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In February, we announced our second annual writing competition, this year on the topic of cost, metrics, and measurement in urban life. We asked entrants to explore or respond to — through narrative, theory, history, or humor — the increasingly quantitative language that pervades contemporary analysis of behavior, consumption habits, settlement patterns, environmental imperatives, or quality of life. Last month, we published the winner of the competition: “The City That Never Shouts,” by Steven Higashide, which imagines a near feature in which a new City agency — the Department of Externalities — monitors and evaluates the social and environmental effects of everyday actions.
Today, we are pleased to publish one of two runners-up: “Little Metrics,” by Malaika Kim. In a personal narrative that follows her from childhood to motherhood, Kim traces how the intangibles of her life — the passage of time, acquired knowledge, and changes in lifestyle and family — have shifted her perception and experience of the physical environment in very measurable ways.
Stay tuned for another runner-up from the Fuzzy Math writing competition, to be published in the coming weeks. But first, enjoy “Little Metrics.” —V.S.
The metrics of a young urban family are new to me. As a child, living in a suburb in Indiana in the 1980s, I could wander the local woods freely or drop in at a friend’s house on a whim to play. My surroundings were open to me. I was free to be a kid, going unsupervised wherever I chose so long as I followed some rules. I could establish the dimensions of my environment by telling a grown-up where I was going. Once I got there, the metrics of my behavior — by which I mean the personal measurements and rules by which we assess and move through space — relied on guidance from my older brother. He taught me where to turn in the woods before getting lost; passed on the childish lore of the terra forboden; and reminded me when it was time to go home. Our careful study of our surroundings empowered us. We discovered that spaces could be manipulated, imagined, and used in different ways to play and grow. We came to know ourselves as the scale, measure, and limits of our world.
My children are growing up in a radically different environment of a major urban metropolis. They are watched and guided from moment to moment; they do not wander or explore on their own. Yet the same principles of environmental metrics I learned in childhood endure. Even now, as an adult — and more so as a parent — I measure my now-urban environment by the same ideas of safety, physical ability, maturity, and a little bit of homespun lore. I am responsible not just for passing on my knowledge of the city and how to navigate through it. I am engaged in a dialogue with my children, through which we reveal to each other a city landscape that would have gone otherwise unseen.
For my children, the city is a normal, even natural, physical environment. For myself, city living required a prolonged and sometimes harrowing transition. When I moved to Manhattan after college, two things captured my imagination and determined my measurement of the city: narrative and safety. I was a newly minted architect with a fascination for New York’s exotic-sounding places and salient history. Knowing my enthusiasms, my parents prepared me for my new life with a stack of laminated pocket-sized subway and street maps. I studied them endlessly in an attempt to define the city by neighborhoods, names, and places. I took long meandering walks looking for distinct boundaries that delineated areas in real or philosophical terms. What was Broadway? The Lower East Side? Beige? Or Century 21? All the while, my tourist-like enthusiasm to know New York was tempered by underlying feelings that I was young, female, and unsure if this city was for me. My peripheral vision took note of dark alleyways and vestibules I had seen featured sensationally in film and television about “the Big City.” If I felt uncomfortable somewhere, for whatever reasons, I made sure not to return alone. I was measuring urbanity in broad strokes as good or bad, with a hope it was weighted toward the former.
Later, I would walk with my husband, traversing endlessly long crosstown blocks as if in a race to see who could reach the waterfront first (usually he would, the much taller of us). We committed to memory the island of Manhattan and its parts, measured by our stride. When we moved to Brooklyn, we looked for Ebbets Field and we found the Gowanus Canal. On weekends, long walks were a frugal therapy to clear our minds after the work week. Measuring the city with a companion gave me motivation and fearlessness about investigating previously murky, far-flung geography. Crossing from Flatbush into Prospect Park, past the Maryland Military Monument, I finally understood why General Washington chose Brooklyn to survey his options for holding the New York Harbor. These “aha!” moments helped me mentally put together the pieces of the map and physically sense the larger connectivity of the city. Having both spent much of our lives in car-dependent places, we embraced the pedestrian’s ability to go anywhere unencumbered. Owning a car was no longer imperative to live well. When our feet were tired, we’d hop on the nearest train back home.
I no longer measure the city with my bodily strides. Five years ago, my first child was born. Now I move through the city at a deliberate and measured pace. My focus is mostly low, below 48 inches, and local, within a radius of a couple miles from home. This is the space occupied by my young children. The stride remains the yardstick, albeit the stride of their little legs. While this little metric lengthens slightly with each passing month, as with any yardstick, there is always a limit: one that is reached audibly with a sharp whine signaling the start of physical exhaustion. It is then we have gone too far.
I have developed a remarkable catalogue of space below 48 inches, the zone I consider to be the urban ground plane. I know how to read the tilt and cracks of a sidewalk to avoid trapped stroller wheels or how to guide a newbie on a scooter around metal basement doors. I have opinions on curb cuts. Urban infrastructure is rarely well crafted, but I know that if it is textured with raised dots, it will be reliably sloped. Above the curb level, I size up fences or low walls, and within seconds I can tell if a child’s natural desire to scale or climb them are beyond his or her proven abilities. I’m skeptical of the efficacy of new pedestrian refuge islands or other such traffic-calming devices intended to reinvigorate the old neighborhood streets. My focus being low, slow, and close, I’ve become the natural enemy of those who move through the city at faster speeds with head-up visual perspectives. Large cars make me nervous. I scorn cyclists who ride through red lights illegally thinking the coast is clear. They don’t see my toddler, a touch taller than a fire hydrant. It is not great for the back, but my role now is to look low and to act with parental vigilance for my children’s safety and best interest. I’m the protector of the lower 48 inches of urban space.
This new way of seeing the city landscape consciously and subconsciously informs the way that my children and I navigate and live in our environment. I can’t recall why we always go to the store the same way — until I glance across the street to see the appealing candy machines outside the newsstand. These, I have learned, are best avoided. I prefer one park over another because it has low walls for sitting and is free of nearby idling cars. The big London Plane tree that the last storm took is dearly missed because it broke the wind so well while waiting for the crosswalk. Unlike the macro-measurements of the city I made as a young adult, the little metrics naturally seek the micro-environment. And by our micro-calculations, we find the parts of the city most suited to us.
Not all behavior can be rationalized. We are also guided by a sense of lore, the myths and superstitions about places that are readily created in a child’s mind and become personal rules and patterns. Our family superstition holds that every time we pass the big fountain in the plaza, it shall be circumnavigated twice before moving on. The origins of certain myths are known. I know where my daughter nearly knocked out her tooth, and we slow reflexively to step over that store’s threshold with care. Years ago I read a story about a tragedy at a nearby playground. My children don’t know the story, but know that we don’t play there. These evolving narratives about places that shape our behavior resonate in my memory. They are not unlike the stories and fables told between children about the abandoned house near my childhood home.
While some of our natural ways to size up our surroundings remain the same regardless of specific place or time, other urban metrics are more difficult for me to evaluate. It is a truth that the more crowded a place is, the closer proximity we retain to our group. In urban life, this truth is ingrained and natural. My children are apartment dwellers, and all their time outside has thus far been within eyesight of a grown-up. City life breeds attachment parenting. My own parents were loving and emotionally close, but this is different. As someone who could freely cross her neighborhood alone as a kindergartener, I often wonder if these restrictions are maddening to a child in her search for independence and personal discovery.
Despite my occasional questioning of these facts of urban family life, the intimacy of observing a child grow is not lost on me. Because we stick together, my children have, with varying degrees of success, learned to exist in predominantly grown-up environments. At restaurants, the baby of the family quickly and calmly sits down, places a napkin in his lap, and waits for his food. As a trade-off, I make sure we spend a great deal of time in places where they can be kids. Together we discover new spaces. We evaluate the best spots to test the new bicycle. We find spaces where I can sit while they can safely wander farther away than usual and pretend to be alone. I realize that, like my older brother was to me, I’m a guide teaching my children to navigate their environment and to find the space they need. They were born as urbanites. Having experienced both rural and urban living, I know that city life is inherently more complicated and demands skills I learned as a young adult that involve more negotiation and attention. This close proximity to my children provides an opportunity to pass on my skills and experience.
As my children near school age, they now teach and guide me anew through the city landscape. Children are perpetually in a state of mind with no steadfast rules, where space is always adaptable and interactive. They will find new interpretations of urban spaces whether in a formal botanical garden or a tired concrete plaza — they will be kids. Any flat surface over ten feet long, which five years ago I would have passed without a glance, becomes a stage for impromptu performances involving the latest mastered physical feat: a skip, a pirouette, a cartwheel. A child’s use of space is a constant reminder of how the city landscape shifts, morphs and evolves. Children cannot resist the urge to linger and inspect even the smallest changes to their environment. A fallen tree branch, a spilled bag of chips, a newly painted fence are endless points of interest that must be picked up, crunched, smelled. The city landscape, in their perception, is not simply to be viewed and navigated, but manipulated and used. My toddler once stopped the narrow flow of all tourists on the High Line to thoroughly investigate the noisemaking potential of a metal paver underfoot. I took a deep breath and apologized while my inner New Yorker calculated the extra five minutes this would add to our trip. We always have the option to take a bus, subway or taxi, but that would deny them the joy of discovery and time.
With fascination I witness my children master my metrics and then adapt, interpret, and augment them. I am learning to see New York again. And I am increasingly aware that the little metrics of this urban family are definitive in time and space. Slowly, as little legs and minds expand and as inhibition wanes and self-awareness develops, our perceptions of the city landscape will diverge and the dialogue between us will change. I must prepare myself. I feel an urgency to know the nuances, to build a catalogue so that I remember to integrate my current understanding of the city with the way I will soon see it anew. Soon I will need to let go of hands, drop a step behind, and let my children be the navigators and wanderers, measuring the city with their own being. For now, I try to see the city as they do: not a series of striped crosswalks, but a giant hopscotch board.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.