I worry a lot about word choice. I hate the feeling of explaining something and then learning what I thought was clear as day did not come through how I intended it. But there’s a tricky balance to strike between clarity and efficiency, and clarity sometimes loses to the limitations of time and attention span. One of the tricks we use to maximize efficiency in communication is to group things — people, places, foods, everything. We apply labels to give us enough information to process information even if we know that those labels have limitations. Sometimes those limitations are a result of missing pieces in our own knowledge and sometimes they are simply for reasons of expediency.
An example: I might say, “hey, there’s a dog over there” rather than, “hey, there’s a male, Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier of roughly 38 lbs over there” even though the latter is much more precise. I could be choosing to simplify to “dog” because that’s the only bit of info I think you need, but I might be doing it because I don’t have the other info. The odds of me being able to recognize that specific dog breed in real life at a glance are precisely zero, but I’ll be pretty confident on the “dog” label.
If you’re wondering what on earth this has to do with the topic of me being a “city person,” stay with me. We’re getting there.
The convenience of labeling gets messy when we think critically about the various groups we consider ourselves part of and compare that to the labels others might give us. The label “city person” is one that I might apply to myself, and it’s also one most of my friends and family would pretty quickly apply to me as well. I’m fine with that in general. There’s no doubt that I’ve cultivated that image to a certain extent, but I’ve become more and more aware of a gap between how I see it versus how I think others are using it to apply to me. I want to look at what it seems like others are saying — even as I acknowledge my ability to know what they are saying is imperfect — and then compare that to what I mean when I use the “city person” label on myself.
My wife and I spent five years living in a first-ring suburb, the kind of place a lot of folks would consider “living in the city” because of its shared border with Minneapolis and urban style street grid. For me, this did not feel like living in the city much at all. Not long before I was living in Chicago just a couple of blocks from Wrigley Field. I walked almost everywhere and took trains or buses everywhere else. I loved it. I thought getting around was so easy. There were occasional times having a car might have simplified things, but mostly having a car would have been much, much more expensive with little benefit for me.
Moving to St. Louis Park was a stark change. While the area I lived in did not precisely require a car to get around, it was much more difficult to do many basic errands without one than it had been in Chicago. I recognize how obvious that statement is, but what I did not recognize at the time was how much that would affect me. I desperately missed being able to do things like get groceries, grab a coffee or get my hair cut without getting in a car. And I talked about missing it. A lot. To everyone.
I couldn’t help myself to an extent. When you buy a house, people want to ask about it. Mostly what they want to hear is how great it is. This is one of those subjects where people feel an obligation to ask but don’t necessarily want honesty. Unfortunately I’m not great at these sorts of pleasantries. If you ask, I’ll give you the honest answer or if you’re lucky I’ll try to change the subject. Think about this. If an acquaintance or extended family member just got a new job, you ask “how’s the new job going?” If it’s not someone you’re really close to, is this what you want to hear? “Oh my GAWD, the new job is a nightmare. I’ve made a terrible mistake, and here are the reasons why.”
I’m confident that is not the conversation you were hoping to have. That was me.*
The experience of living in a suburb that was a mix of urban and suburban drove me to better understand what I liked about one versus the other. I found it was less about “city” versus “suburb” versus “rural” and more about a collection of attributes I favored over other attributes. This became an interest in urbanism and what qualities make a place healthy and livable. It led to strong opinions on not only the places I enjoy but what goals I think other places should pursue. It’s also what led to most folks giving me the “city person” label and the mixed feelings I have about it.
What I Hear When Others Call Me a “City Person”
Even though I wasn’t living what I considered a city life, my time in SLP is what led to people calling me a “city person” because I talked about missing city life and my interest in it with frequency. Less charitably, it led to me occasionally being called an “urban snob.” I’m not sure I can express how much I hated that last moniker. I sometimes made an attempt to own it because it seemed easier than trying to have a nuanced discussion of what my ideal life looked like, but I still hated it. It was not how I wanted to be perceived, and it made me worry about what I was saying that caused people to think that of me. Those conversations about what I missed about my time living in big cities color a lot of my impressions of how other people seem to interpret my preferences. I’m probably getting some of it wrong, but that doesn’t change how I perceived it.
When I get called a “city person,” here are some of the relatively positive or at least benign things it sounds like people are saying with that label:
- That I value being close to the action in terms of entertainment and culture.
- That I do legitimately prefer walking places when possible.
- That I don’t mind trading less space for what I consider a desirable location.
- That I like living in a big city for its own sake. It’s the fact that it is dense and urban that matters.
And here are some of the negative connotations I sometimes hear, which I admit affect me much more than the others:
- That my desire to live in a city is an extension of seeing myself as more sophisticated than those who do not for some reason.
- That I look down on people who live in suburbs or rural areas.
- That I’m naive. Once I have children I’ll move to the suburbs because of schools and safety. I’ll want a big yard for them to play in, too.
- That I’m impractical. Driving is more convenient. Biking or walking isn’t realistic for lots of people. I’ll eventually need more space for stuff.
What I Mean with the Label “City Person”
There are kernels of truth in many of the statements above, though I’d wholeheartedly dispute the notion of seeing myself as sophisticated or better than suburbanites. I just don’t think about it in those terms. In truth, I don’t consider myself a “city person” in the sense of only wanting to live in big cities. I accept the label as shorthand for the reasons above, but it’s not what I’d choose if a better term were available. While we look for a better word, here are the primary attributes I’m looking for:
- Stuff to Do in Walking Distance
- This above all else. I do not want to be required to get in a car to get most places. I want to be able to walk at least some places to accomplish at least some errands. Places without sidewalks and without destinations in walking distance feel unwelcoming to me. This does not mean I have to be near the hottest music venue, trendiest restaurant, or whatever. I’m talking about a decent coffee shop, a hardware store, a bar, maybe a few restaurants. I’m also talking about parks and trails.**
- Walking and Biking Are as Safe and Welcoming as Possible
- It’s not enough that stuff is theoretically in walking distance. I want it to feel safe – and ideally pleasant — to walk or bike there as well. This was the biggest problem with St. Louis Park. Most of the stuff that was close enough to walk to required walking alongside a wide stroad where traffic moved at speeds often near 50mph because of road design. Sure, there were sidewalks, but crossing intersections was terrifying because people did not look for you. This is my biggest problem with the prototypical American suburb. Fast moving auto traffic is prioritized in ways that feel dangerous for any other mode of travel.
- Ability to Get to Work without Driving
- Now that I’m working from home, this is obviously a less important concern. But that was not always the case and there’s no guarantee I won’t find myself commuting to a job again at some point in the future. If that happens, I don’t want to have to drive if I can avoid it. At a minimum, I cannot imagine driving the vast distances that many do. The cost bothers me. It stresses me out to the point of impacting my wellbeing. The loss of time drives me crazy. If these things are not concerns for you, fine. For me they are deal breakers.
That’s basically it. There are other details I’m looking for, sure, but they are variations on, or extensions of, those themes. These preferences also say a bit about what I don’t want or need. Even if I have kids, having a big yard will never be important to me because I’ll prioritize places that have good public parks. I personally dislike driving, but I also recognize that cars can be a really useful tool. I don’t envision my wife and I going car free anytime soon, but my preference is to never need more than one of them. They’re just awfully expensive for something I don’t like to use.
Notice I did not say I need to live in a big city. I don’t, I promise. I like living in big cities, but that’s because they are more likely to meet the criteria above than other places. There are plenty of small and medium-sized places that could work. College towns in particular are good candidates, and I could easily envision myself living in one. It’s the extent to which many places have prioritized high speed auto travel over other modes that becomes a problem for me. There are many large cities that are so automobile dominated that I wouldn’t enjoy living in them either.
What I really prefer is what’s increasingly recognized as the “traditional neighborhood development” pattern. Ignore the somewhat academic nature of how the terminology is being used. All it really means is that I like areas that grew the way pretty much everywhere was developed prior to the advent of the automobile. Stuff was closer together of necessity. I happen to prefer those kinds of places and the lifestyle that accompanies them. Having spent a lot of time trying to understand my own reasons for those preferences I’ve come to understand more about why I think this pattern is a good thing and not just my taste. I think that’s an important discussion, and it’s one I’m leaving for another time so I can give it the space it deserves.
In the meantime, feel free to keep calling me a “city person” until we come up with something better. But if you see me and ask what I think about it, don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’m no good at those sorts of pleasantries.
*I’m exaggerating this to make the point, but it’s not terribly far from how I felt about where I lived. This improved a lot once I got a decent bike and started using that to get around more, but it still didn’t solve it entirely.
**The idea of feeling like I need to drive to a bike trail because I can’t realistically just get on my bike to go there baffles me, yet that’s how we’ve set up a lot of places. It’s like taking the escalator into a gym.