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C200: The City, Inspired

2011 March 23
by Ben Martins

Editor’s Note: Yesterday this unsolicited C200 post landed in my inbox from Cleveland, of all places. How awesome is that? All hail the Gods of the Interwebs that enable such connections. Of course, Ben Martens could be an axe-murderer for all I know.

< Cleveland - click image to enlarge; photo: John Baden >

Every urban planner was drawn to the field because cities evoked some level of inspiration and awe for them. Whether you are in your first semester of grad school, learning about Daniel Burnham and the City Beautiful movement, or a seasoned professional, culling census data for an update to the comprehensive plan, the magnetism of cities was something that, in some small or large way, called out to you and made you think, “I want to help make cities better.”

For me, there were two aspects of cities that made that call, that planted in me a desire to dedicate my efforts to improving the urban realm. The first started calling as long ago as I can remember. The simple sight of a city skyline – from a car, a roof, a boat, even on television – has always stirred a reaction in me roughly halfway between my gut and my soul. Seeing the heart of a city, the buildings hurtling skyward, different architectural styles mingling and blending into a pattern that made both no sense whatsoever and all the sense in the world at the same time, has inspired awed within me since childhood. One look at the Cleveland skyline – Terminal Tower, Key Tower, and the BP Building looming large – and any doubts I may have had about my vocation melt away and are replaced by an aspiration to be better in the way I see, think about, and write about the city. The skyline reminds me how important it is to create and give of myself.

The second inspiring aspect of the city for me is a little less concrete. I guess you could call it the city’s pulse, the feeling of energy that envelopes a person when they are in the midst of a bustling, well-designed public place. The city’s pulse has always made me feel connected, like I was part of something much bigger (much more important) than myself. It is that sweet sense of the “now,” the feeling that just being there is a serendipitous opportunity to witness, and, more, participate in something awe-inspiring. I’ve felt it in Cleveland’s Public Square, the Short North district in Columbus, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, Grand Central Terminal in New York. In those moments, I can feel
the unbelievable potential we have as people – such enormous things we can accomplish! – and the unique ability the city has for inspiring us to pursue that potential. But I want to feel the energy more often, want it to run me over every time I turn a new corner in the city, and that is why I am an urban planner. We may never reach our full potential, but it is empowering to know that the city will never stop demanding that we try.

And what about you? What is it about the city that inspires you, excites you, motivates you? How does the city nourish the fire inside you?


Ben Martens is an urban planner in Cleveland.

< Cleveland- click image to enlarge; photo: Christina Spicuzza >