Imagine having a dream. Now imagine getting to stand before your government to tell them what your dream is about. You leave your soul on the story you tell them and they start feeling it with you. They are convinced and agree to fund your enterprise. Fast forward to some years after that moment, when you can have a bit of perspective to evaluate the whole thing. You changed the world. Entirely. That must feel good.
Too bad my good friend Chris Columbus can’t comment on his results. He’s being erased. So I’ll take on a small defense of his legacy. A critical defense, because as has happened in every moment in history we can point to, there are two sides to the coin.
What does this have to do with proud places, you ask? Well, some of the proudest places you can think of are part of the legacy of my friend Chris. Some of the most incredible buildings in the entire world are the proud work of a new, beautiful, creative and complex culture that was born out of Chris’ legacy. My culture.
Christopher Columbus sailed from Palos de Moguer in 1492. For almost 530 years after he arrived in what would be later known as America a new culture has been brewing and blooming. Violence, distrust and segregation have been and are still present, but creativity, beauty and joy have, too. Just like we can find those and other good and bad facts of life in cultural “encounters” such as when the Huns arrived in Europe, when the goths arrived in Rome, when the Umayyads arrived in Spain or the Saxons, Danes and Normans made their way to England. Always.
I’m going to focus on the present. I’m going to highlight the beauty. I’m going to celebrate the hope. Let those who live in the past be bitter. Let those who can’t see but a zero sum be mad. I’m going to talk about the incredible wealth of culture and creativity that has been blooming for over five centuries and talk about the spaces it has created. And how those spaces are primed to be transformed into places for innovation and community.
The grandson of the Castillian queen who funded Columbus’ travels sat down one day and decided to make a zoning code. He did, and sent it over to America to be implemented in every city. The Spanish founded or took over thousands of settlements and most bear the mark of Philip II of Spain in their historic cores. A square park with politics on one side and the Divine on the opposite.
Their scale is profoundly human. Their enclosure is deeply comforting. From tropical Havana to Andean Bogota and quirky little Villa de Leyva to earthquake-prone Riobamba, the uniqueness of each place is set on the larger geometrical background of King Philip’s royal decree.
Every other small town square was built with that logic. Some hosted bullfights, others were the theater of proclamations of independence and the abolition of slavery. All were distinctly Mediterranean but rooted in the local ways. As much as the newly arrived Europeans might have tried to erase the past, they couldn’t.
Architecture, sculpture and art was taught, forcefully some say, in the Western ways. The artists who undertook that training did not bow down, though. Dark-skinned religious figures, little angels with bulgy hands and distinctively native traits grace churches and other buildings from Mexico to Buenos Aires.
Enough history to bore you for a month, so let’s get on to the fun part: how the configuration and evolution of public spaces built to those standards has primed both the space and the people to take the most advantage from them.
Big Square (Plaza Grande) is the main square in Quito. Everything meets there and all the roads, literally, take you there. The president, the mayor and the archbishop coexist with banks and markets, civic pride and poverty.
Ecuador has one of the finest cuisines in the entire continent, and some of the finer examples come from small, uncomfortable, cavernous locales underneath the Cathedral’s stone vaulted atrium. Pork shoulder sandwiches with cured, sour onions and hot sauce that would make Bourdain salivate. I think he did try some.
The sidewalks leading to the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square seem like a maze of tunnels, all covered in bright red and yellow tarp, making the light underneath them a beautiful golden and, no doubt, enhancing the sight of the dishes that are sold along them. The most delicious food I can think of and the nicest people who become instant friends.
Remind me to tell you about the huaraches I feasted on by befriending a local in one of those sidewalks and jumping over to his nearby restaurant. Those small kiosks are at one time mobile food stalls and advertising campaigns.
What both these places have in common is that every single thing about them is the result of a slow boil where ingredients from different cultures have been simmering. Maize, potatoes, pork, language and religion. A natural sense of community that transforms cramped into cozy and crowded into communal. A perception of space that begins with the small and doesn’t waste a single square foot.
Closer to home, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, New Orleans and other great cities in California, New Mexico and Texas owe their wonderful human scale to the historical continuum that was unleashed in the first paragraph of this text.
The Spanish founded 23 universities along with the many cities, some of which are still teaching today and some that predate Harvard and Yale by over one hundred years. Arts and Philosophy were taught there, which in turn honed the skills of local architects and artisans.
I said I’d focus on the present and on the hope. Embracing the small, accepting the cozy and nodding to the quirky assures that the creation of great places is almost a given in those cities. The physical and cultural background is right.
I don’t know if it is possible to translate hope and possibility to spaces that have been built with a completely different ethos. American cities are built for efficiency and not for joy. Whatever the original intent, the way we are using our public spaces in October of 2020 has made a 20-year jump in a few short months and cities From Seattle to Miami are moving to sanction those changes and make the new, human use of public spaces permanent.
Technology allows us to be connected to global networks while freeing up time and space to rebuild the local. Big cities are becoming local. I can’t say if that will be good or bad in the long run, but turning our eye to our neighbors and building stronger communities resembles the solidarity and compassion of how more community-focused cultures have built their support networks.
The ball is in the court of local governments. Codes and regulations were created with a growth mindset, with bigness at their core. Those frameworks now need to scale down to accommodate humans who do not grow taller than 6 or 7 feet but need to grow fuller in pride and identity to feel good about the place where they live.
What can we do to help the transition go faster and smoother? Believe in the power of entrepreneurs like Chris and in their capacity for finding solutions and getting back on their feet. We may need to make cities accommodating to the small.
That means revising zoning codes to eliminate parking minimums, large footprints and small lot occupations. It means reassessing land uses to allow small bets in Accessory Dwelling and Commercial Units. Unnecessary regulation and baroque, convoluted permitting processes hurt the same people cities claim to want to help. Buy Local campaigns, celebrity visits and social media shares of purchased items do not compensate for the difficulty to operate within the wrong legal framework so many rules will need a second look.
Real support for small-scale city builders requires cities to look inward, evaluate their operating costs and realize how much of a burden they are on the millions of new entrepreneurs who need to work and serve their communities but cannot afford to. Otherwise we run the risk of erasing them.
If we really believe in the dreams of our entrepreneurs, dig their stories, partake of their hope and support their small businesses, sharing photo ops is just not enough.