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Urban Visions, from Portland to Barcelona

My whole life in suburban Portland, Oregon, between four walls and a tea-stained carpet, I couldn’t imagine an atmosphere in which I could breathe. My anxiety kept me tucked beneath the roof in every way: I couldn’t walk, and I couldn’t drive either. The steering wheel triggered an earthquake, with my palms sweating, fingers twitching, eyes burning with stress.

For a while, I developed other forms of walking away, like writing, and reading, and writing about what I was reading. I applied to universities and wrote myself to Broad Street. It took some time, but I found that I liked that street a lot, especially under the ground. With a sense of direction, I could feel exactly where I was going.

I felt it so much I decided to map streets into my life. In my first urban theory class, with dripping distaste, Rainer Maria Rilke told me about the masks of the city, Charles Baudelaire about the drama of a metropolis. I absorbed his words and began to hear the collaborative swing of Philadelphia’s rhythm. You could take a bus to school eavesdropping on the teenagers in the next row. You could fall asleep to the crosswalk at 12th and Cecil. It seems dramatic, but it’s a form of self-awareness, tuning into the sounds that surround you.

And riding the train, sauntering through a public library, drifting in and out of the city’s conversations: through my loneliest days, those were the sounds that surrounded me. If I hadn’t found solace in public spaces, I’m not sure I would have stayed so far from home as long as I have.

Transit is important. Transit is a public space. Transit doesn’t just allow us to move from Point A to Point B. It’s fresh air. It’s a pathway to seeing the world around you, to forming mental maps.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” For as long as they have existed, American cities have not truly represented the needs of marginalized communities. Study after study shows that far fewer women than men own cars, while race and socioeconomic status affect this statistic even further. Cars are not accessible for everyone, and there is no reason our urban landscapes should revolve around them.

Baudelaire and Rilke were right when they wrote about the theatrics of the city. But they had an overwhelmingly negative view of its dynamic, each noise an instrument to cacophony. I see it differently. During my four months in Barcelona, I hope to witness and understand the vision behind the locale’s world-famous planning, from its rocky, walkable roads to Ildefons Cerdà’s dreams of green, easily-navigable neighborhoods. I want to bring inspiration back to the states and continue thinking about ways we can transform the American metropolis into a breathable space.

Before I leave, I’m figuring out how to come home with new ideas on what a city can look like. So far, I’ve embarked on dérives through the city, adventures on suburban hiking trails, and a spontaneous road trip up the coast. Now I’m on my final week. From rereading classical urban theorists to reviewing famous European planners, I would like to land in Barcelona with a blueprint of what to look for.

One of my favorite U.S. cities, San Francisco, which I visited earlier this month.

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