cities and purpose
building cities around purpose, not ambition
If American cities could whisper a message, what would they convey?
In his essay on Cities and Ambition, Graham posits cities whisper covert messages about success: New York beckons you to amass wealth, Boston invites you to deepen your intellect, Los Angeles allures with the promise of fame, and Silicon Valley tempts with the lure of power. Other cities may whisper for more hipness, beauty, social prestige, or political clout.
I’ve always felt a bit put off by these messages. In the sense that these “aims” should be more so the byproduct of following one’s own authentic purpose, rather than ends in themselves. Those who strive to help raise the aspirations, conditions, and consciousness of others through their authentic expressions, may naturally secure fame and fortune - but it is a lagging indicator, not a leading one. And whether these things are secured or not, is not of real importance in the end.
If purpose is the fountainhead from which all else springs, imagine a city whispering: “you should be more authentic”. In this pursuit, purpose spontaneously emerges from the journey of living one’s truth, a path devoid of pre-existing templates. Along this path, virtues like altruism and a sense of duty to the collective good naturally surface. As the great polymath Rabindranath Tagore said: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy”. This city whispers not of some result that must be obtained, but ignites an inner drive for you to be the most you possible. As such, when the “highest status person” is the one who is the most themselves, social hierarchies become moot, because there would be no way to truly verify the magnitude of authenticity of another, nor would anyone really care to.
Contrasting with Graham’s inclination to categorize cities, this city's essence transcends all labels. Here, the ongoing journey of self-exploration prevents any one stereotype from calcifying. Citizens in this city might find themselves maneuvering the financial markets in one chapter of life, embracing artistry in another, or stepping into the role of a technologist in yet another. Each experiment expresses one’s evolving purpose through a new medium. Or the same medium can be deepened.
The point is that in this city, the medium is not the message. The mechanism is. That is, the unfolding of one’s truth.
“You should be more authentic”, it whispers.
In an ideal world, no single city would monopolize this whisper. Rather, it would become the primary message of every city. And a slew of novel policies, public goods, and infrastructure would arise to magnify the perennial journey of the human spirit.
I believe the process of uncovering one’s authentic purpose is a cyclical process of continuous experimentation, meaning-making, and re-engagement with the world. This process necessitates periods of deep solitude to rest into what is true, as well as communion with others as mirrors to ourselves and portals into unknown unknowns. Without pausing, we lose access to the deep wisdom within us. Without communion, we can get stuck at a local maxima, running on prior scripts that have turned stale. As noted author Ian McEwan aptly puts it, “Paradise on earth is to work all day alone in anticipation of an evening in interesting company.”
In modern society, we are good at cycling through this process largely alone. For most, college was the last container that embodied meaning-making in communion to such a holistic extent. The late Richard Dober, who designed and consulted for a majority of colleges in America wrote: “Campus design is a civic art that resonates with meaning and significance for our culture. The Greeks had their agora, the Romans their Forum, the Middle Ages their cathedral and town square, the Renaissance their palaces and enclaves for the privileged, and the 19th century their centers of commerce, transportation and government. The campus is uniquely our generation’s contribution to communal placemaking.” When designed well, it should “promote community, allegiance, and civility, while at the same time encouraging diversity in discourse and vision.”
In order to design cities that amplify the pursuit of authentic purpose, “the American Campus” is a good blueprint to take inspiration from. Unlike the monastic model of campus design that influenced European institutions, American campuses were designed to be deeply social places, where knowledge from different fields circulated freely. While social infrastructure provided the physical containers for this alchemy, intentional social programming was equally, if not more important, in amplifying the rate of cohesion and meaning-making. Relative to physical containers, social programming represents the intentional design of energetic containers which engender exploration, connection, and expansion of the human soul.
Reflecting on our college days, we may marvel at the beautiful libraries and student halls, but our nostalgia runs deep for the social programming that animated them: the frenzied participation of well-run clubs, myriad of social schelling points planned by college heads, heaps of philosophical debates and discussions, racket of stories exchanged to the backdrop of a bustling cafeteria, and the ceaseless parade of parties, music, and seasonal celebrations that unified us in collective effervescence. Life felt like a verb as opposed to a noun - never quite arriving, always in relationship, fertile in curiosity, and budding in purpose.
Our cities, as modern-day adult campuses, whisper something else entirely: pick a purpose, be a somebody, do your job efficiently, smile mildly at the barista, enjoy some recreation, buy things to keep up with the joneses, eat at the trending restaurant of the week, and commune behind closed doors and private partifuls.
Is it no wonder something feels off?
When Tocqueville visited America in the late 1820s, he marveled at Americans’ political do-it-yourself spirit that was in service to their community. “They do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves,” he wrote.
Unlike fellow Frenchmen, who were passively acquiescent to a centralized aristocratic order, Americans readily gathered in local settings to solve problems. They were largely indifferent to the distant central government, which exercised relatively few powers back then. Local township government, Tocqueville wrote, was the “schoolhouse of democracy,” and he praised the commitment of citizens to secure the goods of common life not only for the ends they achieved but for the habits of communion and civic duty that they wrought to the citizens themselves.
If we are to enliven our cities to be as spirited as our campuses or ancestral “schoolhouses of democracy”, we don’t necessarily need another park renovation, public square, expanded retail corridor, utopic library, or commercial space masking capitalism as community. We don’t need more white papers or philosophical manifesto’s that point to how civic and community life has faltered, isolation and mental disorders are up, and things are only getting worse.
What we really need is to do something about it. To empower and resource people who care. People who want to create social institutions and vitalize them with programming at a public level, not just behind closed doors. People who want to start bookstores, coffee shops, and tea houses which double as book clubs and art classes at night. People who want to turn town square into an athenian agora, where ideas, not just goods, are exchanged in jest. People who want to create co-working spaces that feel more like medieval guilds than a marketplace for exchanging favors. People who want to create gyms with real social accountability through community wellness events. People who want to start restaurants that feel like communal cafeterias, rife with socio-economic and intergenerational mixing. People who want to open community centers that engender friendship not collaborations, infused with the energy of Xerox Parc and the coziness of a Hogwarts common room. People who want to open retail stores as fronts for community organizing meetings and mahjong nights in the back. People who want to open contemplative spaces that welcome all backgrounds for discussions around grief, love, purpose, and death. The list goes on and on.
What is common across these examples is the mutually reinforcing combination of “physical place” and “intentional programming” that is led by community, for community. In other words, these initiatives are not just about creating spaces but about crafting experiences that bind people together. Cities may be able to give us spaces top-down, but we have to meet this with heart to enrich them from the bottom-up.
If cities are to become places that engender self–actualization, authenticity, and purpose - we need to increase the probability that in a given day, one can engage with new perspectives that stretch or challenge their own from those beyond their inner circle. That a gander in one’s neighborhood can be filled with conversations that inspire authentic connection, heart-centered expansion, and philosophical contemplation. That basic utilities like health, food, and shelter can be imbued with social connection that give rise to the feeling of being part of a greater whole. Because when the social safety net is strong, we can pursue our dreams and truth with more reckless abandon. And find that in the upper echelons of our ascent lay the belly of a primordial desire to dive back into the tapestry from which we spawned - bolstering, expanding, and enriching it to become the edifice by which others may soar.
In the words of political theorist, Patrick J. Deneen, “What’s needed now is not to perfect our philosophy any further but to do more honor to ourselves. Out of the fostering of new and better selves, porously invested in the fate of other selves—through the cultivation of cultures of community, care, self-sacrifice, and small-scale democracy—a better [world] might arise from it.”
If our cities whispered this, how far could we go, together?
In the coming issues, I’ll be sharing a project I’m working on with a few others to bring more social infrastructure to San Francisco. Stay tuned!
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