Cities June 2013

It’s been just over three weeks since I left my comfy apartment in Boulder to see the world. The original concept was to visit twelves cities, living in each for one month. I wanted to get to know each city from the perspective of a local, making an effort to make friends and establish roots in each place as quickly as possible. This would allow me time to get comfortable and relax, actually get to know cities, and actually form some lasting friendships. After some meandering through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, I’ve spent the last three weeks in Seattle. In July I’ll head to San Fransico.

So far, I can say that I’m finding that people are generally the same everywhere. There are subtle differences - some cities are friendlier, or more liberal, or more diverse, but people are people. The largest differences have been cultural differences - Vancouver, being 50% Asian, very international, and not in the US, has been more more different than most US cities. But even with these cultural differences, Vancouver is not so different feeling than any other city of its size. The size of a city has been the largest differentiator in each place. Small towns are completely unlike large cities in how they feel - the pace of life and way that people interact are very different. And after living in Raleigh and Seattle, and Boulder and Asheville, I can say Raleigh feels a lot like Seattle, and Boulder feels a lot like Asheville. The commonality is size.

Second to size, transportation is a huge differentiating factor. This, aside from culture, seems to be the most important indicator for how a city works, feels, and the quality of life that residents can achieve. We spent a day navigating Vancouver without a car: we walked to the Skytrain, took the Skytrain downtown, took a water taxi to Granville Island, took a bus from Granville Island to the Vancouver Harbor, took a ferry to North Vancouver, bussed to North Vancouver, and then finally did all of this in reverse, catching rush hour on the Skytrain and ferry. It was a great experience and all of the busses, ferries, and trains arrived right on time and felt completely clean and safe.

In Seattle, I’ve had mixed results: getting from one neighborhood to another is a challenge. There is a relatively good bus system. Ninety percent of the time busses are on time, but the other ten percent they are late: I’ve had a few encounters with 15 minute late busses and busses getting stuck in traffic - and there is always traffic, with the exception of late at night, I-5 is eternally congested. Additionally, parking is painful and expensive. The 30-60 minute bus ride (depending on what time of day) from Lake City to downtown takes only slightly longer than driving and is much less stressful. In short, Seattle is quite automobile-oriented, yet still dense, causing bad traffic congestion and making parking difficult. Seattles neighborhoods tend to be very separate - often separated by bodies of water that make it possible to get from one district to another only by your choice of one or two bridges. Thus, if you are planning to move to Seattle, I would highly recommend choose a neighborhood such that you can live your life out entirely in that one neighborhood: working there, socializing there, and living there without needing to get to other parts of town.

But aside from transportation and culture, I’ve found most other factors about a place to be minor in differentiating a city and influencing its residents’ lifestyles. Other things - crime, education, health, economy, green spaces, law, etc - do matter, but they tend to be similar in all places. There are always going to be open spaces, schools, hospitals, crime, safe neighborhoods, bad neighborhoods, etc. This does not tend to change from one place to the next that much (at least not within US cities).

That said, I’ve found that my personal situation affects my lifestyle and quality of life infinitely more than the city itself. A city that’s a good fit is important, but if it’s a city that is larger than a few hundred thousand people, there’s almost guaranteed to be a little bit of everything and everyone. The times in my life that I’ve been happiest have had everything to do with my personal relationships, career, and living situation, and less to do with the place itself. This is especially true in big cities. This is less true in small towns, because small towns are more limited in what they can offer. I think of small towns as niches: Boulder is good for outdoorsiness and startups, but not so good for sailing or most large companies. Asheville was great for tourism, but not so great for tech.