I returned last night from a brief trip to New York City to reunite with friends I met while studying abroad in Beijing, who you can see in this post. New York is a whole different animal than DC. With low buildings and wide streets, Washington DC looks and feels like a flat, small dwarf compared to the frenzy and height of New York.
Which got me to thinking: now that, for the first time in human history, the majority of us live in cities, what qualities would the ideal city have?
Jonah Lehrer, popular psychologist and writer for Wired and New York Times, among other publications, has written a few articles to help me out with this question. Take 2 minutes to read the excerpts from this article by Lehrer:
scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control.
A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power.
But the density of city life doesn’t just make it harder to focus: It also interferes with our self-control. In that stroll down Newbury, the brain is also assaulted with temptations — caramel lattes, iPods, discounted cashmere sweaters, and high-heeled shoes. Resisting these temptations requires us to flex the prefrontal cortex, a nub of brain just behind the eyes. Unfortunately, this is the same brain area that’s responsible for directed attention, which means that it’s already been depleted from walking around the city. As a result, it’s less able to exert self-control, which means we’re more likely to splurge on the latte and those shoes we don’t really need. While the human brain possesses incredible computational powers, it’s surprisingly easy to short-circuit: all it takes is a hectic city street.
This is the one-two punch of city life: It subverts our ability to resist temptation even as it surrounds us with it, from fast-food outlets to fancy clothing stores. The end result is too many calories and too much credit card debt.
OK, so that is the bad news.
But, Lehrer goes on to explain that even small additions of “green” in the form of trees, flowers, and parks can make a BIG difference by improving our ability to focus and decreasing cognitive distractions. And there’s more: cities remain hotbeds of innovation because they allow people to encounter and converse with all sorts of different people.
I experienced a “That is New York” moment when sitting at a cafe. The couple behind me were middle-aged and were editing a one-page poem with exhaustive and passionate intensity. I knew I was not in DC anymore when the woman pounded her fist on the table and said with conviction:
“This phrase just cries out for a gerund!”
So, in the end, cities facilitate originality by clustering people–the quirks, bankers, bookies, physicists, dreamers, and yes, the poets–so close together that we inevitably bump into each other in the daily routine of life and the result is a chaotic, incredible splash of creativity.
It’s a no-brainer then: the “ideal city” must have the following two characteristics:
- A world-class public transport system
- Plenty of parks and “green”
New Yorkers should be smiling. You have an enormous park smack dab in the center of your city and an enviable subway system: you combine the virtues of the countryside (less distractions=more ability to focus on creating) with the virtues of the city (bumping into nearly every shape, size, and flavor of human being while on the subway or the streets).
Los Angeles does not.
Instead, you Angelenos are #1 on the Top 10 Worst Cities for Traffic of 2010. You are wasting time burning fuels when you could be debating about gerunds and participles.
So, as the U.S. population gradually migrates from the Northeast to the Southwest, the urban planners of the ‘sunbelt’ have a tall task: build parks and build public transportation systems.
The innovative capacity of the United States depends on it.
*Read the full article by Lehrer here. Jonah Lehrer, “How the city hurts your brain,” Boston Globe, January 2, 2009.