"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody." - Jane Jacobs
A four-year old girl quietly waits for her mother to pick her up from day camp. Her sisters are some distance away waiting inside one of the cabins. This little one, however, with her eyes closed, and her feet bare, sits on a patch of grass, feeling complacent as the sun rays filter down through the leaves of the enormous, century-old oak trees.
This is my earliest memory of my mood being influenced by my habitat. I always gravitate towards that sweet spot, the place where warm lighting coalesces with the perfect materials to compose an ambiance that feels magically inviting and makes me want to linger for hours.
Inspired by the built environment and a curiosity to understand what exactly makes a space inviting or a source of displeasure, I pursued a career in architecture. Architecture and ambiance have been integral to my comfort for as long as I can remember, so when I traveled for the first time outside of the US and Europe, to Southeast Asia, I was surprised at how underwhelming the cityscape generally was in many cities of the region.* It did not take long for me to understand that planned cities, with their pleasing architecture, well-laid out streets, and advanced infrastructure systems, are a relatively rare find in the world, and something that I had taken for granted.
Developing a city, the buildings, the public squares, the parks, the street layout, the districts, and the means of transport, is a massive undertaking, and one which requires its leaders to be forward-thinking, able to manage budgets well, maintain motivation, collaborate on a large scale, and finally, have a mammoth dose of political will. Cities that are not deliberately planned, meaning they do not adhere to strict regulations regarding the urban aesthetic, convey a contrary sentiment: The leaders of that city have failed to create a place that invokes civic pride and inspiration. Unorganized cities feel chaotic. There is a pervasively unsettling feeling that no one is in charge. To some this may be exciting, but to most it is evidence of a failing government. The Free Market holds the reins to the city, and the Free Market does not care about order, function, beauty or the wellness of a city's citizenry.
There are countless reasons that make exploring Southeast Asia worthwhile, such as witnessing the majestic nature that is abundant outside of the cities, exploring the ruins that are unique to this region, or trying to get to know a fascinating, old and complex culture, but visiting the area in order to see a lovely and well-functioning city should not be a reason to travel here.
To begin with, merely taking a pleasant stroll in one of these major cities, such as Chiang Mai, Thailand or Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is quite difficult. Much of the cities in Southeast Asia are geared towards automobile travel. Most people drive motorbikes or hire tuk-tuks or taxis. Naturally, traffic is horrid, and there are dangerously high levels of pollution. The exhaust fumes are overwhelming. There are no sidewalks, and if they are available, they are crowded with obstructions such as sign posts, parked motorbikes as well as moving motorbikes, improvised sidewalk cafés or sometimes the sidewalks abruptly end, dying into a river or the street. Some are simply cut off by a shopkeeper installing one of his store racks on the sidewalk. When you look around, on either side of the street, your sight may be discomfited with the visual noise. When shopkeepers attempt to bolster sales relying solely on quantity rather than quality and uniqueness (the neighbor sells the same darned thing), subtlety in marketing and graphic design is a skill never learned. The streets are lined with retail businesses, and each store has its own sign, competing with the adjacent storefront sign. Consequently, these signs are huge. Think pedestrian-scale billboards. Each sign contains two-foot tall text and many sun-faded images. There is no negative space, neither on the sign nor the street itself. Highway-sized billboards are also mounted on every vertical surface or installed at vacant lots. Despite the over-abundance of visual stimuli, you must keep your eyes open because watching out for obstacles is paramount to your safety. Pedestrians walk in every direction. Stray dogs sleep near heaping bags of garbage. And, of course, you must be able to dodge the scooters that jump the curb looking to avoid motor traffic. Giant bundles of exposed cables hang everywhere, the tops of which pigeons nest on. There are no parking lots, therefore everyone parks their motorbike on the sidewalk in front of the shop they are visiting.
It would be generous to use the word "uninspiring" when describing the buildings. They are not entirely noticeable, especially when juxtaposed against the colorful and oversized signs. The buildings are drab concrete boxes. Each one looks identical to the next. Concrete painted pale yellow, pink or white is the most common of materials. The roofs are usually flat or made of corrugated metal. Building heights are not standardized. Squat buildings sit next to taller mid-rises. There is no cohesive architectural style except perhaps the lack of style. The building facades are flat and the windows small. The most monumental of buildings in the Southeast Asian city are the shopping malls, conveying to all that consumerism is a virtue.
Though, there is always a wonderful liveliness on the streets of the Southeast Asian city. Vendors cook up a constant stream of food on the grill. Tourists bustle about, and locals enjoy a midday snack. Yet, ironically, it is as if the city planners fail to acknowledge the existence of these humble pedestrians. Simply crossing the thoroughfare feels like an adventurous task. The traffic lights, which are not always present nor obeyed if they are there, take several minutes to change. The roads are as wide as highways, and rarely is there a crosswalk available to use. Sometimes, such as in Bangkok, a pedestrian must walk up a long flight of stairs to access an overpass in order to reach the other side of the thoroughfare. There are no waste receptacles, meaning the streets are littered with garbage. There are no bus stations with benches. The blocks are long and arduous to walk with little respite from the heat of the tropical sun.
In the West, through the use of zoning codes, governments have been able to achieve a pleasant and consistent style of their city by strictly regulating aspects that affect the look of the city, such as the heights of buildings, the ratio of opaque materials to glass allowed, the types of activities allowed in certain districts (commercial, residential, institutional), the encouraged population density, the setbacks of the building to the public way, and the architectural style. The enforcement of these regulations makes for some beautiful cities, that will sometimes move a person to weep. There is order and repetition, and the best cities exhibit these attributes while still integrating variety to keep the aesthetic from feeling mundane or oppressive. Each building on the block looks distinct from the next one, yet it is the same width and height and has similar architectural style. The best cities will also reflect the regional vernacular: the unique qualities of the climate, culture and geography, by encouraging the use of local materials or adhering to a historical style. Special attention is paid to the proportions of the street width to building height, which is set at a scale that is pedestrian-friendly. The prominent buildings, museums, cathedrals, libraries are works of art that echo the history, story and values of that culture.
Each building and every city tells a story, a story that has an impact on society. Planning a city is the single greatest investment a government can make for its society. At the age of four, I became aware of how profoundly my surrounding impacted me. Many people go their entire lives without that acute awareness of how their environment affects them, but it is always present, shifting our emotions and physical well-being.
In the past, the city design was influenced by the geography, usually around a fortress, or it was shaped in a way to economize on trading. Today, in a globalized world, cities have the opportunity to serve no purpose other than to be functional as a place to live, and simply, inspire its inhabitants and visitors alike. At its worst, a poorly planned city has been linked to an increase in violent crime. At its best, a city can galvanize hope, serenity, progress and happiness. City leaders must be ready to embrace the idea that beautiful stories are created in beautiful cities.
* The exception being Singapore City
Written by: Zahra Ali