A Metropolitan Moment

Why it’s great to live in a dense urban neighborhood when there’s a crisis.

December 20, 2005, New York City—I awake at five o’clock in the morning and turn on NBC news. On the TV, in big chunky letters, the graphic headline reads, “MTA Strike On.” I think of my coworkers who live in the city’s outer boroughs and have a daunting commute ahead of them while I prepare for a brisk 15-block walk to the office. As I brush my teeth, a fragile incisor shows signs of movement. It’s amazing how a tiny front tooth can leave a huge crater in your smile. And as I imagine the potential gap and think about flying off to Italy the next day, I panic. This small mishap could ruin my long anticipated holiday in Puglia. As the clock approaches a reasonable hour, I call my dentist. He calls back quickly and asks when I could get to his office: in two minutes.

The doctor is in, but his helpers are not. So he improvises, becoming dentist, assistant, and receptionist. The good news is that he has figured out what to do with my tooth. The bad news: he has to call in a specialist to remove the broken post. But the best news is that all of his collaborators are nearby—his network of specialists lives and practices in my immediate neighborhood. I run up the street to the specialist, who is also alone and doing triple duty. He gets to work quickly and does a skillful job in removing the errant post; then I return to my dentist, who patches me up, and by noon I’m at work.

It’s Tuesday, and in the afternoon I teach at Parsons. So I walk to class and give the final exam on design ethics. Afterward it would be great to walk home and relax, but I have many more hours of work ahead of me, so I walk back to the office. It’s a frigid night; the wind finds every chink in my clothing when I leave the office at about ten o’clock. I find a cab—for twice the price it costs in normal times—and end the first day of the New York transit strike feeling great about living where I do. What’s the design lesson here?

Services, goods, work, family, and friends nearby can save our dignity and support our well-being. Tightly built urban neighborhoods can sustain life even in a crisis; sprawl can be dangerous and frustrating. Mass transit is essential, although walking remains the best way to get around. To design any human settlement without understanding these facts of life is irresponsible.

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