Low Angles, Wide Lenses: Urban Living

Reeeeeeeally low and wide.  Low enough to capture the Walk Score of this location, which is 41. Wide enough to find anything that’s not a highway or a stroad within walking distance.

The New York Times on Sunday had an article about the dilution of the term “mindfulness.”  As someone who recently started practicing meditation and mindfulness–my intro happened to be through improv, not some corporate lifestyle guru,but I digress–and thinks everyone else should too, I definitely see this happening.  (As another aside, if I ever start my own wellness company, it will only have 3 components–getting people out of their cars, teaching them how to meal plan and cook, and teaching meditation.  Okay…and maybe flexible work schedules and quality childcare, but let’s not get too pie in the sky, here.)  And yet, we had a work session on it a few months back and the hapless chaplain trying to explain it basically described it as paying attention while you’re eating your cereal.  Fe’s not wrong entirely, but none of my co-workers walked out of that session talking about anything other than how they don’t have time to taste their cereal because they have to get their kids to school.

I was reminded of this apartment complex I saw over the holidays, which was hung with a banner heralding it the “best of urban living” in St. Charles, Missouri.

For those of you not familiar, St. Charles is an exurb to the northwest of St. Louis.  It is your generic car-dependent suburb (and, in my experience at least, the land of cookie-cutter white-to-light beige identical siding houses.  I seriously have no idea how you choose which house within which identical suburb to live in there).  More factually, it has a population density of 2,782 people per square mile and 5 major highways.   It was, in fact, according to the Federal Highway Administration, the site of the first interstate highway project in the U.S.  In that proud tradition, the complex itself is nestled between an interstate and a megaplex movie theater.  Oh, and there’s a gas station for your shopping!

In fairness, there is an Aldi half a mile away.  Which is theoretically totally walkable, but the route to Aldi looks like this.

Given that there’s no way to live in these apartments without owning a car–41 is still classified by WalkScore as “car dependent”–do you really think anyone’s going to choose to walk that over hopping in the car?  Of course not, which is why we Americans drive to everything even though most of our trips are under 2 miles (well that, and ‘murica).

I suppose it’s some sort of progress when language–in this case, the language of urbanism–gets co-opted by marketing.  It indicates where the pulse of what’s currently hip and trendy is.  As we have seen over and over again, for Millennials, it is certainly in more livable, walkable communities.  Yet, it runs the risk of diluting beyond recognition the original term itself.

Is anyone choosing to live in a place like that actually fooled by this “urban living”? Moreover, is anyone who is looking here really concerned about “urban living”?  There are a few suburbs in St. Louis with semi-nice, functional little downtowns.  St. Charles is not one of them.  Why use those terms, then?   My fearful, cynical side suggests that it is because of an inability in certain parts to imagine what actual urban living or walkability is.

But advertisers are cleverer than that.  Appealing to emotion to obscure facts is hardly a new move. According to this article, “In the 18th century, when the contents of the Anchor Brewery were being auctioned off, the auctioneer said: ‘We are not here to sell boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.'”  In a neighborhood and country of disconnect and isolation and getting in your car to go any damn place, the idea that your apartment in a subdivision in an exurb is actually urban living where you’re going to walk to get your groceries or meet friends at a bar down the street is powerful.  Powerful enough to get someone to hand over a rent check by imagining this as “urban” living.
In another generation, this might have been sold as “pastoral” and “secluded.” Today, transit-oriented, walkable, or urban are the buzzwords.  Of course, marketers don’t give a crap about real changes towards walkability and urbanism. But they have the right tactics.  The tactics to reach into people’s brains and sell them on something–even something as unbelievable as urban living next to an interstate and a Quiktrip.
But we should not rest there.  There’s no reason to let people settle for calling something like this “walkable” or “urban living.”  So why not use their tactics to up-sell real urban living–walkable communities, bike infrastructure, bus rapid transit?  Appealing to it being good for you or for the environment is part of the story, but so often it comes off a little like nagging people to eat their broccoli.  Why not take a marketing approach and sell people on the image of who they’ll be with a new bike lane or complete street in the neighborhood?  It’s been working for Bigs Auto and Oil for years, getting people to ignore all sorts of ills perpetrated on them by these very companies while gladly handing over their money and defending their rights. Imagine a world where people thoughtlessly defended complete streets that way.  Only this time, the benefits wouldn’t be all smoke and copywriting.


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