My summer reading list this year included a debut novel by Seth Fried titled The Municipalists, which CityLab described as “the urban planning Sci-Fi novel you’ve been waiting for.” There are many things to say about this novel, but rather than offer a pseudo-review (other than to say that I recommend it), I want to focus on an observation the novel makes about cities. It appears at the opening of the third chapter in the voice of an omniscient narrator that often intrudes on the buddy-cop action to comment on larger themes and ideas. In this case, the narrator tells the reader a truth about cities, a truth which, as I see it, doesn’t get expressed or examined by planners, policy makers, or residents enough:
Many cities impress and please us because they are such perfect examples of human order. Here one thinks of the great European capitals, the streets of Paris lined with orderly rows of five-story Haussmanns or the open-air museum of Rome, where it feels as if not one building has been erected without first considering the argument of the city as a whole […] that everything there is in fact the product of a single unified thought, a calm and artful expression of humankind’s mastery over its environment.
As a person who studies rhetoric in a professional capacity, I’m attuned to how arguments and made and presented, especially in and through urban public spaces. Thus, this observation––that cities are able to make arguments––intrigues me. Most of us, I think, sense this is true. Spending any amount of time in a city––as a tourist, a short-term visitor, or simply on route to some place else, gives us impressions about the city. These visits let us leave with impressions about the city: is it easy to navigate? Is it clean? Does it seem fun? Is it set up for tourists or does it emphasize the resident’s experience?
This passage from Fried’s novel got me thinking: what sort of argument does Tacoma make––about itself and about the people who live, work, and play here? As much as I think about the arguments made by and through urban spaces in a professional capacity, the idea that Tacoma has been configured and organized in ways that impact livability is a personal one for me given my move to the city a year ago. Admittedly, this is a question that can’t be answered easily––and certainly not in the span of a year. No less, it’s a question worth asking routinely, by leaders and residents alike.