Why Travel Now?

After receiving many questions about my motives for traveling, and Vietnam in particular, I wanted to share with you how I got to where I am, and where I want to go. At least, how I decided to go NOW, and not in a year, or 6 months, or 5 years.I’ll continue about Why Vietnam? in a second, related post. 🙂

I should also add that, while these are my goals now… I’ll be course correcting as I go along!

Once Upon a Time, in the late summer of 2012, I was riding my bike home from my volunteering gig at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. It’s a 7.25 mile trek back to Albany Park, about half of it along Chicago’s unparalleled lakefront trail – surely one of the most pleasant, easy urban rides in the United States. I was thinking about how nice it was to have access to such a strong network of biking trails in Chicago and how lucky I was as a citizen to be able to use them to get sunshine, exercise, and peace of mind, as well as using them for cheap, practical transport.
And here I found myself thinking, How did this happen? Who did this? I wondered if there were some way that I could get in on this city-improving action.The idea stuck, and I was soon concocting plans.

I did the research as my ideas continued to grow: urban planning, landscape urbanism, and sustainable eco-tourism all got strong and prolonged attention. The only thing I knew was that I love cities, cities are good for the planet and for its residents (did you know that cities have a lower per-capita carbon footprint than anywhere else?), and I wanted to make cities better. I didn’t really know how to do that, but the idea that bike ride planted in my brain continued to grow.
I soon realized a basic problem: I didn’t really know anything ABOUT cities. I paid close attention to Chicago, but that was it. It was clear to me that I needed a broader perspective. What kinds of problems did I want to solve with design and people in mind? What problems were cities facing, and what kinds of solutions were they designing to meet their needs?
Art + Community + Sustainability + Urban Planning
The formula came down to these four aspects for me:
Art: I needed some discipline where a creative mind would be free to flourish. Community art, and public art in general, is difficult to execute because of the sheer number of (in the US, at least) taxpayers that must be appeased. The lowest common denominator rules, and artwork becomes bland and colorful, simply appealing to the feel-good requirements of its citizens (see: the CTA’s Brown Line “art”).I believe in the transformative power of art and the emotional connections it engenders. It must arise from the communities that it serves. Art, in my mind, breeds ownership, which in turn fuels necessary community engagement. To leave your mark, or a mark you recognize as belonging to a part of you, is a powerful thing. I want to make sure that these hyperlocal art issues are nourished and fed. I believe that feeding these artistic urges gives rise to more functional, involved, and empathetic communities.

Community: Beyond art, which is generally (with the exception of Theatre, and which can easily become too insular and involved with itself) executed by a single person, or small team, there is the need for engagement of the community. How can you get whole communities to rally behind ideas? How do communities communicate? What paths are there that breed civic engagement, and can design do anything to facilitate it?In designing for the stage, a good set designer understands and uses their power of design for good – the enhancement of the message, tone, and mood of the play. I want to use my eye for design and turn it to the ultimate challenge: how to design for REAL people, in their everyday lives. I want to make sets that people live in.

Sustainability: There’s no secret that we’re in dire straits as far as the world goes. There are an ever-increasing number of humans in the world, and cities are by far the most efficient way to serve the largest number of them the highest standard of living while decreasing their carbon footprint to the lowest possible amount. People in cities walk, bike, and ride share their way from their homes, to work and to play. A car is not needed, or often even desirable, in such an environment.Chicago’s motto is Urbs in Horto and this is a concept I strive to recreate. My time in Chicago was all too brief, but it led me to recognize that a broad park system is not only necessary for public enjoyment and recreation, but oftentimes serves multiple functions. My time volunteering at the Nature Museum opened my eyes to the varied and amazing ecosystems that live beneath our noses.

Each city we have on the Earth is in a unique space and time, and doing the most we can to fit into that niche is part of what makes us uniquely human. We’re able to live anywhere, basically, so why don’t we? What is making us live in places that (in the US) are largely identical? North Carolina is different from Maine is different from Illinois is different from Arizona is different from Oregon. None of those states have the same climate, so why do we treat them like they do?

Urban Planning: Lots of people want to be urban planners, and they often succeed. Many times they become bureaucrats and a part of the system, simply doing what they need to do to make money and get by, holding onto their government jobs (and in the US, there is a very real possibility that these types of jobs are phased out in some markets). Some people believe this is a step too far for governments, that they shouldn’t be involved in planning at all.We’ve all seen the havoc that the American Suburb has wrecked around the perimeters of cities. Urban and suburban centers must become hyperlocal – jobs and housing must be indivisible in the long run. You not only have to WANT to live in your neighborhood, you must want to work and play there, too.

The 20-Year Plan
Just like Stalin, I plan to have a new 20 year plan every year. Forget that three year stuff. I’ve got bigger goals. These are the aspects of my goal that I’m pursuing, and I’m in Vietnam to learn first hand about all the crazy ways that cities that are rapidly modernizing are either meeting those goals, or failing.
Soon, I realized I don’t know a damn thing about the world. And then it came down to the question, when do I go abroad? Now, or after grad school? Clearly, now – after grad school I want to get right into the nitty gritty. So the next question: do I volunteer? Or do I teach English? And then, volunteering costs money (WEIRD I KNOW). So, teaching English it is.
I’m just beginning. Please keep reading this blog to find out what happens next! And if you’ve got ideas that could help, please don’t hesitate to comment. 🙂 I welcome all input.