By G.M. Donley

You know how when you read two books at the same time, they often kind of meld together in your head, like in that novel where Gatsby takes the raft down the Mississippi? That happened to me when I took a couple books on a recent trip to the southeast: You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves, by Hiawatha Bray, and The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, by Marc J. Dunkelman. Bray, a Boston Globe technology reporter, skips briskly through the evolution of the ways in which we humans have navigated, made maps, and generally tried to figure out where we are. Dunkelman, in a more academic mode, posits that American society was organized around the social and political dynamics of a specifically American form of small-town life, but that technological and cultural changes over the past 50 years have taken us away from that model. Both books were already overdue at the Cleveland Heights Library, so I read them in rapid succession and was left with a mental mash-up about how our ever-expanding capabilities in mobility and communication continue to drive change in American society. The unwitting co-authors met when my wife grabbed two books off the “recent titles” shelf on her way home from work.

One chapter in You Are Here describes how Google recently bought a company called Waze in order to incorporate its real-time traffic reporting functionality into phones that use Google’s Android operating system. By tracking the location and speed at which Android phones are moving, it knows how fast the cars in which the phones are riding are moving, and in which directions on what roads, and thus can mark slow spots on the map and even plot the fastest route through a congested area, constantly recalculating based on real-time data.

[blocktext align=”left”]I read that and thought, “Gee that’s kinda cool, kinda creepy.” Creepy it may be, but it got us to dinner the very next evening.[/blocktext]I read that and thought, “Gee that’s kinda cool, kinda creepy.” Creepy it may be, but it got us to dinner the very next evening. We had brazenly planned to drive in a single shot from my father-in-law’s house in Georgia, a mere gator-hop from the Florida border, to meet some old friends for dinner north of Baltimore. That’s a long drive — most of it on I-95, one of the busiest highways in the eastern U.S.. If everything went perfectly, the 723 miles should be about a 12-hour trip, but it would require somehow getting past Washington D.C., and as anyone who has ever driven around there knows, perfection in traffic flow on the D.C. beltway is a rare circumstance. So as we passed Richmond, Virginia still on schedule we decided to try out the nifty/creepy map thing. Unfortunately, we were having so much fun playing around with the smartphone that we promptly blew past the exit for our planned alternate route. This left us with no choice but to stay on I-95 and go right through the center of the traffic hurricane.

I still have no idea what roads we took. We kept going 60 or 70 most of the time, doing whatever the gizmo told us to do even when it seemed counterintuitive (for example, it said to take local lanes instead of the express at one point and sure enough, 30 seconds later the express lanes slowed to walking speed while we breezed past on the right). Miraculously, we pulled into the appointed driveway within minutes of the appointed time and had a lovely dinner and visit.

[blocktext align=”right”]Many of the advances of the increasingly networked society have had a side-effect of isolating individuals physically from each other…[/blocktext]What the combination of technology and road networks had made possible that day was impressive, but Dunkelman’s book The Vanishing Neighbor notes a downside: many of the advances of the increasingly networked society have had a side-effect of isolating individuals physically from each other: each commuter traveling in his or her own car, every home a self-contained living and entertainment center, shopping trips carried out from the desktop, social interactions mediated through a little screen. Dunkelman laments the disappearance of what he calls a “township” social structure that required civil deliberation among a diverse collection of people from many walks of life; this does not happen so naturally through the internet or a rolled-up car window. Dunkelman is a public policy scholar at Brown University who spent some years working on Capitol Hill, and he implicates this phenomenon as the cause of government gridlock: people spend most of their time either in relatively anonymous impersonal transactions or in virtual echo chambers where their own views are constantly affirmed and reinforced — and very little time trying to have civil and constructive discourse with people who don’t already agree with them. He suggests political gridlock isn’t so much the fault of our leaders as it is a mirror of the way people in general interact these days. It was interesting to have those ideas in mind while trying to zoom past Washington as quickly as possible. The next day, we rode the subway into Baltimore and spent the day and evening walking around that enigmatic city, then drove the five and a half hours home the following morning.

Which brings us, geographically and topically, back to Cleveland. There are a lot of reasons for Cleveland to be where it is. It has proximity to water, natural resources, and bounteous farmland, for example. But other places have those advantages too. It has great arts and culture, some fine old architecture, and pretty neighborhoods, much of it the legacy of boom times 50 or 100 years ago — rarer, but not unique. Indeed, a lot of Rust Belt cities have similar (and similarly underestimated) assets, though in our art museum and orchestra, we have two institutions of undisputed world-class caliber. What Cleveland has in addition is a particularly advantageous location for mobility and networks: the highway system puts it within a day’s drive of most of the major urban centers of the eastern half of the United States. It’s well situated for air travel without being an overly congested hub. The lakefront site provides shipping connections to the interior of the continent as well as to the Atlantic. And the lake plays another role simply by getting in the way, forcing roads, train tracks, pipes, fiber-optic cables, etc. to dip under its southern shore: all those east-west networks flow right through Cleveland and intersect here with other networks coming from the south. Just look at a map of highways and railroads in the eastern U.S. and you’ll see it seems many of them radiate from Cleveland.

The region’s cultural history also has bearing on this role as a crossroads; as a former part of Connecticut’s Western Reserve, northeast Ohio is effectively the westernmost outpost of New England culture, but it also touches Appalachia, the Midwest, and (a few miles out into the lake) Canada. Cleveland is a cultural border town. Even today, people who live east of the Cuyahoga seem to vacation eastward to places like Chautauqua or Maine while people living only a dozen miles to the west head for Put-In-Bay or Michigan’s upper peninsula. Probably the city’s first role as a transportation hub was way back in the early 1800s when someone decided to have a canal end in Cleveland because the Ohio-to-Mississippi and Great Lakes-to-St. Lawrence watersheds come so close together here: dig one ditch and you connect the Gulf of Mexico to the north Atlantic.

Those factors drove the development of the burgeoning city through its boom years, drew immigrants here from other countries and other regions within this country, and left us with a legacy of enviable assets including cultural institutions, parks, and architecture. But ironically, if transportation was one reason Cleveland grew in the first place, it also paved the way for some more recent economic challenges. Advances in international shipping infrastructure enabled moving manufacturing jobs to remote continents that offered abundant, cheaper labor. The national interstate system facilitated cross-country trucking of factory-farmed produce and other goods. And within our own region, the new highways slicing into and across the city enticed people to move further out, sucking population and tax base away from the urban centers. That’s another legacy Cleveland has: there’s nothing wrong with being a city of 400,000 residents, but there are some issues if you’ve already built houses, schools, commercial areas, roads, etc. for twice that many people.

To Dunkelman, this pattern of more spread-out, isolated living exacerbates the shift from in-person to electronic interactions; both have led Americans away from civil discourse among people with diverse opinions. Even neighborhoods themselves can end up being pretty homogenous in their world views, as people select the place they want to live based on certain cues they pick up about what kind of people live there — the architecture, what kinds of cars are in the driveways, what the yard signs say. People are comfortable living among like-minded people, and communication technology and transportation networks make that easier than ever before.

[blocktext align=”left”]The network-dependent lifestyle should probably come with a warning label of potential side-effects.[/blocktext]In retrospect, we can’t really fault our predecessors for making the decisions they did. The advances in navigation and communication have offered real benefits and meanwhile the downsides tend to become obvious only later. In any case, there’s no point in (or possibility of) going back to un-learn everything. But the network-dependent lifestyle should probably come with a warning label of potential side-effects: may cause disorientation, diminished privacy, myopia, weight gain, heart palpitations, dry mouth, and unusual dreams.

Seriously, there’s a direct analogy to human health: for most of human history, food was scarce and life was full of hard physical work. But advances in technology and food production quite suddenly made it possible for huge numbers of people to have more calories than they need without having to do much physical activity, resulting in an explosion in obesity and related health problems like diabetes. The advances have been absolutely revolutionary in improving economic productivity and the quality of life, but they changed the fundamental math of daily living so that now we have to think about consciously limiting calorie intake and consciously looking for physical activity to do. Not many people saw that coming.

Cities are similar: for most of human history, the horizontal scale of settlements was limited by how far you had to walk to carry out the tasks of daily life. Ships and railroads could take you long distances between cities relatively quickly, but once there, you were back on your own two feet. Maybe you had a horse or a donkey to help. Even up through the streetcar era, the trolley could shuttle you between your neighborhood and work, but once there, you walked, and reasonable walking distance from the trolley both determined where the trolley line went, and how far homes could be from the trolley lines. Those factors shaped neighborhoods that were compact and pedestrian-oriented. But the rise of the private automobile, the development of comprehensive high-speed highway systems, and the appearance of electronic networks that allow work to be carried out in remote locations—all of which must be commended as remarkable human achievements of the 20th century — have had an unintended side-effect of thoroughly wrecking some of the positive things we took for granted about human settlements. In a scenario where you pull out of your parking deck at work, drive 30 miles to your cul-de-sac development and into your attached garage with its automatic opener, park the car and walk straight into the “Great Room” without ever stepping outside, the streetscape of your neighborhood isn’t much more than a stage set for the drive-by. The opportunity to gradually get to know your neighbor from down the street while walking home from the trolley is gone. Also gone is the fine attention to the details of buildings and outdoor spaces from the perspective of a person who is walking. Now we realize if we want neighborhoods and commercial districts that have a vibrant atmosphere and pleasing on-foot experience, we have to build them that way on purpose — consciously creating a certain kind of compact and engaging environment because technological advances have meant that human-scale neighborhoods are no longer occurring anymore without some intention to build things that way.

This is what the whole New Urbanism movement has tried to achieve. The big joke among city planners around here is that what New Urbanism tries to do is basically build Cleveland Heights and Ohio City. But wait … don’t we already have Cleveland Heights and Ohio City? Ah, good point. Problem is, developers have to build something new to make money. Cleveland Heights and Ohio City don’t do anything for their pocketbooks, so even though we already have neighborhoods with desirable qualities that could use some more sustained investment, most money goes into paving over farmland instead, thus diminishing the old city and the lovely countryside at the same time.

This is kind of stupid, agreed?

[blocktext align=”right”]Even though we already have neighborhoods with desirable qualities that could use some more sustained investment, most money goes into paving over farmland instead…[/blocktext]When Dunkelman laments the loss of a way of life built around face-to-face community interaction, he cites as a counterexample the “Medici Effect,” named by its author Frans Johansson for the family in Italy who served as patrons to a wide variety of artists and thinkers from many disciplines in Florence, which became the effective capital of the Renaissance. Florence produced astonishing advances in art and letters, and Johansson’s thought is this flourishing was a result of all those minds being in one place all together, cross-fertilizing their various disciplines and challenging each other to think in new ways. Florence was not a coastal port, but more of a crossroads city located in north-central Italy, inland between the Adriatic and Mediterranean coasts, roughly equidistant from Rome, Milan, and Venice, and connected to the broader world by extensive trade. For the most part, the Medici family cooked up genius on the spot using local ingredients. They gathered smart and talented people from relatively nearby places into an environment that enabled those smart and talented people to blossom into exceptional figures in cultural history. The cross-pollination, to Johansson, was as much a factor as any innate genius.

In the case of Florence, it seems to have been advantageous that the city was accessible to major centers, but also just far enough out of the way that the incubation had a better chance to flower. Similarly, the Cleveland area is a crossroads city accessible to many other population clusters, and yet just a little bit out of the way. This is good for us: the east coast establishment is preoccupied mainly with itself, Chicago with itself, and the west coast with itself, so Cleveland can go about its business without being bothered much, while still being easily accessible to everything.

The success of Renaissance-era Florence was partially about networks, and we have networks today — much more powerful ones at that. But what nobody has is better places than Florence. Whether half a millennium ago in Italy or this evening in Cleveland, great human places are physical environments that support and enrich human experience through a combination of how the place is made and what happens there, all in scale with the size and mobility of the human body and the reach of the human senses. These kinds of great places are the cure for Dunkelman’s antisocial disease because they are about direct human social interaction in real physical space.

[blocktext align=”left”]People are people and places are places, whether it’s 1975 or 2015.[/blocktext]This brought to mind another book I read some years ago: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, by William “Holly” Whyte. Published in 1980 and later expanded upon in Whyte’s 1988 opus City: Rediscovering the Center, it’s an unassuming little volume loaded with charmingly artless black-and-white photos of people hanging around parks and street corners wearing quintessentially 1970s plaids and double-knits. Whyte spent a few years observing human behavior in and around New York City parks and sidewalks to try to discern what kinds of traits defined the places people seemed to use and enjoy — no theory whatsoever, just observation. The list of favorable factors he identified include the presence of lots of pedestrians, places to sit, sunlight, trees, water, wind protection, food, interesting things for groups of people to look at and converse about, and easy street accessibility. Again, he’s describing Cleveland Heights and Ohio City, University Circle, East 4th Street, the Flats, parts of the Cleveland waterfront (except for that wind protection part), and pretty much all the walkable city neighborhoods and streetcar suburbs where one interacts with a relatively broad community simply by strolling to the bakery or riding the Rapid to work. The clunky typography betrays its late-‘70s origin, but that little book has stayed relevant. People are people and places are places, whether it’s 1975 or 2015. Not surprisingly, Whyte’s ideas show up in a lot of New Urbanist work.

So, to refresh my memory, I got on the computer and requested that a few books by Whyte be delivered to the Cleveland Heights main library (thanks again, technology and networks). When I walked in to retrieve them I spied another book on the recent titles shelf (hmmm, there seems to be a pattern emerging here) and picked it up: The Last Great Walk by Wayne Curtis.

The cover said it was about a 70-year-old man, Edward Payson Weston, who walked from New York to San Francisco in 1909, a feat that seemed completely nutty and possibly heroic, and plus I figured he would have probably come through Cleveland on the way just like I-80 does connecting those same two cities. But it turns out that, on a previous well-publicized pedestrian excursion walking from Maine to Chicago, he had been mobbed and seriously delayed by 10,000 enthusiastic Clevelanders and, as he had a tight timetable to maintain in order to get to San Francisco for a dinner appointment, he skirted south and went through Wooster instead. But actually the bigger surprise of the book was that it wasn’t really so much about the guy but about how his walk coincided with the end of “pedestrianism” in America, and what that has meant. Curtis, a contributing editor to the Atlantic magazine, intersperses episodes from the 1909 walk with scientific, sociological, and philosophical discussion about how we live today. Long story short: humans evolved to walk a lot and our bodies and brains function best when we do that; our past century of not walking a lot has therefore begun to have serious consequences to health and well-being. As we have shaped the environment to eliminate physical activity (everything from attached garages to escalators to electric recliners to online shopping), our increasingly sedentary behavior has shaped itself to this new environment. Aside from making our bodies sluggish and doughy, inactivity has also made us dull of mind. Prolific piles of scientific evidence point to the role of exercise in enhancing cognitive function, reducing stress, and combating age-related memory loss and physical decline.

So now there was one more volume in that conglomerate book in my head: not only did it reinforce Whyte’s findings about what makes great places, not only did it address the social disconnection noted by Dunkelman, and not only did it show that the most important mode of transport discussed by Bray is still the oldest one, walking — it also suggests that the creative brainpower of a place is enhanced by physical activity. Walking places are smart places. All in all, it’s a pretty simple recipe for what ought to be done if you want to make a great city: build it upon pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods that bring together talented people from diverse backgrounds, and use technology, transportation networks, architecture, and urban design to encourage creative discourse and physical activity.

While Cleveland is fortunate to already have neighborhoods that look like that, they are generally spread apart from each other; thus there is an opportunity, in parts of Cleveland that must be reimagined (either because they have deteriorated so badly or were so unimaginatively conceived in the first place) to make more such places anew and help connect them all together. Reclaimed land in the old city is the most sensible location for those developers to build New Urbanist neighborhoods (rather than on farmland in the outskirts), and some are doing so. Efforts are already being made to equip key Cleveland neighborhoods with the fastest fiber-optic and wireless internet capability, to set the stage for future entrepreneurship and innovation. Those initiatives will be most fruitful if conceived around the priority of creating great environments for people on foot.

To start, the most natural convening places within those neighborhoods are the public libraries, which already have the diverse clientele and the information resources to support productive conversation. All that’s missing is a space formally dedicated to ongoing in-person community discourse about wide-ranging issues. The online forum is generally a failed experiment in providing this role because comment sections and message boards are so frequently hijacked by people whose marginal views may be ignored in real life but whose bombastic rantings reach a larger audience online — but who knows, those very same people might participate in a productive discussion if they had to come up with a way to express their thoughts in a civil manner among other people in the same room breathing the same air.

[blocktext align=”right”]Walking places are smart places.[/blocktext]Whyte’s idea of a vital urban social space isn’t just a recipe for a great city park (which it is — the Eastman Reading Garden downtown and Wade Oval in University Circle are fine examples). Economic vitality is also at stake because such places naturally support intellectual and creative exchange. When people of diverse experience with varying perspectives live and work together in human-scaled places, it creates a more fertile environment for solving problems — partially because there’s more complete information contributing to decisions, and partially because the idea-mixing nature of the place cross-pollinates the knowledge and varying points of view. Working with more diverse information from the community should lead to more informed and community-aligned decisions. For example, we all know developers make money building new houses and retail strips out in the countryside; what would it take for significant investment to happen in existing neighborhoods first? In other words, how can we get the region to quit cannibalizing itself? Around the table to solve the problem: a mechanical engineer, a priest, a real-estate developer, an accountant, a city planner, a chef, a chemist, a soprano, an urban high school teacher, a naturalist, a doctor, a bus driver, and an art curator. Of course sometimes the discussion would descend into chaos (and probably entertainingly so, given that cast of characters), but if the discussion is ongoing, viable ideas will blossom over time.

If there’s one lesson in the story of evolving technology, it’s that it isn’t just one story. All kinds of unanticipated side effects happen along with the intended advances, and we even get unintended advances resulting from the side effects. There is no single story line of Cleveland either. The rise of dirty, gritty industry was also the rise of the sublime orchestra and art museum. The decline of heavy industry was also the return of cleaner air and water. The advance of technology was also the loss of blue-collar jobs and also the growth of medical jobs. The improvement in transportation networks was also an incentive for urban abandonment. Suburban development offered rural character and also paved-over farmland. The slide in urban property values was the loss of investment equity and also the increase of affordability. The demolition of crumbling properties also clears the way to reimagine how the land is used. The departure of one generation opens the way for the next.

But really, all we need to take that all in stride is our own two feet: if we always go back to the fundamental principle that human beings evolved to walk and think, and that we must build our future on walking and thinking, then our decisions about what to make and how to make it will be aligned with who we are and what we can do best. Now these books are due, so I think I better walk over to the library.

You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves, by Hiawatha Bray (Basic Books, 2014)

The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, by Marc J. Dunkelman (Norton, 2014)

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, by William H. Whyte (Project for Public Spaces, 2001)

The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today, by Wayne Curtis (Rodale, 2014)

G. M. Donley is a Cleveland Heights-based writer, photographer, and designer.