Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Sat Sep 12th 2009 at 3:32pm UTC

Talking Urbanist

The Talking Heads rank of one of my all-time favorite bands. In this Wall Street Journal essay on what makes for a ”perfect city,” David Byrne shows he’s a pretty fine urbanist.

Size – A city can’t be too small. Size guarantees anonymity …The generous attitude towards failure that big cities afford is invaluable—it’s how things get created …

Density – If a city doesn’t have sufficient density … then strange things happen. It’s human nature for us to look at one another— we’re social animals after all. But when the urban situation causes the distance between us to increase and our interactions to be less frequent we have to use novel means to attract attention: big hair, skimpy clothes and plastic surgery. We become walking billboards.

Chaos and danger – To some, security means rigid order and strict rules. I do believe we do need some laws and rules to guide and reign us in a bit, and I don’t just mean traffic lights and pooper scooper mandates. … A little touch of chaos and danger makes a city sexy.

Human scale – Scale is important. … Some sort of compromise might be more ideal—the tall towers mixed in with the modest-sized shops and restaurants.

Parking – To be honest, available parking doesn’t matter to me. Parking lots and structures are dead real estate—they bring no life into a city … parking structures are simply dead zones, which hurt the businesses around them.

Mixed use – A perfect city is where different things are going on, relatively close to each other, at different times of the day. A city isn’t a strip of hotels and restaurants on a glorious beach; it’s a place where there are restaurants and hotels, but also little stores, fashion boutiques, schools, houses, offices, temples and banks. The healthy neighborhood doesn’t empty out at 6 p.m … In my perfect city there would always be something going on nearby.

Public spaces – In my perfect city there are ample public spaces—parks (not just vacant land, but common areas that people pass through and use), plazas (not just slabs in front of corporate towers) and, if possible, public access to the waterfront (if there is one). We don’t necessarily need massive acreage in our parks. Bigger is not always better, but we do need periodic breaks from buildings. … In some seaside towns there is no public access to the sea, which to me seems a self-injuring situation. In my perfect city there would be public access to all these areas.

The perfect city isn’t static. It’s evolving and ever changing, and its laws and structure allow that to happen. Neighborhoods change, clubs close and others open, yuppies move in and move out—as long as there is a mix of some sort, then business districts and neighborhoods stay healthy even if they’re not what they once were. My perfect city isn’t fixed, it doesn’t actually exist, and I like it that way.

3 Responses to “Talking Urbanist”

  1. Lucas Says:

    David Byrne’s WSJ piece was an excellent read. Thanks for pointing it out. As someone who went from college in South Carolina to law school in New York, I can fully appreciate the importance of the “size” quality. There is a certain comfort in the anonymity it provides.

  2. Michael Wells Says:

    Byrne has always impressed me. I remember reading about someone seeing him in the audience of one of the younger hip hop clubs listening to current sounds and asking why he was there when his peer-group was out resting on their laurels. He said “What I don’t understand is why they’re not here.”

    Great comments on cities. My friend and urbanist Carl Abbott says that a metro area needs at least 2 million population to have critical mass for lots of creative activity — not only artists but audience, patrons and supporting businesses.

  3. Paulo De Miranda Says:

    “The nomad doesn’t move” is a phrase that I often read on e-mails messages I receive from my friend Anthony D’Andrea whose recent book “Global Nomads” ( give us another glimpse of cities for the global and creative nomads. ‘Sir D. Byrne’ couldn’t be more creative in this article. Perhaps, it is better indeed that his perfect city remains on his imagination… and from time to time we can see it on stage…, for it would be a lot more human and real!