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💫 serendipity and the city
hello again! // how cities cultivate spontaneity
My favorite part of living in New York is never knowing what I may find when I leave my apartment on a breezy summer day. Going to the grocery store? The greenmarket is set up around the corner. Walking to lunch? The surrounding streets are converted into a bustling flea market. Going on a morning run? There’s a random statue that I never noticed that I can’t believe I missed, a giant Dalmatian balancing a car on the tip of its nose.
Every street corner is a stage for a mini-adventure (for better or for worse). There may be a community block party going on, a seasonal art installation, or an evening band concert. Restaurants open, close, and new ones take their place. Street sellers rotate their knick knacks onto the next crop of tourists. The subway ads are refreshed, and on your next commute, someone has painstakingly carved through the layers where the smiling model’s face was, reclaiming the ad as their own twisted masterpiece.
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Population density enables the infinite variations of human behavior to be seen, unfolding in real-time all around us. The city is designed for all of us to bump into each other. Navigating the grid from one corner to the next, it’s impossible to not cross paths with a few dozen of the other 8.5 million New Yorkers. People note that they run into the most unexpected people here because of the pure human-to-human exposure. Compare this to a suburban neighborhood (a “garden city”), where driving around in a car, your interactions with others are limited and spontaneous detours are rare.
Walkable cities with mixed-use zoning offer many benefits, from safety and community to reduced pollution. Serendipity might not be the most important of these, but it can otherwise be rare to find in modern living. Most of the modern young adult’s in-person activities are planned out, and how often is the Internet serendipitous? We (the Internet users) either know exactly what we are searching for, or we are consuming a feed that has been curated to our liking. The Internet shows us what it knows we want to see. Cultivating spontaneity online is impractical and unprofitable, as it adds friction to the (profitable) actions that platforms want us to take. Living in a city, on the other hand, makes having novel experiences effortless. Going outside guarantees exposure to the people and sights that we would not otherwise seek out.
The cityscape is in a constant state of flux. No two walks to the gym, to TJ’s, or the local coffee shop are ever the same, and this imbues liveliness in our day without us having to search for it. It's clear that we need to build better cities for practical reasons, but we also need to build better cities to spark daily moments of inspiration, delight, and serendipity.
I wish I took a picture of this.