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C200: The Stimulus Package: Learning from the City

2011 March 18
by Ray Gastil

< Seattle, Little Saigon, February 2011; photo: Ray Gastil >

Cities are relentless in the way they challenge our assumptions.  It’s not that we don’t need assumptions—without generalizing we couldn’t get through the day because there’d be too many decisions to make. At the same time, human beings need stimulus – every four seconds according to urbanist Jan Gehl. If we’re lucky, and in the city it’s easy to get lucky, we can walk down the street and see, hear, feel, and learn something that changes how we see the world. Literal information—there’s the port, there’s the jail—or the sensate update of a strange smell or a startling color, can intuitively and cumulatively open our minds to the reality of the world. We can get plenty of stimulus digitally, but in the city we are full, five-senses actors, as real as the wet sidewalk and the dirty bus exhaust. Cities juxtapose. There’s a music club in a beat up one-story building next to a shimmering high rise next to a drop-in center. There are self-conscious paradoxes—“this library is not a library”—and accidental ones. And while buildings are a history of society’s “winners” (no money=no build) fortunes change. Where’s that bank? Who were those Oddfellows, anyhow? Who really wins? If we’re  going to make a more sustainable world, we need to be challenged, even about what we assume is green and good, and cities are a great, humbling, challenging force to do just that.


Ray Gastil is a city planning and urban design consultant who has served as a city planning director in Seattle and Manhattan. His work focuses on the culture of cities.