I just wrapped up a vacation to San Francisco, where a friend from high school joined me to attend another friend’s wedding. We arranged to have an extra day on either side, so we could do a little vacationing in the city. Our approach to sightseeing highlights two contrasting approaches to tourism — and to city planning.
One approach might be called “destination based”. It assumes that, within a city, there are certain, distinct sites you want to see, or particular activities you want to do. For example, you might want to:
- See the San Francisco Opera’s production of La Bohème;
- Visit the Exploratorium (a hands-on science museum);
- Climb the twisting Lombard Street;
- Take a boat over for a tour of Alcatraz; or
- Look at the Asian Art Museum.
In the extreme form of this approach, all that matters is that the particular destinations get visited and the planned activities get done. The in-between things — the trips from one activity to the next, and the spaces one must pass through to reach them — are incidental and irrelevant.
My friend and I took a contrasting approach, which we might call “place based”. This approach assumes not only that the spaces between activities are relevant, but that they are actually the whole point of going to a place. If you take a place-based approach, you are more interested in how the neighborhoods look, how the locals live, and what the “feel” is of a place.
Now, we did have a short list of things to do — eat some Italian food in North Beach, eat some dim sum in Chinatown, and look at the public library — but, with three full days in the Bay area, that left a lot of time in between. And that was just perfect, because all we really wanted to do was walk around San Francisco: to see how people were dressed, to enjoy the architecture and public art, and to admire the almost obscenely rich variety of goods and services available. (After Sunday’s dim sum breakfast, we passed a bookstore — sadly, closed — devoted to nothing but architecture. I peered in the window, and it was huge.)
It wasn’t just our choice in goals that made this possible. The places we visited — downtown, Chinatown, North Beach, the Tenderloin, and Nob Hill — were all worth visiting, independently of our particular goals. They had their own distinct character, and they were all destination rich: that is, while they weren’t equally attractive, they offered plenty of reasons for people to be there.
In my mind, this is characteristic of good cities. People want to be there — not just at their destinations, but in the spaces themselves. This can only happen if the spaces are both useful and interesting.
Useful spaces are those that meet a variety of human needs: eating, shopping, meeting, socializing, playing, and residing. They are robust: they don’t lose their utility after one need is met, but continue offering opportunities.
In a way, it’s their utility that lets them be interesting. For a place to develop its own character, it needs a measure of insularity, just as a person needs a measure of solitude to develop his or her own character. But this can only happen where a variety of life’s needs are met. Otherwise, people flee their own communities and don’t pay them enough attention. (My guess is that this is why Fairbanks is so much more interesting a place to live than Eagle River: when you’re a suburb of Anchorage, you don’t have to develop as many of your own industries, house your own jobs, or sustain your own culture.)
San Francisco got this way partly through historical accident: most of the city was built before private car ownership was the norm (the Presidio was founded about the time of the American Revolution), so people took it for granted that they’d rather live near their jobs, grocers, and other life business.
Fairbanks, founded early in the 20th century, did not have that advantage. Most of the infrastructure of modern-day Fairbanks (and the Borough) was built after the advent of private automobiles. We’ve managed to build it as though we were happy to drive everywhere we needed to go and the spaces in between meant nothing. (Witness the Johansen Expressway.) We have built a “destination based” town, with only a few pockets of places really worth spending time.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Of our Assembly and our city planners, we can demand a change from places only worth fleeing to places worth being. But we must first share the value that not only are particular destinations worthwhile, but places themselves have value and should be nurtured.