Nothing gets me hotter than listening to policy wonks talk about urban density. Say the words "intermodal transit" and I start to sweat a little. Add "walkable urbanism" and "placemaking" and I have to excuse myself for a minute.
I kid -- kind of. Truth is, I get frustrated. I wish we could just say what we really mean. What are we really
talking about when we talk about making Detroit a more vibrant city?
What we’re really talking about is sex. Or, in other words, creating the right conditions for people to hook-up. I mean this both literally and figuratively -- but literally is more fun, and it’s Valentine’s Day, so let’s go with that.
Think about it: Sex is the very essence of a city. People meeting, mixing, mingling, making out, making stuff happen. Sharing space, exchanging ideas, getting entangled, getting busy.
It’s basic biology -- the survival of the species. People are drawn to other people, and when we come together in close proximity, sparks fly -- some might even ignite. Sometimes this leads to a long-lasting love affair; other times it’s a white-hot one-night stand that rocks your world, and then you move on.
Either way, great cities are designed to encourage the flirting and foreplay that lead to great sex, because herein lies: 1) Customer satisfaction (if people find human connection and happiness, they’re more apt to hang around, right?), and 2) Economic opportunity (if people get busy -- in the business sense, I mean -- the money will flow).
Sex is good for commerce, it’s good for culture. The highest achievements of humanity -- the stuff that propels our civilization forward -- come from human friction and collision. Our best music and architecture, our greatest inventions and masterpieces -- these aren’t born in a vacuum, like some immaculate conception. They come from people and places. They emerge in environments where exchange happens freely.
Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter says this kind of sex appeal -- or magnetism, as she calls it -- is important for cities. "Places flourish when they attract people, resources, opportunities, and ideas, and match them to one another. Cities are much more than the built environment of roads and real estate. Cities are about relationships, and whether people have access to opportunities. Cities are one big dating game."
Some cities really get this -- and they set the stage to turn you on and hook you up. You can feel it in their urban design, you can smell it in the air. Markets, parks, sidewalks, streets, museums, galleries, clubs, bars, cafes -- these are all great places for sparks to fly. This is why investing in quality spaces is smart civic policy. An enticing public realm invites human interaction, which in turn produces collaboration and innovation. It’s kind of like lighting candles and queuing up Marvin Gaye -- it helps set the mood for more.
I think Detroit is reawakening to this possibility -- can you feel it? We’re coming out of our homes and cars, we’re brushing up against strangers in parks and bars. We’re making more beautiful places, we’re filling more rooms. Our core temperature is rising, powered by human energy.
We’re bringing sexy back.
So what does this mean? What makes a city sexy?
Plenty has been written about what makes a city "romantic," like this article
by Kaid Benfield of the NRDC. We all know Paris is a great place to fall in love, and Las Vegas is a great place to be naughty, but what about a healthy sex life? What are the best conditions for that?
Sexiness begins with inner confidence and energy -- and a sexy city expresses this with a sort of cultural attitude. Do we have a sense of discovery and adventure? Are we willing to let our hair down a little bit? Even if some among us are content and settled, are we cool with others being liberated to take risks and try new things? Some find this freedom unsettling, others find it life-affirming. I think an open and vivacious city is sexy.
In a sexy city, people share space and find pleasure in proximity. We should all brush up against a stranger once in awhile, as uncomfortable as we fear this might be. Here in Michigan, we have a really bad habit of making spaces too big and wide so we never, ever have to touch each other. We’ve gotta stop that -- god bless small businesses for leading the charge. Touching is sexy. Intimacy is sexy. And listen, if the intensity of crowds and noise becomes just too much to bear, that can work in your favor. Some of life’s sexiest encounters begin with those five lovely words: "Let’s get out of here…" Escaping out the back door is sexy.
Jane Jacobs once said, "The point of cities is multiplicity of choice." I’m pretty sure she meant having a diverse array of cultural offerings on a Friday night, but let’s be real. There’s a reason twenty-somethings flock to urban centers, and it’s not just the high concentration of job prospects or easy access to obscure French films -- it’s the wide array of possible future lovers. Yes, some people even choose
to live in teeny-tiny studio apartments so they can spend their disposable income living in public, hanging out at coffee shops and bars, where their chances of meeting a kindrid spirit are higher. Options and opportunity are sexy.
You know how some people say Detroit is like a small town? Yeah, this doesn’t really help us in the sexiness department. A certain degree of familiarity is nice for building a strong sense of community, but some measure of anonymity is needed for a sexy city. Ask any of my single friends, and they’ll tell you: A bar where everyone knows your name is lovely sometimes -- but not all the time. Part of the allure of cities is the possibility of a new introduction, a chance encounter, a serendipitous meeting -- you know, a little surprise and mystery that quicken the pulse. Musician David Byrne suggests "a little touch of chaos and danger" as an important element of a great city -- and I bet most musicians, artists and writers would agree. The thrill of the unexpected is sexy.
Beauty is the best aphrodisiac, and Detroit has come a long way in embracing this. When we think of romantic places, we often think of natural beauty (flowing waters, lush gardens) or man-made beauty (great works of architecture) -- in other words, scenic locations that heighten our senses. As Kaid Benfield writes, "Love can happen anywhere, anytime -- but the odds are much higher in nature or in a walkable city neighborhood (or both at the same time!) than in sprawl, or while driving in traffic." Same goes for sex -- not good while driving in traffic. Kinda dangerous, actually. (This is why we need more trains. Risky Business, anyone?)
But back to beauty: I think in recent past, Detroit has sometimes considered this a bit frivolous. Like maybe it’s a luxury we can’t afford, or at odds with our industrial identity? (Too soft for our tough, gritty exterior? Too feminine for our modern machismo?) It’s true, this is an awfully masculine city, what with our motors and muscle and male-driven music scene. But we weren’t dubbed "Paris of the Midwest" for no reason. We’ve got sensuality and soul, not to mention some seriously gorgeous assets -- beautiful buildings, boulevards, Belle Isle. Let’s flaunt ‘em. Splendor is sexy.
Now your turn: What makes a city sexy to you? What are ways Detroit turns you on? How can we turn up the heat? Don't be shy, share your thoughts at [email protected]
Publisher Claire Nelson queued up a stack of Marvin Gaye records to set the mood for her meditation on sex and Detroit city. She also encourages you to stay tuned to Let's Save Michigan for details about the group's forthcoming design competition for public spaces.