Signs of (City) Life: How Healthy Cities Combine the Old and the New

What makes a city beautiful? What kind of city is best-suited for human living?

When many people ask these questions, they go to one of two extremes.

The first extreme is the antique city. Think of a European city particularly cloistered away from economic and technological change. The antique city’s proponents want urban life to pass over cobblestone streets hundreds of years in the making, on streets unpolluted by billboards and not choked by cars. They want a slower pace of life that honors the past and is not so quick to disrupt it. The city itself is a landmark, and development is difficult and slow, usually hiding its own face behind older architectural styles that conform to the look of the city in past centuries. Above all, it avoids the disorder of crass commercialism.

The second extreme is the modern utopian city. Think of Dubai. The utopian city’s proponents typically want a unity of modern design for everything: streets, parks, houses, offices, shops. Typically, this means either that the city is centrally-planned and designed from scratch, or that old buildings have been torn down en masse to make way for the new. Everything is new and clean and shiny. There’s barely a trace of the old or the unpatterned, except in museums. Above all, the utopian city avoids the disorder of unplanned creativity.

Both of these ideals are wrong, and both of these are right (in different senses). They both miss something to the extent that they’re totalist in their perspectives. They’re also both dangerous to the extent that they require strict central command and control to create and maintain, without recognizing the complexity of human life and how societies emerge and change.

There is a third way above these two extremes, as there usually is.

I think a healthy city combines the best – and sometimes the worst – of the old and the new. It’s about an 80/20 split. The old and the new must coexist and inform each other. They’re both essential for urban evolution to take place in a way that serves the changing needs of humans over long periods of time, while also serving the human need for continuity.

Skyline construction cranes and Tesla cars and old brick buildings and rusty railroad lines live side by side in Atlanta. Old warehouses become modern bars and restaurants. Old social principles are expressed in the most modern skyscraper designs. This fusion of old and new in Atlanta is a big part of why I love this city, and they both reflect what I think makes for that healthy city ideal.

Even the reminders of Atlanta’s spotty past – reminders of slavery, segregation, ghettoization – are allowed to remain standing. While these negative structures create dissonance for the city’s inhabitants (who just want a nice movie theatre or dance club, thank you very much), it’s a healthy dissonance. We aren’t allowed to forget or deny the human potential for evil

In all of these ways, a healthy city combines the best of the new and the old and the good and the bad. Things are moving in the healthy city, but some things are remaining the same.

For Atlanta as in any other healthy city, none of this is a result of human design. The things that make for a healthy city are the results of peaceful, value-oriented human action. This means that a healthy city is a work in progress, made by millions of minds and hands – not by the minds and hands of the few.

It’s not a neat place by any means. But the healthy city is a good place, for all of the disorder.

Stay in the know.

Get my best new essays and other occasional news, ideas, or projects delivered in nice, tidy packages once weekly.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.