On Giving Thanks: Discussing Our Relationship with Cities

Photo via Dinner Series

We are all thankful for many different reasons. This time of year we see an onslaught of status updates and tweets about why our friends, relatives, and peers are thankful: for having a job, for their families and friends, or for simply being alive. Because I am a lover of the Rust Belt, and the nerdy planner in me tends to take over in reflective situations; I’ll express what I am thankful for: My City.

I’m thankful that my trash gets picked up every week and clean water comes out of my faucet. I’m thankful for the train that carries me into work every morning. That if I dial 911, there will be a response. Many of us take these things for granted, forgetting the incredible expense and feats of human ingenuity that drove the improvements in quality of life all throughout this great nation. Now, this post is not an exercise in guilt—as there is an important reciprocity that is often lost when we consider thanks, or more importantly, love.

My list of thanks addresses the infrastructural functions of a city entity—the council, utilities bureau, or portfolio of services offered in our communities. In this sense, we could understand it as a network of decision-makers, whether public or private entities. But a city is far more than that. A city is a living, breathing, complex web of decisions and intentions. A city is its people. Decision-makers work daily to improve conditions in the city, prescribing, providing, and practicing in the name of the people. We want our cities to be lovable, for people to appreciate place—but too often we don’t understand living in a place in terms of a relationship.

Peter Kageyama points out in his book, For the Love of Cities, that we understand our cities in terms of consumption—“Consumption of culture, of resources, of infrastructure, of services. The better/easier/cheaper those consumables, the happier we are and the better we like our places.” He sees this as a fallacy, that it is in our human nature to produce, create, and contribute to our place. Our leaders and so-called creatives are the ones that are pushed to make the changes necessary to facilitate this as we have lost emotional connectivity with place—which is unsustainable at best. He calls on us citizens to understand that we have a relationship, that we should be emotionally engaged with our cities. This is what will make them thrive (because “when we are loved, we thrive”).

I draw on yet another inspirational writer who discusses love in great detail—bell hooks. She puts eloquently in her book, All About Love: New Visions: “Imagine how much easier it would be for us to learn how to love if we began with a shared definition. The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb.” She explains that this definition assumes accountability and responsibility, rather than thinking about it as a feeling that we have no control over—she comes to define love as openly and honestly expressing care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment, and trust.

When we combine the thoughts of these two people together, we can understand our relationship with our place as one where we express our affection, care and respect for our city. We do this by not throwing trash in its streets, by taking responsibility and paying our taxes, by trusting in those prescriptions and practices put out by the city’s leadership. A relationship, however, only works if this love is given in return—so what, then, does this functional relationship look like? And how can we facilitate it?

I urge you to find reasons to be thankful for your place, perhaps for the parks where your children play or the many books available to you at the library. At the same time, however, I urge the City—the decision-makers and citizens alike—to be thankful for every amazing person that lives within your community—for opening a new business and creating jobs, for putting up holiday lights (albeit far too early), for supporting a school levy or donating canned goods at their place of worship. Thank people for making your community a better place, no matter how big or small that effort may be. We thrive when we feel loved, and we feel loved when we are appreciated.

Thank you for reading this piece, for caring about the future of our cities, and for all of the hard work you will put forth to make sure that future is brighter than it is today.

Have a wonderful holiday!

I'm Thankful for my City-- and those of you that make it a better place.

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