Cities 2016: Why Design Matters Now
From the moment I step out of my front door, it takes me about 10 minutes to get to work. Mine is a walking commute, a few short blocks across a sleepy stretch of San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, and always involves a caffeine fueling at my favorite local coffee shop (double-shot large red eye, black). I love this stroll; I’ve been making some variation of it for much of the past decade I’ve been at WIRED.
My favorite part of the route is the final block, which takes me through tree-lined South Park, one of the city’s oldest and, I think, most charming public spaces. Sure, with its patchy grass and cracked walkways it’s scruffy in places, but I love the green of the park and the way the trees describe the route through it.
WIRED’s first home was on the eastern edge of South Park, and as I pass it each morning I think about Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, the magazine’s founders. As I walk, I come across dozens of today’s young founders and entrepreneurs, invariably with heads down, gazes fixed on mobile screens as they carve their paths to startups with silly spellings, vowels omitted. Twitter was started here, Instagram too. Sometimes I’ll just stop for a moment, sit on a bench and watch it all go by—the motion and change layering on top of the stable and the constant. (As a matter of fact, the park is about to get a $3.5 million makeover.) This is the eternal push and pull of city life.
Sometimes it’s easy to stop seeing this change. But it comes to all parts of all cities, whether we like it or not. Every day, people make decisions—design decisions—that shape our habitats and neighborhoods, from civic architecture to the fluid dynamics of pedestrian traffic to policing policy. Sometimes these decisions are small, sometimes they are profound, but they always add up.
That’s how design thinking works: One person adding to the decision-making of another. These changes aren’t always deliberate (or deliberately for good, for that matter), but like time, the movement is constant. I don’t see South Park change from day to day, but it is always reinventing itself.
This month, WIRED is holding a lens up to that cycle, about highlighting some of the most exhilarating and thoughtful design projects on the planet, from Bjarke Ingels’ thrilling plans for Lower Manhattan to a crowd-mapped bus system in Nairobi. Designers are the people making these moments of human progress possible. They shape and actualize the promise of great cities. I doubt the designers of South Park had a person like me in mind when they drew up this small urban respite in 1854, but I’m glad they made the choices they did.