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Making Sense with David Byrne

Some of us here at The Avenue are always poking our heads into each other’s offices and referencing great “metro” songs, ranging from the obligatory anti-sprawl anthem “My City Was Gone” by the Pretenders to PJ Harvey’s romantic “You Said Something” to Art Brut’s witty defense of public transportation in “The Passenger.”

Always choice, despite their vintage, are songs by Talking Heads.  David Byrne, the band’s lead songwriter, embraced space and geography in many songs with scales ranging from neighborhood, to municipal, to metropolitan, to the super-regional and national. Much has been written about these spatial references and Byrne’s astute attention to the built environment around him—as well as his recent interest in cycling city streets and designing urban street furniture.

Yet now Byrne, a Rhode Island School of Design drop out and serious intellectual, has outdone himself with a wonderful essay on the elements of the "perfect" city. These run from such subjective qualities as “sensibility and attitude” to items any urban planner could love: “density,” “mixed use,” and “parking.” He also extends the analysis to include a number of elements not so intuitive, ranging from “chaos and danger” (Bryne likes a little looser, “fluid and flexible” sort of order in his cities) to “boulevards” (not too wide, please) to Berlin’s sense of humor. And he cites an old joke that says “you know you’re in heaven if the cooks are Italian and the engineering is German” and adds, “if it’s the other way around you’re in hell.”

But Byrne is careful not to lapse into an artificial ranking of places or assigning unearned importance to any one indicator. He recognizes that there is no perfection outside of the mind that imagines a “mash-up” of the best qualities of a host of cities.” And so he prefers the reality of real places. "[A] city's qualities cannot thrive out of context," Bryne astutely writes. Beyond that Byrne also recognizes the dynamic nature of places and acknowledges the reality that, much as we may want them to stay the same, the best neighborhoods will always change and evolve.

Fortunately for us, Byrne is not staying static, either. This cheerfully well-traveled essay displays an alert metropolitan sensibility that remains as curious and analytic as it was 30 years ago in the song “Cities”:

I'm checking them out/
I'm checking them out/
I got it figured out/
I got it figured out/
There's good points and bad points/
Find a city/
Find myself a city to live in