AM Inspiration: Walt Whitman and Sustainable Cities

This weekend I was in Philadelphia, a city I've only passed through a couple of times. Walking around on a sunny day through an unfamiliar city I was impressed with the City-ness of it, the way tasting an unfamiliar type of apple would show you, amidst a new taste or texture, the commonalities that make up an Apple:

There were cobbled streets running into pavement, homeless people sunning themselves on the sidewalk under placards with quotes about freedom by American historical figures. There were so many people, and they were all going somewhere. Not knowing the city well enough to be able to fill in their destinations, all I saw was their raw purpose. The buildings piled so carefully next to each other to give the impression that they had always been there when in fact they were a strange geology of the old, the new, the trying to be old, and the just-barely-gilded with newness.

With good reason, the green movement puts a lot of focus on the natural world--melting glaciers and vanishing species. But it's equally important that we look at the human-made world with the same eye for sustaining and appreciating what's good, for now and the future. "Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling," starts a poem by Walt Whitman, which begins singing the praises of natural phenomena--Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun.

O such for me! O an intense life, full to repletion and varied!

The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!...

People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions, pageants,

Manhattan streets with their powerful throbs, with beating drums as now,

The endless and noisy chorus..

So many futuristic visions of cities portray are like the one from Bladerunner: fancier gadgets and just as many innovations sprung up around the venial areas of life. There must be a way to cultivate the positive urban force that is a bunch of humans creating and sustaining a museum, without at the same time producing huge amounts of waste and pollution that sour air, water, and soil for miles around.

If a poet can find worth in countryside and city, holding them up side by side, maybe it's just the way we've been doing cities that's wrong, not the concept itself. Someday maybe it will be possible to say, with clear environmental conscience, along with Walt Whitman,

Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus!

Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.

Tags: Builidng, City, Museum, Philadelphia, Planning, Pollution, Sustainable cities, Urban, Walt whitman

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