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Nicole FicheraFeb 3, 2024 5:32:17 PM3 min read

How Should We Live, Together?

I’m writing this in an old piano factory, a grand and pragmatic brick structure built in the 1850s for the express purpose of making and shipping out big, unwieldy pianos. There was a time in Boston’s economic history when the forces of real estate, industrialization, and musical instrument consumption combined to create this building.

But now I’m here, instead of piano craftspeople. The economy changed; the building remains, adapted to a new purpose.

Out of my window, I see other windows, different colored curtains. I’m in bed, leaning on a pillow propped against a wall shared with neighbors, so thin that we used to get in regular wall-knocking battles during their extremely loud 3 AM lovemaking sessions. I’m looking up a ceiling that shakes when my neighbors vacuum. If I need to go to the bathroom, I walk across a floor that is someone’s ceiling, to a bathroom that runs into a shared sewer, into a harbor, into the massive waste-refining eggs at Deer Island, high-end waste processing paid for through collective organization.

I have felt quite alone this year (2020). Most of us have, if we have respected quarantine rules. I see the same few people most days, through screens. But even in this year of relative isolation, we are still deeply—and physically—connected.

Egg-shaped anaerobic digesters at the Deer Island water treatment plant in Boston.

Photo via the Boston Globe.

I have worked in “urbanism” for a long time, but i’ve never really thought about the word itself, what it means, what it carries.

Urbanism has a fairly simple definition: the study of cities and towns. There’s a whole bunch of us that self-define using this term: architects, planners, economist, policymakers, organizers, artists, engineers, etc., and I think we sometimes use it as a rallying cry, to find each other (so many Twitter bios read “Architect and urbanist,” “Economist, Urbanist, Dog Mom,” “Urbanism and Clean Energy Advocate,” etc.).

Personally, I’ve always seen urbanism as intrinsically related to cities. I mean, “urban” is right there in the name. But as I’ve worked in this field over the last 10 or 12 years, I began to observe some things that made me dig a little deeper.

Here’s a few things I’ve noticed over time:

“Cities vs Towns” isn’t a very helpful or productive framework. States and provinces around the world get into the same types of arguments: big cities need money for transit and infrastructure, and small towns vote it down because they don’t want to pay taxes for stuff that’s ‘not benefiting them”; conversely, small towns desperately need investment and jobs, but cities soak up all the new leases (and the associated commercial tax revenue).

Brilliant urbanism comes out of tiny places too. I’ve been to a *lot* of urbanism conferences, and while there are always great stories out of big places like Sydney or NYC, often the best stories come from small, forgotten places, where love and experimentation result in radical new ideas.

Some city neighborhoods have the same challenges as small towns. Lack of services, inadequate transit, crumbling housing stock—these issues are common both in rural and urban environments. And depending on how the city government is structured, sometimes these areas are governed like rural areas too, either left behind by a central entity that forgets them, or entirely dependent on a few overworked public officials and community leaders.

After thinking about this for a while, I am coming to a new kind of conclusion about what urbanism means, for me at least. I tweeted about it earlier today:

People live together in cities and towns, of all sizes, everywhere. For me, urbanism is the study of that decision, and of the ensuing system: If we live together, then how? How do we share resources? How do we dispose of waste? How do we contribute; how do we receive?

At the bottom of it all, urbanism isn’t really about place, or size, or tactic.

It’s about choice: the choice to live together.


Nicole Fichera

Nicole is an innovation + architecture + futurism professional with over a decade of experience leading transformational initiatives.