As a Kansas farm boy, I didn’t spend a lot of time in cities until high school. Even then, my brother and I had to beg our parents to take us to Seattle or Chicago or New York for that year’s family vacation. How they hated our pleading! To them—farmers who grew up among the statue-like grain silos of western Kansas—cities were hellish places, gratingly loud and oppressive in their density. Although many American cities are becoming more livable, my parents still prefer a tent in the Rockies or a cabin in the Ozarks.
I will always appreciate the plains but find myself even more fascinated by urban prairies, steep-walled waterways once crowded with tankers and barges, schools constructed from the bones of former power plants. These interstitial spaces and cyborg-like creations are everywhere in cities. In a city, one constantly engages with history. Manmade, it confronts us with our own mistakes. Polluted rivers, defunct rail lines, vacant lots leftover from more prosperous times. Like scar tissue, the evidence of our cities’ wounds are gnarled and conspicuous.
But these scars very often present opportunities. In fact, in many cases, the urban tissue can be healed, reanimated. One of the most exciting trends in urban planning today is the creation of linear parks. Fueled by the success of New York’s High Line, these urban greenways are cropping up in St. Louis, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York (take two!). In almost every case, the vegetated paths for pedestrians and cyclists are being built from the bones of abandoned transportation infrastructure. As Lindsey Howald Patton writes in her exploration of five radically different linear parks, “They all share a common understanding—that this is a crucial moment in the tale of adaptive reuse. Because who knows? In a hundred years it may be our abandoned interstate highway system under deliberation. Remove or revive? Abandon or preserve?”
What makes a city great? This question can be, and has been, debated vigorously, and new rankings are published almost weekly. Comparing things as complex as cities is hard to do, and I tend to think it sometimes devalues the unique narrative of each place. So for our Cities Issue this year, we chose three cities with stories worth telling. They aren’t necessarily list-toppers, but each has something to teach us. Vancouver for instance, is leveraging its rich educational and business culture to create sustainability incubators that, in turn, invest in new green technologies and urban ideas. Washington, DC, has focused on transit and municipal policies that are helping to evolve the very nature of the city. And a post-recession Las Vegas has become a desert hub for entrepreneurs and startups and a model for aggressive water efficiency.
Cities are not static, and neither is the way we approach them. In our conversation, guest editor Rob Bennett and I discuss two recent developments with far-reaching implications: the Ocean in Portland, Oregon, and Kaka’ako in Honolulu. Both represent a departure from traditional models of real estate development. As Rob says, “I think the reset of the economy has yet to be understood as far as how entrepreneurialism takes root, especially with young people.” In other words, what happens next is anyone’s guess.
Timothy A. Schuler, Managing Editor