Why Do We Live Like This?
Let’s rebuild our cities to maximize our own happiness, health, and well-being.
It was late September in 2016, and my band, Destroyer of Light, was in the middle of one of our longest U.S. tours. In the third week of the tour, the route took us into Maryland for a metal fest, known as Shadow Woods.
Maryland is known for their enthusiastic metal scene, and for Maryland Death Fest, one of the biggest metal festivals in the country. I’d never heard of most of the bands headlining Shadow Woods, but I was excited to spend two days out in the forest listening to underground black metal. We were one of the lone doom metal bands on the bill.
The afternoon when we arrived was dreary, as though as white sheet had been laid over the whole countryside. We drove through patches of mist and rain, we heard thunder a couple times, but it never really started coming down. The road took us across a little brook, and into a rural neighborhood — little thickets of trees broke up the stretches of green fields; manors with Corinthian-style columns sat on land that was worth who knows how much.
Finally, we took a slight left and the road took us deeper into the trees. The trees were so tall. Soon, it was only forest in every direction you looked.
When we arrived, I took off my shoes, and did not put them back on for the entirety of the following two days. Despite not knowing any other bands there, we all had the times of our lives at Shadow Woods. Mostly, I think, it was the fact that we’d spent so much time in cities — touring to a different city every night— and now we were out in nature. The air was fresh.
The camaraderie was strong, too. With a cap of three hundred or so tickets, it was like one big, giant party. Everyone knew everyone else by the end of that festival. I have fond memories of playing acoustic guitar around the campfire with Scott Wino at around four in the morning. To wake up in the morning to sunshine and the smell of trees was rejuvenating, even after having slept in a van.
We departed in the mid-afternoon on the last day of the fest, to play a show in Philly. It was a depressing affair. Barely anyone showed up.
The drive through the city was harrowing, as it always was in Philly. Aggressive drivers will shout and honk at you the minute the light turns green and you aren’t moving — or if you dare to commit the crime of turning left.
I stood on the street corner waiting for the show to begin, under the harsh light of the streetlamps, the sound of the train passing overhead. Every once and while someone walked by, but it was mostly quiet. I dragged on a cigarette. I wished so badly that I could just go back to the woods. There was graffiti everywhere, a used condom on the sidewalk right near where we’d parked the van, that we had to step around during load-in. The trash cans were literally overflowing.
What the hell is wrong with people? I thought. Who the hell would want to construct a place like this, and live in this environment — when we already have a perfectly good environment, right outside the city limits? Why are we destroying the environment that makes us feel refreshed and whole — for the sake of living in an artificial environment that makes us so stressed and angry?
I recognize that lots of people love to live in big cities. There are quite a few big cities that I love also. Even Philly has its redeeming qualities — the history, the Rocky steps, cheesesteak.
As a musician from Austin, born there in the late 1980’s, I can say that, over my lifetime, my hometown has transitioned from “big town” to “city”, so I’m not exactly unfamiliar with city life. But our population density is nothing like that of New York or Philadelphia. There are cities, and then there are cities.
What is it that we love about the big city life? If I had to give my own list, it would be something like this: the culture, and the intermingling of cultures; the food; there are lots of people interested in the arts and music; usually there is history also, as well as architecture, monuments and so on. The practical advantages of city life are of course the efficient distribution of resources, as well as the economic opportunities.
All of this is wonderful. As a traveling musician, I depend on the culture of the big cities, and the economy of big cities, especially when it comes to the music scene. We city folk have good reasons for highly rating the advantages of city life.
The trip from Shadow Woods to Philadelphia put in stark contrast the difference in state of mind: between being in the city, versus being in nature. The entire touring experience, actually, has you driving through rural America every day and playing shows in urban America every night. You realize that these are two entirely different worlds, two different ways of life. And, if you’re anything like me, you realize what country people find so distasteful about the city.
The modern, densely-packed city life comes with a set of problems. Serious problems. Any city-dweller is familiar with them.
As to what the problems are — we all know them. Every trash day in N.Y.C., when the streets are overrun with garbage, and the neighborhoods stink of human waste, that’s a problem. When there’s broken glass on the street where you walk your dog, or where people’s children are running around, that’s a problem. When the air is polluted, and everything around you is gray and ugly, that’s a problem. When you don’t feel a sense of shared destiny from living among so many other people, but a sense of alienation — this is perhaps the worst problem of all.
It’s become fashionable among conservatives these days to bash “failing liberal cities”. This has nothing to do with what we’re talking about here. The problem is simply one of modernity: of modern technology and its waste products, and of our inherited city planning and infrastructure in which modern populations have to live.
Similarly, us city folk usually take a dim view of rural people — but do we actually have a substantive criticism of the rural lifestyle, or is this another artifact of the culture war? Lots of people put themselves through an awful commute just so that they can get the economic opportunities of the city, while not having to live in the city. Everyone sees the appeal of living closer to nature, and the problems of alienation from nature. We can acknowledge all this without being partisans.
This has nothing to do with politics. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with nationality. These problems are as characteristic of Los Angeles, with is infamous smog — as they are of Beijing, where they calculate the number of days when they actually have breathable air, instead of the number of days they have dangerously polluted air, since it is rarer that the air is actually breathable. Breathing Beijing’s air on the worst days is the equivalent of smoking three packs of cigarettes (U.S. air pollution is not as bad, but still detrimental to your health).¹
Just as we find some countries where the situation is much worse, maybe we can learn from the countries where it is much better. There’s been a lot of talk about Blue Zones in the past few decades — places with disproportionately high numbers of centenarians. A great deal of the research into Blue Zones seems to have looked first at behavior: how these people eat, whether they drink or smoke (and what they drink or smoke), how much exercise they get, and so on.
Consider the Blue Zone in Sardinia. You could look at the diet of the people there, consisting of carbohydrates in the form of pasta, seafood, cheese, tomatoes. You could note that the food is non-GMO. You could consider the amount of walking they do.
But what about the fact that Italy is an aesthetically beautiful country? That Sardinia is a peaceful, green island whose cities are built atop cobblestone, and filled with colorful, storied buildings topped with terracotta tiles, with ivies climbing their walls? What about the fact that people do not live as alienated members of a singular, nuclear family — or worse, alone — but oftentimes live in multi-generational households with strong family bonds?
I hypothesize you could take any one of the folks living to a ripe old age in Sardinia, and plunk them down in the middle of Philly, and watch their life expectancy drop like crazy. They could do the same about of walking, have the same diet, and all the rest. But the environment would kill them. They’d be more stressed; they’d be breathing lower quality air; they’d be in an atomized city of strangers rather than in a community that lives a shared existence.
We must consider the importance of the physical environment in which we live. I mean the architecture, the geometry. I mean color, form, smell, sound. Living arrangements. Layout. Proximity to people and family. Air and water quality.
The Chinese have a sense for this in the practice of feng shui. While I do not buy into the metaphysical claims surrounding feng shui, I think the idea is metaphorically correct. The structure of the home, the arrangement of the furniture, the material it is made out of, where one eats, where one sleeps, etc. — these are all critically important in influencing one’s state of mind.
We all know this intuitively already. We know that keeping someone in solitary confinement, for example — putting them in the most restrictive, ugly, limited environment possible — is so distressing in its influence that it amounts to a form of torture. We know that having regular exposure to nature, to greenery, living things, open spaces and the like improves the psyche.
In the past few decades in Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing, has begun to catch on. Shinrin-yoku is even prescribed for therapeutic reasons. In some of the most densely-packed cities on earth, it is no wonder that the Japanese would turn to silent immersion in the forest as a form of therapy. The healing benefits of nature for one’s mindset are well-established.²
I think this is why there is always an attraction to the philosophy of romanticism. We long for an idyllic, natural state, because we’ve alienated ourselves from it.
So what is the answer then? Is everyone going to plan regular trips out to the forest, or to go hiking in some wilderness from time to time, as a counterbalance to city life?
Well, that would be nice… but not everyone has the economic means to take a vacation every couple of weeks. So are we going to simply leave one’s mental and emotional state up to the free market? We’ll let the poor, who are already anxious and depressed, get even more anxious and depressed because they can’t afford to spend time out in nature? That’s not a good solution.
What if there was another way? What if we could keep all those advantages of city life, but actually take steps to address the problems? What if we actually decided to change the environment?
Usually, when people talk about changing “environmental factors” in cities, they’re talking about things like education, access to social services, that sort of thing. Yes, this sometimes includes city parks and libraries and the like, but what I’m talking about is even more fundamental. We need to change the physical environment first and foremost if we want to stop being miserable.
One might say that I am simply talking about city planning. But I am talking about something more all-encompassing: restructuring the way the city life is lived, from the ground up. This means literally rebuilding our cities, or in some cases building new ones and transitioning our populations to them over a period of a few generations. This is now more critical than ever because of the environmental threats we now face.
The Trillion Trees Initiative has suggested that we could make a serious dent in reducing atmospheric carbon, simply by planting one trillion trees. This is technically a form of geo-engineering, but it is geo-engineering done the old fashioned way — the natural way. Even if their solution is overly optimistic, surely it cannot hurt to use the means nature has already given us to combat climate change. It wouldn’t even be that complicated or expensive.³
Agriculture, meanwhile, is threatened by soil degradation. We have, according to the U.N. estimates, around sixty harvests or so before our soil is depleted of its mineral content. We’ve also seen the rise of vegan and vegetarian movements in opposition to factory farming, and the practices of corporate agriculture. One potential solution to this is to promote sustainable agricultural practices. Sustainable farming can help combat soil degradation, help produce food in a more humane way, and serve as a net negative for carbon emissions.⁴
We’re still struggling to find means of powering the country with clean energy. Our national infrastructure gets a grade of D+.⁵ We’re still relying on roads, bridges and highways built during the time of LBJ.
Our cities as they were originally planned out decades, or even hundreds of years ago, were not designed with our modern needs in mind. In some cases, such as with San Francisco, we find irrational planning: a gridiron pattern for the roads and sidewalks, laid on top of a city that is nothing but slopes and hills.
Where will we find spaces for all this sustainable farmland? Where will we plant all these trees? Where will we build the new energy infrastructure?
“The large cities of today are scarcely better adapted for the expression of the fraternal spirit than would a work on astronomy which taught that the earth was the centre of the universe be capable of adaptation for use in our schools. Each generation should build to suit its own needs; and it is no more in the nature of things that men should continue to live in old areas because their ancestors lived in them, than it is that they should cherish the old beliefs which a wider faith and a more enlarged understanding have outgrown. The reader is, therefore, earnestly asked not to take it for granted that the large cities in which he may perhaps take a pardonable pride are necessarily, in their present form, any more permanent than the stage-coach system which was the subject of so much admiration just at the very moment when it was about to be supplanted by the railways.”
— Ebenezer Howard, from “The Garden Cities of To-Morrow” (1898)⁶
Ebenezer Howard laid out a set of principles for city planning that became incredibly influential on Great Britain. Howard critiqued the city planning of his own day, as relics inherited from past ages that no longer serve their needs.
Howard was writing some time ago, so his exact designs would not necessarily be prudent to replicate. His designs were also too small scale to be useful to us today. But his point is as relevant now as it was then: we’re occupying cities that don’t suit our needs simply because that’s the way things are. But we can change that. All we need is the political will to change it.
We could simply start from the proposition to integrate sustainable agriculture into our cities. Some cities have already done this, but we need orders of magnitude more land devoted to this purpose. Tear down the old, dying malls and replace them with sustainable farms. Every single rooftop should have solar panels, and a garden. This will also localize food production which will be useful in events such as a pandemic. If we’re rebuilding our roads and bridges, knocking down old infrastructure, that’s an opportunity for more urban trees, more parkland, more open spaces.
In Howard’s model, the parks and gardens were always in the center of the city, though we might imagine that at larger scales we could center the hub of each borough or neighborhood of a given city around such a garden. There, in the center, surrounding the greenery, are the state housing units — for orphans, the mentally handicapped and the alike.
Most Americans probably have a negative association with government housing, because it is usually designed to be as cheap and ugly as possible. All American programs for the poor are basically designed to discipline the poor, and teach them that it was a bad idea to become poor. As such, we cut costs wherever we can and sublimate everything to the principle of dispensing the least money, and the least help possible. The kind of state housing I’m talking about would not be designed based on those principles.
Every bit of architecture the state constructs for public use should be both beautiful, and functional — and integrated into the project of producing space for nature, for agriculture or gardening, and for the production of clean energy. The brutalist monoliths of the past are exactly what we must do away with.
Of course, these ideas require public investment, the delivery of more lands into the public commonwealth, rather than more lands going into the hands of private developers. So long as we leave it to capitalism to decide how our cities should be arranged, they’ll be arranged in the way that produces the most capital efficiency.
Capitalism isn’t designed to maximize your health and well-being, or put you in a good state of mind. It’s designed to create efficient capital flows and maximize returns on investment. What we’ve discovered over the past number of years is that when we structure our cities that way, we’re stressed, unhappy, and unhealthy. We’re now losing years of our lives to pollution.
This movement would require that we evaluate the collective environment in which we live as actually important to our health and happiness, and therefore in the public interest to reshape. It would then require the will to act to change that environment. And we Americans would also be required to finally stop buying into the old article of faith that capitalism always figures out the best way to do everything.
Is all this possible for Americans? Maybe. Maybe not.
But the alternative is living among ugliness. The alternative is slums. It’s pollution. It’s soil degradation, climate change, social alienation. This is life and death.
Because the solution is not a mystery. We all know the ways in which the city environments could be improved. We already know the changes that need to be made. The first step is to simply recognize that things could be different, if we want them to be.
 More information on shinrin-yoku: https://time.com/5259602/japanese-forest-bathing/
 Here is a skeptical take on this response to climate change: https://www.skepticalscience.com/1-trillion-trees-impact.html (“There is no climate change silver bullet; planting trees helps, but it’s just one piece of silver buckshot among the many solutions needed to avert a climate crisis.”)