N Touch
Tuesday 16 July 2019
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Travelling without leaving home

Whoever coined the term "adulting" is a genius. No other word quite captures the essence of young adulthood; that odd mix of hopeful futility, humourous despair, confident trepidation, and restrictive freedom.

After graduating and returning to TT in mid-2012, and subsequently moving out of my parents’ home in Santa Cruz to be closer to Port of Spain, "adulting" began. Young and naive, I had thought that an entry-level job would allow for me to pay rent, pay for and maintain a second-hand car, afford other living expenses, and still have money left over to travel at least once a year!

Travel is something that everyone probably dreams about, and so many in privileged circumstances take for granted. When adult life hit, it didn’t take long for me to realise that regular travel was simply not an option. It was a reality check, considering that I had just spent six consecutive years enjoying the pleasures of travelling to and fro and within the United States, and even had the opportunity to study abroad in Australia for a semester.

Travel presents a combination of new faces and new spaces that inspires the imagination, stimulates the senses, and nurtures the spirit. While it can’t completely replicate that feeling, the experience of being in a great city comes close.

For those not blessed with the opportunity to jet-off as much as they’d like, living in or having access to a great, local city can act as a substitute. I am reminded of a quote from the late Jane Jacobs that has always resonated with me: “by its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by travelling; namely, the strange.”

Living in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, it’s no surprise why Jacobs recognised this. If you’ve ever been to Manhattan, you’ve probably felt the pulse, the energy, the thrill that comes from a large agglomeration of millions of strangers packed into a tiny space almost one hundred times smaller than TT.

A new sensory experience lies around every corner: a different vista to behold; the potential of making eye contact with a beautiful stranger; the feeling of a cobblestone street beneath your feet; the tastes and unusual wafting scents of shawarma meat and other street foods; or an impromptu saxophone performance on the subway.

It’s these things that we remember and enrich us, and you can only truly see, smell, hear, taste, or feel these things while on foot, and not from the vantage point of a moving car.

The desire for those random fleeting encounters with strangers, on reflection, is why I enjoy running around the Savannah, walking through downtown Port of Spain, or even simply running to the supermarket or pharmacy every day when I could easily go once for the week and stock up.

As we increasingly move towards more individualised living arrangements — 19 per cent of all households locally consist of one person — interaction in public spaces becomes a social necessity.

Port of Spain can provide the benefits of the strange, as only a city can. Simply nurturing a sense of urbanism in our capital city can help us to provide its residents, and visitors from rural and suburban areas, with a sense of excitement and novelty that they maybe wouldn’t experience otherwise.

Unwittingly, misguidedly, or spitefully, we are doing everything in our collective power to destroy what little sense of urbanism does remain.

Just about everyone has been indoctrinated in the erroneous idea that continued decentralisation, that is, dispersing the population, jobs, and services thinly across the island, is the answer to our woes — it’s no wonder people haven’t claimed that it will solve crime, hunger, and climate change yet.

Some seem hell bent on fracturing the city by focusing on parking and moving high numbers of cars, instead of high numbers of people, and creating functional public spaces.

Some appear to be entirely obsessed with grass, trees, and creating the illusion of some bucolic fantasy, at the expense of addressing walkability, public transit-friendliness, vibrancy, and high-quality architecture and urban design.

A lively city is especially important for young, unmarried, career-oriented professionals who are key to innovation and economic development. Given the opportunity they will quickly flee the mundane, soulless suburban wasteland that TT is degenerating into.

In 2006, Philadelphia recorded its lowest population in a century. In 2016, the National League of Cities reported on how Philadelphia was able to attract and retain young talent, increasing the city’s population, aged 20-34, by 100,000 over that decade. The number one strategy listed: “Deliver an appealing reality: Rebranding campaigns do not cut it. Cities need things like density, shopping, culture, diversity, walkability, and good [public] transit.”

Where are we headed?

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