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Just a few weeks before Christmas, I boarded Alaska Airlines flight 1020 from Austin, Texas to San Cabo, Mexico. It was a bit surreal: amid COVID and personal budget constraints, I hadn’t planned on traveling much and definitely not traveling abroad. But when my boss invited several coworkers to run our quarterly meeting from a friend’s house by the beach and offered to offset some of the costs, I jumped at the opportunity for the change of scenery and a chance to collect another passport stamp.

I’m sure the personal, spiritual, and emotional benefits of traveling need little explanation to Verily readers. Many of us know how immersing ourselves in a physical and cultural environment different from the one we call home can catalyze meaningful growth and reflection while giving us a new perspective on the habits, relationships, and beliefs shaping our lives.

As a lifelong nomad, I’m deeply appreciative of these benefits, but over the past decade, as I’ve become more interested in cities and urban issues, travel has taken on another layer of attraction and enjoyment. There are few things more exciting to me than the opportunity to compare the design, governance, and social fabrics of cities around the world.

For example, during my time in San Cabo, I noticed how many of the roads outside of the main downtown are unpaved. This got me thinking about how all roads in the U.S. are paved, whether or not the municipality actually has money to afford long-term upkeep. In San Cabo, it seems a reverse principle is at play: only the roads they can afford to pave get paved. What would happen if American cities adopted a similar mindset toward public spending?

Example of a paved road leading to an unpaved one

Example of a paved road leading to an unpaved one

Another example: many of the houses in Mexico featured a three-ring model of design. The first ring was the interior of the house where the rooms were. The second ring was a kind of outdoor courtyard with plenty of room for eating, lounging, and even cooking. The third ring was the yard. The second ring created a kind of middle zone between private and personal space that I suspect gives neighborhoods a more social feel than the hyper-private tone of American suburbs while making it easier to enjoy nature and meet neighbors.

Over the years, my study of urbanism has changed not just how I see the cities I’m visiting during travel, but also how I see the city to which I return. What would it look like to pay the same level of attention to the city where I live? I must be honest that this hasn’t been easy for me. American cities with their suburbs, strip malls, and “stroads” (street-road hybrids) are quite discouraging environments for me. But as I began to embrace this practice of paying attention several years ago, I started to notice things I had never seen before and ask questions. I also started to feel happier. Turns out that investing time into truly seeing our cities can go a long way in boosting our sense of connection, safety, and personal self esteem.

Fast forward six years. I’m an ex-New Yorker now living in a small Texas city and still very much struggling with the extreme contrast between life in dense, walkable Brooklyn and the sprawled out, car-centric design of Waco. I still struggle with not living abroad or traveling as much as I’d like, but I’m still trying to harness my traveler’s mindset and pay attention to Waco, not just for my own happiness but because I’ve realized this kind of attentiveness is critical to what it means to be a good citizen. How can we care for our cities well if we’ve never paused to really look at them? After all, as Mary Oliver put it: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” 

How to practice city mindfulness

What does seeing our cities through travelers’ eyes look like in real life? When it comes to practical action steps, most of us don’t really need to be taught how to see the city . . . we do this automatically when we travel. We make itineraries, slip into our most comfortable outfits, and embark out the door, ready to explore, our senses on high alert. This is the exact same mindset we can bring to the cities where we live.

The following are three exercises you can try to change up your perspective and see your city with travelers’ eyes.

01. Spend time in your city’s public spaces such as plazas, squares, gardens, and parks.

Are these spaces connected to neighborhoods and businesses or are they isolated and accessible only by car? Who uses them? Does their design encourage lingering and people-watching? Does the signage and design make sense? Are there other valuable activities nearby such as shopping or cafés?

02. Plan out how you would execute a week of ordinary life without a car. 

Car dependence is one of the great vulnerabilities of North American urban design. This exercise will reveal to you the implications of suburban sprawl. What would your ordinary life look like if you couldn’t use your car? Does your city offer public transit? How long would it take? How safe or dangerous would it be?

03. Imagine exploring your city as a child, teenager, or senior citizen. 

It’s no secret that most cities in North America are designed for the car, but by and large, driving is only feasible for able-bodied citizens between the ages of 16 and 65 who have regular incomes. For everyone else—children, the poor, elderly, and disabled—life in the city is much more challenging. Look at your city from the perspective of people in these groups: what opportunities does it afford them to participate in your community’s economic, civic, and social life?

From tourist to urbanist

You may notice that these practices are a bit different from those we might adopt when heading on vacation to Paris. That’s because learning to see your city as an urbanist begins by embracing a different mindset than that of a tourist. While tourists are focused on finding good food, exciting experiences, cute shops and beautiful vistas, urbanists focus on exploring the connection between the design of the city and the cultivation of civic life.

Urbanists ask questions such as:

  • How does the built environment make me feel? Safe, curious, isolated . . . ?
  • How does the design of the city affect my relationship to other people?
  • What values are embodied by the design of this city?
  • Who is served/not served well by the design of this city?

Seeing our cities with this frame of mind is valuable not only because of how it improves our self-confidence and understanding of where we live but because it positions us to discover ways we can contribute to the well-being of our city.

As we face growing political, economic, and environmental tensions, mindfulness of our surroundings is even more important. From my perspective as an urbanist, what our cities and neighborhoods need in times of trial is not complicated policy, government spending, or out-of-reach initiatives. What our cities need most are attentive citizens.