The Rhythm of the City

One of the great privileges reserved for those traveling to new places and staying only a short while is the right to make ridiculous generalisations, and to share these with others. So today, I plan to exercise this right.

I’ve developed a theory that is in it’s infancy. I probably shouldn’t be writing about it for two reasons. First, I haven’t thought it through thoroughly. And second, I may have stole it from someone but can’t remember who it could possibly have been. If I stole it from you, I apologise. I have every reason to think that it’s mine though, due to the fact that the theory is wafer thin. Although, now that I think about it, it’s not really a theory at all. It’s more like an analogy, but one day, it might evolve into something more, so in the meantime I’ll persist in calling it a theory.

As a traveller, there is pressure not only to form your own opinions of a place, but to form them based on your own expectations and experiences. In some places, this is remarkably simple to achieve. Read some political and social history, visit some sights, eat some food, meet some people. You may even stray a little from the formula, just to see where it takes you. In some places this doesn’t take you far, but in others, it begins to open up a rich vein of cultural and social intricacies that inform us about how little we know about that place, and how much more there is to know.

I like to think of these concepts in terms of patterns and rhythms of life in these cities. They can be compared with the patterns and rhythms that are a feature of many forms of Western music, and the reference point around which they are formed. In music they generally follow a beat or a pulse with a frequency. Frequency exists as a feature of light and sound too, commonly associated with wavelengths. These contribute to our understanding of intensity, and power. Cities also have a discernible wavelength and frequency, I think.

Some cities are ‘short-wave’ cities. Their power exists in a narrow space of time that is easily identifiable and understood. What you see is largely, what you get. Day or night, short-wave cities exhibit features and attractions that hide little from the visitor. ‘Long-wave’ cities on the other hand, demand more of the visitor, if their true character is to ever be revealed.

Long-wave cites and places generally have a rich multi-cultural heritage. Rarely is this heritage mono-cultural, although almost always the tourist brochures feature one, dominant identity. The beauty of the long-wave city is that once you arrive, you realise that the thing that attracted you in the first instance is not the thing that is most interesting about the place. In a short-wave city, the brochure gives you most of what you need to know.

Long-wave cities are places where the short term visitor is precluded from getting too familiar with the pattern of daily life within it. By their very definition, these places demand that you stay a while, and in some instances, a very long while, before any sense of familiarity might be earned.

We visited Cottbus today, and returned to Berlin in the afternoon. Needless to say, one is a long-wave city, and the other is short-wave, but Im deliberately steering clear of listing or naming any places that fit in to either broad category. From a land use planning perspective both are interesting. Cottbus for the challenges it faces after years of real population decline and the issues around a future in the a knowledge and service based economy when the city was largely built in an industrial and manufacturing age. Berlin is facing other challenges. The most prominent in my mind appears to be tied to it’s ability to reform it’s identity two decades after reunification. No longer identifiably split into east and west, it must still navigate a passage toward a unified identity as a world city, whilst so much of the place is still tied to it’s turbulent military, political and social past. Berlin is obviously also identifiably a creative city, with deep roots in the information, education, arts and technology economy.

In my mind at least, one place is a long-wave city, and the other is a short-wave city. I mentioned already that the theory was wafer thin, but I’m not convinced that it’s entirely without some basis for further development. I guess if you never read a post from me again that references long-wave and short-wave cities, it’s fate will have been sealed.

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