A Talking Head Dreams of a Perfect City

Osaka’s robot-run parking lots mixed with the Minneapolis lakefront; a musician’s fantasy metropolis
By DAVID BYRNE
Originally published in the Wall Street Journal

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New Orleans on a rainy day. National Geographic Stock

There’s an old joke that you know you’re in heaven if the cooks are Italian and the engineering is German. If it’s the other way around you’re in hell. In an attempt to conjure up a perfect city, I imagine a place that is a mash-up of the best qualities of a host of cities. 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. 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.

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The author in Budapest. Natalie Kuhn

As someone who has used a bicycle to get around New York for about 30 years I’ve watched the city-mainly Manhattan, where I live-change for better and for worse. During this time I started to take a full-size folding bike with me when I traveled so I got to experience other cities as a cyclist as well. Seeing cities from on top of a bike is both pleasurable and instructive. On a bike one sees a lot more than from a freeway, and often it’s just as fast as car traffic in many towns.

A “livable city” means vastly different things for many people. In Hong Kong it might mean that your family is in a comfortable apartment while you play in the exciting mercantile world in a glass tower overlooking the harbor. In Dallas livability might mean that you live near an expressway that isn’t jammed up, at least not all the time, and your car runs most days. For some it might mean super fast Wi-Fi, the possibility of lucky and lucrative business opportunities and plenty of strip clubs. If that’s what rocks your boat then try Houston, though to me that city, oil money made physically manifest, is my worst nightmare.
Here are some things that make a city livable for me:

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. In a small town everyone knows about your failures, so you are more careful about what you might attempt. Every time I visit San Francisco I ask out loud “Why don’t I live here? Why do I choose to live in a place that is harder, tougher and, well, not as beautiful?” The locals often reply, “You don’t want to live here. It looks like a city, but it’s really a small village. Everyone knows what you’re doing” Oh, OK. If you say so. It’s still beautiful.

Density
If a city doesn’t have sufficient density, as in L.A., then strange things happen. 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 Yorkers are viewed as being tough as nails, no-nonsense but with hearts of gold-or maybe just gold-plated. This might not be the sensibility I would choose if I had a choice. The people of Glasgow, where most of my relatives live, are working class, blunt and free of pretenses. (They see their sister city Edinburgh as putting on airs). Their sense of humor can be scathing, though I find it hilarious. There’s a wicked sense of humor associated with Berlin as well-Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Helmut Newton all shared this dark and sometimes transgressive sensibility. New Orleans is a city where people make eye contact. There’s a more open sensuality there as well. I’d take that in my perfect city, minus some of the other aspects of that town, such as its tragic poverty, corruption, and crime.

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Rush hour at a Tokyo subway station. Alamy

Security
Travelers return from Japan with tales of someone having left their phone or bag on the subway or even on the street and then returning to find the phone or bag exactly where they left it, sometimes the next day. I’d like to live in a city where the citizens trust one another that much- though I suspect that’s the result of Japan being a more or less homogenized society, which has its drawbacks as well. But security can exist in the West. For example in parts of New York’s West Village, as author Jane Jacobs pointed out, the streets are rarely abandoned and there are almost always some locals hanging out, so everyone sees a little bit of what’s going on. The community has eyes and ears, and everyone behaves accordingly. In my perfect city I’d feel that sense of neighborliness-that people weren’t in my business, but that I would be a familiar sight, as they would be to me.

Chaos and danger
To some, security means rigid order and strict rules. 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. Sometimes too flexible, but a little bit of that sense of excitement and possibility is something I’d wish for in a city. A little touch of chaos and danger makes a city sexy.

Human scale
Scale is important. In London people hang out in Soho, Covent Garden, Mayfair and other areas of mostly low buildings packed closely together. The City (their financial district), like the downtown in many American cities, is full of tall offices and it empties out at night. It isn’t that bustling in the daytime either. Some sort of compromise might be more ideal-the tall towers mixed in with the modest-sized shops and restaurants.

Parking
To be honest, available parking doesn’t matter to me. Parking lots and structures are dead real estate-they bring no life into a city and I’d be happy if there were a lot fewer of them in New York. It would be a pain in the neck for a lot of drivers, but unless they can be hidden underground, as they are often in Japan, lots and parking structures are simply dead zones, which hurt the businesses around them. In Japan parking structures are skinny, no wider than a large car, and a robotic system files the cars away. The Italian cities of Florence, Modena, Ferrara, where parking is pretty much relegated to the fringes of the town, are vibrant, though their appeal to pedestrians has turned some of them into tourist hubs.

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Berlin’s Unter den Linden. Alamy

Boulevards
If boulevards aren’t too wide, like 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires, they can serve to break the monotonous pattern of streets and blocks, let sunlight in, and function as a landmark (so you know where you are). And if they are lined with trees and beautiful buildings of different types, they can even be pleasant. Park Avenue, Manhattan’s widest boulevard, doesn’t cut it. The green in the middle is lovely but inaccessible, and the endless sameness of giant apartment or office buildings with little else to break the rhythm inspires the eye and mind to glaze over. Berlin has some great boulevards. Karl Marx Allee, a massive boulevard in former East Germany, has outdoor cafes, wide sidewalks and weird Soviet era fountains and movie theaters. It threatens to go beyond a comfortable scale, but the business in the little shops along the street helps hold that in check.

Mixed use
This is a Jane Jacobs phrase. A perfect city is where different things are going on, relatively close to each other, at different times of the day. A city isn’t a strip of hotels and restaurants on a glorious beach; it’s a place where there are restaurants and hotels, but also little stores, fashion boutiques, schools, houses, offices, temples and banks. The healthy neighborhood doesn’t empty out at 6 p.m., as most of downtown L.A. does. In my perfect city there would always be something going on nearby.


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Revelers at Tennants Bar in Glasgow. Alamy

Public spaces
In my perfect city there are ample public spaces-parks (not just vacant land, but common areas that people pass through and use), plazas (not just slabs in front of corporate towers) and, if possible, public access to the waterfront (if there is one). We don’t necessarily need massive acreage in our parks. Bigger is not always better, but we do need periodic breaks from buildings. Industry abandoned the waterfronts over previous decades, and as the docks and the industry that went with them moved elsewhere our cities have begun to reclaim these areas-river walks (look how many people use Manhattan’s Hudson River paths!), lakefronts (the beautiful Minneapolis lakefront paths eventually lead all the way to the Mississippi!), beaches and seashores. In some seaside towns there is no public access to the sea, which to me seems a self-injuring situation. In my perfect city there would be public access to all these areas.

The perfect city isn’t static. It’s evolving and ever changing, and its laws and structure allow that to happen. Neighborhoods change, clubs close and others open, yuppies move in and move out-as long as there is a mix of some sort, then business districts and neighborhoods stay healthy even if they’re not what they once were. My perfect city isn’t fixed, it doesn’t actually exist, and I like it that way.

-David Byrne is a musician and founding member of the band Talking Heads. His book “Bicycle Diaries” was published by Viking in 2009.

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