going away instantly, if ever.
There's a recent trend called "tactical urbanism," which seeks to reclaim elements of public space and make terrible spaces a little more inviting. We've seen a lot of it during the pandemic, such as street closures for people to walk outside, parklets for outdoor dining, and parking lots converted to dining areas. I think that's a positive outcome of the pandemic. But it's not durable. Between the rise of e-Commerce and the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that brick and mortar physical retail has fallen on tough times. Is the American Mall completely dead? What do you see as the future of the urban, in-person, shopping experience?   This fragility of retail and restaurants has concerned me for a long time, even before the pandemic.
It's tragic that city life has boomed in the past 15-20 years while one of the key components of city life has been dying a slow death. One the one hand, it's unfortunate that "buying stuff" is so important. On the other hand, capitalism isn't entirely bad. People need stuff, and people like stuff. If they can get their stuff from earnest retailers that enliven their cities, provide satisfying communal experiences, and employ people, then everyone profits. I'm less sympathetic to malls and chain stores. And yet, I acknowledge that, in many suburban areas, malls are crucial communal spaces. All of these formats are in peril now.   The tough part for planners is that they can envision and design great urban places, like main streets with ground-floor retail and offices and housing above. But if there's no demand for the storefronts, it doesn't matter how well designed a street might be. Planners can't conjure businesses into existence. I think cities that recognize this problem and aren't afraid of bold measures can do something about it. For instance, cities can't really outlaw chain stores and restaurants, but they can outlaw things like enormous signs that chain stores rely on. That creates openings for independent businesses. Ideally, suburban jurisdictions can stop subsidizing projects, such as strip malls, to compel businesses to locate in urban areas.
Ideally, I would hope that people recognize the value of local businesses and support them accordingly. That may require some very creative public relations campaigns (something cities don't do very well). Unfortunately, it's usually hard to compel people to do much of anything en masse absent serious economic cues. Then again, recent history suggests that if planners and developers create great spaces, businesses and customers will follow.

(Matt Johnson, Ph.D., is a writer, speaker, and professor at Hult International Business School in San Francisco, California. He is the author of Blindsight: The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes our Brains).

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