By Prof. Austin Zwick, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University
On Our City Blog—
The Syracuse Citywide Book Club is a collaborative and educational community reading program that uses literature to help us discuss, as a city, issues that affect our community. We are excited to hear from members of our community on local issues and to explore the ideas and engagement they generate. This year’s book club topic is quality of life which means different things to different people. The views in our contributors’ blog posts explore how they see quality of life in the City through the lens of the books we are reading in the book club. We appreciate the participation of our community partners.
The 2021 Syracuse Citywide Book Club includes selections that reflect quality of life themes of diversity and infrastructure for healthy urban cities. The City welcomes group involvement in this year’s book club by engaging with community partners who help make civic dialogue and program delivery possible. To learn about how to read along or become a partner, contact Emma Spector at email@example.com. Follow along on the Syracuse Citywide Book Club page at facebook.com/syrbookclub. We welcome commentary from residents, such as below, and can share posts here in our blog.
As I followed the decade-long I-81 debate, I felt empty. I heard arguments about righting a historical injustice, time-travel differences to destinations, and fiscal cost considerations of options. Yes, all of these are important factors, however I rarely heard the bigger visioning question: What is the kind of city we want Syracuse to be decades from now? Given that, what are the steps we need to take to get there?
Every semester, I teach an undergraduate course on Smart Cities at Syracuse University; focusing on how technology may be the answer to urban and municipal governance challenges by increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of municipal resources. Though this concept holds promise, it also holds peril. I warn students about how big tech advertises itself as not one possible solution, but the only possible solution to municipal problems (with great success) – going back to the old saying ‘when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’ Undeniably, the tech sector is one of the fastest growing industries globally – and Syracuse does not want to be left behind – but it also does not mean that tech has all the answers. When it comes to city-building, quite the contrary.
David Sim’s Soft City: Building Density for Everyday Life reminds us that, as a complement / contrast to the Smart City framework, the goal of cities (and therefore municipal leaders) ought to be making cities more livable. Sim explains that the hardware of the city – structures, streets, pipes, and buildings – that make up the physical form are merely the platform in which the software of the city – customs, cultures, behaviors, and trust – can thrive. The hardware and software are inexplicably linked to create a sense of place, a feeling of belonging, and a high-quality of life. By focusing on these goals first and foremost, the answers to urban problems are most likely to be low-tech architecture and urban design solutions. For example, instead of having sensors to warn cars and pedestrians of each other’s presence (as the Smart City would propose), we ought to redesign our streetscape with extended curbs and urban furniture to guide users of public space to become more connected to their surroundings. Slow down, look around, and make eye contact. A smile and a wave go a lot further than a buzz on a phone.
Let’s take a step back. What is a soft city? When asked what a city feels like, the first image that often comes to mind is the grittiness of New York City; the post-industrial neighborhoods found in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn where houses and tenements sprouted up next to now-defunct factories with sanitation and green space being an afterthought. Syracuse, coming to prominence as a manufacturing and distribution center on the Erie Canal, embodies a similar legacy. However, just as New York City’s economy has shifted to new industries, the rest of the state has as well. Syracuse’s largest employers are now education and medicine, and so we now need to think about what our city should feel like to support the future jobs in those industries.
Sim starts his book with a list of definitions of the word ‘soft’, conveying cities ought to create a sense of “ease, comfort, and care in everyday life.” Places that people want to live. The Soft City is a how-to guide on designing buildings and public space to create this more humanistic urban environment. The soft city should embrace people like a warm hug. To accomplish this, we ought to construct multipurpose buildings with active ground floors targeted towards a diversity of uses and users, creating a mix of public and shared spaces, and provide mobility options to stay grounded to our surroundings.
None of these ideas are groundbreaking. Sim draws back to the seminal work of Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, which redefined the field of urban planning in the 1950s and 1960s. Jacobs became famous by organizing a movement to stop an Urban Renewal highway project from cutting through her neighborhood of Greenwich Village, citing the destruction they do to existing communities and the urban fabric (sound familiar?). Her vision for the ideal neighborhood was what was already there: dense mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods with old buildings filled with history and character, made safe by social cohesion and the “eyes on the street” of constant activity.
Sim’s contribution is not the what, but the how. He lists out ten principles – (1) Diversity of the Built Form; (2) Diversity of Outdoor Spaces, (3) Flexibility, (4) Human Scale, (5) Human Scale, (6) Walkability, (7) Sense of Control and Identity, (8) A Pleasant Microclimate, (9) Smaller Carbon Footprint, and (10) Greater Biodiversity – and goes into great detail on how countless relatively minor architectural and urban design decisions can make these into a reality. Instead of the glitz and glamor that smart city envisions of utopian digital futures, Sim highlight the smallness of the ideas: small buildings, shorter blocks, and quicker commutes. Syracuse would lean in on its Romanesque Revival buildings, red brick small alleys, and historical public squares; featuring green life and natural features every chance the city gets. Done well, a passerby may not think anything has been done at all, that the city has always been lovely. That should be the goal.
I know what you are thinking: What about winter? No one is going to want to be outside then, right? Sims’ uses many examples throughout the book, but heavy emphasis is given to Malmo, Sweden and Bern, Switzerland – cities with climates that are not too dissimilar to Syracuse – to show how the choices of urban design have created year-round shared spaces. Small, enclosed courtyards create microclimates that are comfortable even in the harshest of weather. As the urban fabric is a platform to host different kinds of events, such as ice skating and Christmas markets, our city should be designed in a way that invites people and events to take place outdoors when the skies are bleak.
Though the City of Syracuse and the State of New York were quick to note that nothing has been set-in-stone and the process is still ongoing on what the future looks like of Business Route I-81, the renderings that the NYS Department of Transportation released of the community grid option were disconcerting. Replacing a viaduct with a six-lane grade-level avenue, where buildings were separate from the street designed for automobiles continue to zip-by on the way to their destinations, will do little to address the needs of the concerns of its proponents. What the viaduct tore down was not an avenue, it was a neighborhood. A place where children played and went to school. A place where small businesses opened shop. A place where casual encounters by neighbors took place. By again emphasizing automobiles over walkability, we may be on the verge of repeating the mistakes of the past.
What Syracuse needs is the return of what was lost decades ago to build a highway: the softness of a bygone era. Before Our City can become a Smart City, we need to become a soft city. Sim lays out the roadmap, now we need to make it our own.