I am reading Edward Glaeser’s new book The Triumph of the City, which argues that the city is humanity’s greatest invention and is our best hope to make us “richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.” He explains that despite technologies that have, in a certain sense, made distance irrelevant, creativity and innovation still benefit from face-to-face contact. Furthermore, cultural and social richness are things that can only be approximated in a virtual world.
This weekend, events in San Francisco did a great job of proving Glaeser’s thesis. I was up in the city this weekend to run the Nike Women’s (Half) Marathon, and my excursion through the area reminded me of the vitality of city life that cannot be replaced by email, Facebook, or Skype. As I stood in line in Union Square to check in for my race number, the other side of the sidewalk was filled with protesters continuing Occupy San Francisco for the fourth straight week. There were apparently 5,000 demonstrators between Civic Center and Union Square, using the city’s density of both people and financial institutions to make their political statement.
About three miles away, a social gathering of a completely different character was taking place. The Treasure Island music festival was in full swing, featuring bands including Cut Copy and Friendly Fires. The lineup attracts visitors from all over California, and being located in relatively small venue, the festival is manageable and allows visitors to see all of the artists since there are no overlapping set times. While music festivals by no means have to take place in a city (see Coachella), there is something about having the San Francisco skyline as a backdrop to an event like this and city restaurants, hotels, and transportation that enhance the experience.
The Nike Women’s Marathon itself was a lesson in the power of the physical group. With 22,000 participants, it is the largest women’s marathon in the world and shuts down the city’s busiest streets for hours. The marathon promotes health, raises funding for charity ($13 million this year for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society!) and provides local restaurants, hotels, and retail stores with one of their most profitable days of the year. And when seeing the faces of those crossing the finish line, there is no doubt that this San Francisco event makes people happier.
A criticism of events like these is the amount of waste they produce. Cities, while more efficient than suburbs, are still huge producers of waste and consumers of energy. Putting on huge events or hosting demonstrations generates large amounts of trash and encourages the purchase of single-use items. On the other hand, these events are great platforms for showcasing green practices like composting and taking public transportation. Both Treasure Island and the Nike Women’s Marathon made this a great focus of their planning.
These three events certainly benefitted from digital technology and social media–there were surely countless Facebook picture uploads Twitter updates–but it was the power of shared emotion that created memories for the participants. Whether it was outrage, enjoyment, or pride, the act of sharing an experience with a crowd of thousands of strangers has a tendency to leave a greater impression than watching an event streaming online with a “crowd” of millions of strangers.
These were only the main events happening this weekend in San Francisco. Other concerts, performances, museum exhibits, restaurant openings, athletic games, and other events also took place, like usual. This alone is an argument for eliminating measures that subsidize suburban growth and favor rural citizens. Long live the city.