Why cities are better experienced on the surface

Photo courtesy of Peter Burgess


I talked about bike share in New York City, and how it has the potential to change the fabric of the street. But I also didn’t test it out myself, as I lacked a helmet. Lame, I know, but I felt significantly less likely to resemble an oil slick, or find myself on the evening news.

Interestingly, the place I was staying and the place I was working happened to be only a few blocks from each other, which meant that I didn’t need to take the subway (or even a bike). This was novel, as the subway is such an integral part of the New York Experience.

And yet, I have to admit I didn’t miss the subway at all. I liked staying on the surface.

Staying on top of things

It wasn’t just the commute, which given the distance was pretty much unimprovable. I realized (with the perspective that comes with a long absence) that I actually find the subway disorienting. You go down a hole in one place and escape up another in a completely different place. What is the relationship of one place to the other? It isn’t obvious.

The subway has obvious advantages, in terms of speed of getting around. But what it gives you in distance traveled, in takes away in context.

My first experience of New York was of coming up from a staircase into Midtown, probably at Penn Station or Times Square. With buildings all around and movement everywhere, it came as a shock to me to remember that this was an island!

Know where you are

In this age of GPS and Google Maps on smartphones, I feel like there is a value in geographic context. To know where you are is one thing, but to know where you are in relation to other things is more powerful. And movement through these known landmarks gives you a kind of notional parallax; it makes you understand where you are more deeply, in the same way that you can understand your surroundings much more clearly with two eyes open, even though you see the exact same thing with a single eye.

And there is a pleasure in knowing where you are. That’s probably why the Maps app on people’s smartphones are so engrossing, though the irony is that it takes away from people’s innate understanding of their surroundings rather than adding to it.

Now, buses and taxis (and even private vehicles) also run on the surface, so there can still be that sense of continuity there as well. But there is a difference between being just at ground level and being on (or perhaps in) ground level. In a bus or taxi, you are watching the passing scene. On foot or on a bike, you are in the passing scene. The difference is subtle, but it is there. Being in the scene gives you a stronger sense of scale and perspective. A human aspect to the city.

What are we building for?

With all these grand architectural visions and great public works, it’s easy to forget that cities are for people. And to experience a city fully by moving around on its surface is to feel like you’ve become a part of a living ecosystem. Your relationship to the greater whole becomes a dialog, a connection to a larger entity. You may feel how small you are in comparison to the whole, but at least you will actually feel the whole.

But enough about me. How do you like to experience cities?

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

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Mike Pumphrey
Posted on June 13, 2013