Contemplative City Planning

Photo by Tiffany Owens | 2017

This article could really be called “Contemplative EVERYTHING planning,” but I will restrict the scope of this article to cities because that’s what I study. And by “city planning,” I don’t mean usual city planning, like master planning. By city planning I mean any decision that has anything to do with how we shape, design, organize, manage and yes plan our cities. This article was inspired by a summer-morning chat with my housemate about this article on autonomous vehicles. These thoughts are raw and fresh. I’ll probably revise this at some point, so read in grace.

Like most topics, understanding this issue is a tale of two hands. On one hand, autonomous vehicles are widely exciting, the next step in our technological evolution. They represent an entirely new way of relating ourselves to our cars. Instead of seeing them as just a way to get from point A to point B, they can now become peaceful pods of productivity. On the other hand, AV represents a new attitude towards cars in which we are no longer driven by the desire to GET OUT OF THEM AS FAST AS HUMANELY POSSIBLE or to DRIVE FASTER, because of aforementioned productivity. This leads to various scenarios, among them the idyllic: taking the scenic route to work, and the nightmarish: circling downtown indefinitely, waiting for parking, clogging the road, but not caring because…you’re being productive (or worse, watching something pointless on YouTube, although, I know, I know, we’ll all be listening to podcasts…)

More hands.

On one hand, AV represents a fascinating addition to a multi-modal transportation infrastructure. Wonderful, because it could reduce our need to own our own car (this is an ideal situation). On the other hand, if private AV ownership becomes possible, it would mean an expansion of car-based city design, increased congestion, and more sprawl.

And finally, parking and ownership.

On one hand: lots of land frees up for more dense urban design since developers don’t have to supply parking since urban dwellers will simply summon an AV when they need one. On the other hand, who will own AVs? What will their relationship be to our privacy? How accessible with they be to people of various socioeconomic levels? And for goodness sake, how will I break my habit of leaving chapstick, tupperware, and dancing shoes in the backseat?

Serious questions.

The tale of two hands is only half my point. Here’s the other half.

New technology is AMAZING. It is what makes America truly great. We are insanely good at figuring out better ways to do things and even better at figuring out how to make money from our new ideas. But Americans are also terrible at contemplation. We have very few contemplative practices in our culture and if there was ever a time we needed to resurrect contemplation as a practice, it is now.

“Put your mouthful of words away 
and come with me to watch 
the lilies open in such a field, 
growing there like yachts, 
slowly steering their petals 
without nurses or clocks.”

Anne Sexton

A lack of contemplation can be dangerous. It is how our cities got the way they are now. Because we failed in contemplation, we introduced highways that destroyed thriving neighborhoods. We introduced massive parking decks that disrupted human scale design and wasted space. We introduced restrictive zoning practices that prevented growth. We introduced regulations that encouraged inefficient suburban sprawl. Depending on who you talk to, these ideas were valuable at the time, but looking back, we can see that perhaps we were looking too long at one hand and neglecting to consider the other.

I do believe many people involved in cities and technology are thinking seriously about how their products and decisions will affect society. Thank you. Please keep doing that. For the rest of us (citizens, planners, designers). Here’s what I would suggest a contemplative posture towards cities entails. It entails careful thought, question-asking, humility, and a willingness to restrain ourselves even if that means foregoing profits, fame, and popularity. It entails remembering that the point of the city is the foster human connectivity and to introduce new technology in such a way that achieves that end.