Monday, July 1, 2013

Why would Dorothy leave? Kansas City and my density theorem of urban intimacy



Kansas City has blown my mind, which is largely a function of my own ignorance. Prior to visiting (for extended research work), I knew relatively little about Kansas City.  I wrongly assumed it was insignificant, perhaps with unremarkable architecture, an indistinct history and culture, a provincial vibe.  Pictured below are images that rectify my mistake.  The Country Club Plaza features endless Spanish-inspired spires that date back to the 1920s.  The Rivermarket borough of lofts that fronts on the Missouri River offers local specialties (including Kansas City barbeque) and great views of the city's skyline.  Union Station glows purple at night, and in the day it teems with even more energy from local festivals like the Maker Faire inventors' exhibit.  The Kauffman Centre for the Performing Arts is the city's newest acquisition -- architectural marvel fit for the city's symphony, opera, and ballet.  


Country Club Plaza

view from Farmer's Market in Rivermarket

view of Union Station from Liberty Memorial hill

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
night bicycle ride along the Missouri River at Richard L. Berkley Riverfront Park

Kansas City has taught me that I love my cities big or small, and not in between.  

Why? Because big cities and small ones offer the population density requisite for intimacy.  And intimacy is medicine.  This is in fact a concept form urban planning, which I learned about from a film named Urbanized (see http://urbanizedfilm.com/ ).  Bigger cities that figure around 10 million in population throb with so many people vehicles shops noise that you cope with the anonymity by building wonderful relationships with your local grocer, newsstand, bus driver, and so on. My own reference point for big cities has been London, New Delhi, and Bombay.  Soon I will add Hong Kong and Taipei to this list.  On the flip-side, smaller cities that figure around the mark of 500,000 to 1 million are small enough to force a similar dynamic, of seeing folks often enough to prompt you to say hello more frequently, to build relationships perhaps.  My experiences in Ottawa, Oxford, Lucknow, and Kansas City have been illustrative.

Medium-sized cities, on the other hand, typically spread a population too thin  -- the density is too thin – to cultivate the same embeddedness, connectedness. This has been my experience of Chicago where a richly architected downtown core is hollowed out after office hours as urbanites migrate northward to relatively separated boroughs, albeit hip areas.  Toronto, Montreal, and San Francisco are good exceptions to this rule since although their population sizes are smaller, their urban design achieves magnificent density since their downtown cores are closely woven with neighboring historic districts and residential areas.

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