Creative Collisions in the City

June 13, 2012, Washington, DC: There’s a chapter called “Urban Friction” in Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works that focuses on the innovation and great ideas that spring up from the interactions so common in our cities. In it, Talking Heads singer David Byrne describes his bicycle rides around New York City as a means of collecting an urban soundtrack full of sounds that don’t traditionally go together. Lehrer explores how companies can act more like cities by encouraging conversation and the sharing of knowledge. He considers why collaboration across company lines led to the success of Silicon Valley while the promise of a technology boom along Boston’s Rte. 128 died on the vine due in part to nondisclosure agreements and tight lips. A powerhouse in Israel’s tech sector named Yossi Vardi illustrates how more innovation comes from people with many weak ties than from people with fewer stronger ones — whether those weak ties are cultivated during mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces or on the sidewalk of a city street. Physicists Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt recount collecting urban data on everything from heightened productivity and walking speed to patent production, concluding, as Lehrer explains, that “the most creative cities are the ones with the most collisions.”

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Jane Jacobs & The Neighborhoods of Toronto

“People would ask me after we had decided to stay, “Well, when are you coming back?” “Well, we’re not. We are living here.” “Oh, but you can’t just—you’ve got to come back to real life.” And I would say, “It’s just as real.” This is very hard for Americans to understand and I think that may be the biggest difference between Americans and people elsewhere. Canadians know that there are places just as real as Canada.”

-Jane Jacobs, on moving from New York to Toronto, from a March 2001 interview by Jim Kunstler for Metropolis Magazine

June 5, 2012, Washington, DC: The late Jane Jacobs is best known in the States for her years as a quintessential New Yorker: Her observations about city living on Greenwich Village’s Hudson Street and her vocal opposition to building a highway on the Lower East Side shaped not only the city itself, but influenced the way we think about major metropolises. But the godmother of urban studies would later make another city her home. In the late 1960s, Jacobs, then in her early 50s, relocated with her family from New York to Toronto, where she was actively involved from the get-go both in the city’s politics and in the more subtle rhythms of its lively streets. Shortly after moving in, Jacobs helped put an stop to the completion of Toronto’s Spadina Expressway, a proposed north-south highway that would chop the city in half, just as she had spoken up against Robert Moses in New York. Various Toronto writers at the time of Jacobs’ death in 2006 reminisced about seeing her out and about on Bloor St. in the Annex neighborhood where she lived near Bathhurst subway station and lingering regularly in her neighborhood bookstore, always vigorously participating in her hometown. Jacobs lived in Toronto for nearly half her life and became a Canadian citizen in 1974.

For those of us who believe in Jacobs’ conviction that strong, active and diverse neighborhoods are the lifeblood of successful cities, the proof is every bit as evident in Toronto as it is in New York.

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Miles From Monday: Old Montreal

May 28, 2012, Washington, DC: It’s on these hot summer nights that arrive unseasonably early in Washington that we romanticize Vieux Montreal. We let our minds wander back down the narrow streets and alleyways in the oldest part of the city and we recall — sweating — what it was like to feel cold there. Downing lemonade with extra ice, we remember fondly our dinner by a fireplace on Rue Saint-Paul back in December when the cobblestones were slick from an icy rain turning to snow. We remember feeling oh-so-Parisian during that lunch of butternut squash soup and red wine at the luxurious Hotel Nelligan, and we consider how quickly time passes — that it feels like just yesterday we ducked into Bon Secours Market for hot chocolate and now we’re darting into DC’s museums desperate for a blast of cold air.

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Nights I Love This Place

May 22, 2012, Washington, DC: I met a friend halfway today after work; she biked south down Rock Creek Park from Adams Morgan and I pedaled west from Capitol Hill to meet at the Thompson Boathouse. We had every intention of exercising together, perhaps an ambitious sprint up the C&O Canal, but instead we sat there on the Georgetown waterfront catching up. There was a lot to say. About halfway through our conversation, the skies behind the Swedish Embassy opened and the rain poured down through a bright backdrop. We huddled beneath an awning wearing bike helmets and waiting it out, expounding on the things we fear and love, like great white sharks and San Francisco.

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Today’s Pit Stops

May 18, 2012, Washington, DC: We’ve got a few pit stops to make today and stopping by to applaud Bike to Work Day is only the first. Next up, we’ve got a stop at the Metro station and another at the airport, a hiatus up in the air and a trip out to Long Island. We’ll stop by the rental car counter and set out for a drive on roads we’ve never navigated before arriving for a wedding in a town we’ve never seen.

But first we stop one hundred yards from the front door at one of 58 pit stops throughout DC, Virginia and Maryland set up this morning to help riders navigate Bike to Work Day.

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The Most Livable City: A Vision for a Sustainable D.C.

“We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city. Get the people into the country, get them into communities where a man knows his neighbor, where there is a commonality of interest, where life is not artificial, and you have solved the city problem. You have solved it by eliminating the city. City life was always artificial and cannot be made anything else. An artificial form of life breeds its own disorders, and these cannot be ‘solved.’ There is nothing to do but abandon the course that gives rise to them.”

-Henry Ford

April 27, 2012, Washington, DC: How differently things are shaking out, huh? So much for eliminating the cities that the founder of Ford Motor Company declared the root of our troubles. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and projections show nearly three quarters of people on Earth will be urbanites by 2050. Despite Ford’s declaration, it seems people — most people — have not abandoned our cities. Perhaps today’s cities are neither isolating nor fake nor problematic, but rather full of solutions.

Washington’s city leaders certainly think so. Earlier this week, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and his team laid out a vision for making D.C. the most livable and sustainable city in the country. Goals include cutting citywide energy consumption by 50 percent, increasing the number of jobs devoted to green goods and services by five-fold, and guaranteeing that 75 percent of all trips are walkable, bikeable or accessible by public transit. Imagine 1.5 million square feet of green roofs on city buildings. And swimming and fishing in the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. And knowing that a quarter of all food consumed in the District is grown within a 100-mile radius of the city. It’s all part of the plan.

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Just One More Trip

“I could feel history and geography transforming me, and I fell stupidly in love with travel.”

-Brad Newsham, from ‘Take Me With You: A Round-The-World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home’

April 26, 2012, Washington, DC: I bought one more plane ticket last night. It’s for the final trip I’ll be making for the purposes of this project back to one of my former hometowns. I haven’t been back to Toronto since I moved away in 1982 and I can’t wait to check it out.

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