On cities that were made for friendship

October 17th, 2014, 7pm

I went back to Barcelona. I was there for almost all of October, which is just enough time to get over jet lag, readjust, fall back into your old life and then say good bye all over again.

I spent my first week back in a state of enchantment and despair. The city sparkled. I marveled at the beautiful streets and happy faces. I basked in the lingering afterglow of summer as it faded, almost imperceptibly, into autumn. And yet, I was inconsolable. I think it was the jet lag, because changing time zones always leaves me sad, a little raw, my emotions pulled to the surface. But it was also nostalgia: for a life I had once had, for a city that was no longer mine.

I compared Barcelona to San Francisco and in the throes of the first wave of my re-enchantment I decided that people in Barcelona were happier than in San Fran. I considered a few reasons for why this might be the case (better weather, sun tanned people, a more relaxed attitude toward sexuality) and then, because I was feeling very enamored with the actual lay out of the city decided it was in part because of the city itself.

Cities are like systems, encouraging and shaping behavior by creating situations which are taken for granted and eventually perceived as ordinary, even obvious.

Barcelona creates a framework that encourages easy socialization: cheap, delightful and plentiful restaurants and cafes, a high density, relatively compact city, walking routes that are so beautiful they are destinations within themselves and public spaces that don’t require you to buy anything to stay all make it easy to spend time with people… and so people spend more time with people, which is turn makes them happier.

North American cities…even San Fran to some degree… are by contrast isolating experiences that discourage socialization by forcing it to revolve around a costly consumer experience and by making it so hard to achieve: people are spread out and there are no easy ways to mitigate the physical distance. Cabs aren’t cheap. Transit is mostly not great. The roads are congested.

In the end we might brush this all aside and chalk it up to culture. Perhaps we will say things like: Catalans are more social people. That might be true, but perhaps cities influence and reinforce culture as well.

Steve, Christine, Shu, Samuel and 24 others said thanks.

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Dani Z

The hardest thing about getting older is realizing that I might, in fact, be a minor character in someone else's story. (I keep changing this bio. I'm not sure I'll ever nail it)

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