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Thread: Boring cities: what makes them so?

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Boring cities: what makes them so?

    I've seen many assertions on blogs, in message forums, and other venues that a certain city is "boring".

    Students at the University at Buffalo, many of which are from the New York City area, frequently complain about how Buffalo is "boring". Buffalo, though, has a decent nightlife, a very late last call, plenty of cultural institutions and activities, outdoorsy pursuits south of town, no shortage of neighborhood and village festivals, andan interesting streetlife in some neighborhoods. For a metropolitan region of its size, there's actually quite a but going on. Then again, anyplace will seem "boring" compared to New York.

    Still, one city may seem more boring or exciting compared to a similarly sized city. I've heard many say that despite a less robust economy, flat topography (excepting the Southtowns), and a gritty Rust Belt vibe, Buffalo is far less boring than Rochester. The Rochester area is very affluent, white-collar, well-educated, and in a scenic setting, but reportedly quite dull.

    I'm curious about some of the factors, real or perceived, that makes a city or region seem "boring" or "exciting". What can planners do about it, if anything? Is it reasonable to expect that every speck on the map be exciting?
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

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    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    Cities are boring when there is a lack of the 20is-35ish age demographic.
    "I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany"

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    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by btrage View post
    Cities are boring when there is a lack of the 20is-35ish age demographic.
    I'd one-up this statement to say cities are boring when there is a lack of people in the 20-35 demographic AND when the population is skewed too far toward any one demographic (including the 20-35, since in such a situation, for people not in that age group life is probably pretty boring). Case in point: Austin is incredibly fun and exciting for that age group and for singles. Not so much for those not in that age group (mentally) and those who are married.

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    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    People of Dutch ancestry make otherwise interesting cities quite dull.
    Sure, they're a quiet, dependable, honest, orderly, clean, thrifty, reverent, sober lot of merchants and hausfraus.....but dayum they're boring.

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    Cyburbian JimPlans's avatar
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    I was a fan of Insomniac with Dave Attell on Comedy Central (anyone remember that show?), and he pretty much proved to me that there is no city in the world that is boring if:

    (1) You stay up late enough

    (2) You drink enough alcohol

  6. #6
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Maister View post
    People of Dutch ancestry make otherwise interesting cities quite dull.
    Sure, they're a quiet, dependable, honest, orderly, clean, thrifty, reverent, sober lot of merchants and hausfraus.....but dayum they're boring.
    Hey, my relatives resemble that comment...

    Yes, consistency, hard work and a general lack of "zazz" does make for a boring life. Stable, perhaps, but not exciting. I might put Brazilians at the other end of that spectrum.

    I also find that what I define as "boring" has changed a lot over time. With a 9 and 4 year old, "exciting" is more about things you can do with your family that don't cost too much money and that entertains everyone. Often we end up doing things that are marginally interesting to us but great for the kids. That's not so fun, but we do it. When you hit on something EVERYONE likes, that's exciting (street fairs, for example, are great. Especially if they have a beer garden).

    But I think generally, my first impressions of a place being boring or not hinge on pedestrian activity. Is the place activated? Are there people milling about? What's the people watching potential like? (that being the number one activity people pursue in public space) Does the town seem abandoned? Are most residents skulking in their private lairs? If so, that would seem boring to me.

    But I am generally not easily bored, so there are not a lot of such places on my list...
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

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    Physically speaking..sameness is boring. When franchises move in and take over a city it is robbed of any unique character. Cities rich in history or with a niche (art/music/etc) are much more interesting to residents and visitors.

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    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Maister View post
    People of Dutch ancestry make otherwise interesting cities quite dull.
    Sure, they're a quiet, dependable, honest, orderly, clean, thrifty, reverent, sober lot of merchants and hausfraus.....but dayum they're boring.
    Did you just move to Grand Rapids?
    "I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany"

  9. #9

    Ha!

    Yes, I think its that combo of a lack of young adults plus the need for somewhat of a 24/7 thing especially in CBDs. Downtowns that are dead on the weekends generally indicate boring. I'm in Milwaukee (now) and although there has been somewhat of an improvement in its downtown, it has a way to go before its "vibrant". I lived in Pittsburgh for most of the '90s, though, and its ability to improve upon this, get more people into its downtown and near downtown neighborhoods (Southside, Strip District) has really helped it overcome this image as a boring city.

    JimPlans - LOL! But Milwaukee is full of drunks, and its still more towards the boring end of the spectrum than exciting (but that may be more to do with my age and the activities I find exciting).

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Tsitra View post
    Physically speaking..sameness is boring. When franchises move in and take over a city it is robbed of any unique character. Cities rich in history or with a niche (art/music/etc) are much more interesting to residents and visitors.
    In my experience, there's really very few places that have been completely taken over by chains and franchises. The only places I've seen dominated by chains are areas in suburban cities in the Sunbelt that developed rapidly within the past 10 to 15 years; the "a few years ago this was just ranch/farm land, and now there's 10,000 houses" type of communities. Highlands Ranch, Colorado comes to mind. The chains and high-end locals are the only restaurants that can afford to build new. IMHO, independent businesses come with time.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

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    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Maybe cities people find boring should try to emulate Detroit? We may be a lot of things, but in no ways is it boring here!
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
    In my experience, there's really very few places that have been completely taken over by chains and franchises.
    I went to a conference once in Indianapolis. We spent a ridiculously large amount of time trying to find a locally owned restaurant downtown. And failed. It was all chains all the time. I'm sure this is not the case all over the city, but for downtown within walking distance (and a fair distance we walked) from the convention center and big hotels, there was nothing of local character at all. It was...boring.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  13. #13
    Quote Originally posted by Maister View post
    People of Dutch ancestry make otherwise interesting cities quite dull.
    Sure, they're a quiet, dependable, honest, orderly, clean, thrifty, reverent, sober lot of merchants and hausfraus.....but dayum they're boring.
    Then why is Amsterdam definitely not boring? Besides the obvious answer.

  14. #14
    NIMBY asshatterer Plus Richmond Jake's avatar
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    I think cities need to reach a critical mass where the population can support a variety of activities. That seems to reduce the boringness and sameness. For example, who wants to go to the beach every weekend? I think people want variety.

    But I could be wrong.

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    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Well....

    Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup View post
    Then why is Amsterdam definitely not boring? Besides the obvious answer.
    Because Amsterdam was determined to be the one "let it all go" place in that Country. Try that crap in Utrecht and you'll get a stern talking to
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    Think sex.

    Besides general leisure, entertainment, and a good variety of all those things, sexually-charged establishments and public spaces full of sexy and interesting people that represent the full range of human sexuality give a place its exciting vibe.

    Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world, is, at times, both glamorous and gritty. Funkiness and imperfections can add character and texture, which, in turn, highlight those moments when and where the city truly shines as something utterly urbane, polished, and sophisticated.

    There's also the distinct impression one gets while being there that, because of the impact the city has on the world's culture, he or she is at the center of the universe. Even the recent push to remove the characteristically-huge billboards is somewhat controversial because almost all the outdoor advertising is related to movies or music or to glamorous lifestyle brands. So, I suggest being media-savvy is important not just for L.A. but for every city. Urban planning, I predict, will ultimately converge in several ways with the entertainment industry.

    Placemaking through storytelling, mythology, and romance are all important, and they must equal more than the sum of the various parts. Cities should be considered the settings for human dramas to take place. Constructive conflict, action, and dynamism can, as such, be desirable and even necessary for a city.

    Stasis is that, which is boring.

  17. #17
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup View post
    Then why is Amsterdam definitely not boring? Besides the obvious answer.
    A person from the Netherlands visiting Michigan once asked me 'where the hell did you find these "Dutch" people'?
    All the uptight religious ones left there and migrated here.

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    Cyburbian rcgplanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by wahday View post
    I went to a conference once in Indianapolis. We spent a ridiculously large amount of time trying to find a locally owned restaurant downtown. And failed. It was all chains all the time. I'm sure this is not the case all over the city, but for downtown within walking distance (and a fair distance we walked) from the convention center and big hotels, there was nothing of local character at all. It was...boring.
    Ding, Ding, Ding .... We have a winner! Indianapolis is a very strange town. For a city of nearly 800k, that entire city is run over with chains. Downtown Indy is very strange in that it has the same chains as the suburbs, yet you have to pay $7/hour to park downtown. There are a few small pockets of independent businesses (Broad Ripple, Mass Ave.), but most of the city is an endless sea of chains. I lived there for nearly two years and felt it had very little local character. Except for Colts Fever or events at the Speedway, I found Indy to be a rather boring town, especially for it's size.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
    Highlands Ranch, Colorado comes to mind. The chains and high-end locals are the only restaurants that can afford to build new. IMHO, independent businesses come with time.
    I know you weren't saying Highlands Ranch is boring, but seeing you quote Highlands Ranch and seeing the subject matter...

    To me, Highlands Ranch isn't boring per se, but it sure is monotonos and soulless. Some sort of urban core, a gathering place or sorts, built into this suburbia would have made a difference. (I suppose one might consider Park Meadows as the urban core for Highlands Ranch, not I.)

    When I think of a boring city though, that would be any Del Webb type of Sun City. Went into a grocery store in Arizona's Sun City a decade ago and it freaked me out.

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    Cyburbian Plus Whose Yur Planner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by rcgplanner View post
    Ding, Ding, Ding .... We have a winner! Indianapolis is a very strange town. For a city of nearly 800k, that entire city is run over with chains. Downtown Indy is very strange in that it has the same chains as the suburbs, yet you have to pay $7/hour to park downtown. There are a few small pockets of independent businesses (Broad Ripple, Mass Ave.), but most of the city is an endless sea of chains. I lived there for nearly two years and felt it had very little local character. Except for Colts Fever or events at the Speedway, I found Indy to be a rather boring town, especially for it's size.
    When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's-it was called Nap-town and Indiano-place. This was before they redid the downtown and all that was there was the soliders and sailors monument. They had the Pacers and the Colts came in the mid 80's. Before that, there was the Indians, Broadripple and nada. It is perhaps one of the most generic places I've ever seen.
    When did I go from Luke Skywalker to Obi-Wan Kenobi?

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    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by rcgplanner View post
    Ding, Ding, Ding .... We have a winner! Indianapolis is a very strange town. For a city of nearly 800k, that entire city is run over with chains. Downtown Indy is very strange in that it has the same chains as the suburbs, yet you have to pay $7/hour to park downtown. There are a few small pockets of independent businesses (Broad Ripple, Mass Ave.), but most of the city is an endless sea of chains. I lived there for nearly two years and felt it had very little local character. Except for Colts Fever or events at the Speedway, I found Indy to be a rather boring town, especially for it's size.
    Quote Originally posted by Whose Yur Planner View post
    When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's-it was called Nap-town and Indiano-place. This was before they redid the downtown and all that was there was the soliders and sailors monument. They had the Pacers and the Colts came in the mid 80's. Before that, there was the Indians, Broadripple and nada. It is perhaps one of the most generic places I've ever seen.
    That's a shame, since downtown is so well designed (IMO).

  22. #22
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    What do you think of the following as indicators of a boring city? Having one or two of these indicators may not make a city boring, but when they start to add up, it's a formula for boredom.

    Things planners might not be able to change.

    * Lack of outdoors recreational opportunities. No nearby hills, mountains, and/or large bodies of water.

    * Lack of demographic and cultural diversity. As per the example of TexanOkie; the population is skewed too much towards one subculture or demographic group, alienating those that aren't part of that group. Examples: Austin, Salt Lake City, El Paso, places that self-identify as a "good family town".

    * Lack of a "scene" or any contemporary alternative cultural presence. Basically, the polar opposite of an Austin or San Francisco.

    * Lack of colleges and universities.

    * Lack of quality museums, theaters, cultural institutions, and the like. Even if one seldom visits a museum or attends a play, cultural resources still color how one may feel about a city or region.

    * Lack of activities or diversions that can be enjoyed for free.

    * Lack of young singles.

    * Overwhelming social conservativism. See Salt Lake City, Colorado Springs, Grand Rapids, Greenville, or Jackson.


    Things planners might be able to change.

    * Lack of nightlife or a district where people gather a night. Nightlife does not equal bars or clubs alone.

    * Lack of moderately active pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods or districts, or "third places".

    * Homogeneous built environment. The region experienced some boom where the bulk of buildings were built in a 10 or 20 year spam.

    * Homogeneous business environment. Chains dominate the restaurant scene, even outside of newer suburban areas.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  23. #23
    Cyburbian Wildono's avatar
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    Complexity, Tension and a Nuanced Response...

    A city having more buildings and spaces evident of durable accumulated effort, seemingly unique statements of shared grit, wear, error and celebration is not so boring. Perhaps ironically, many of these places exist by virtue of an earlier convergence of economy, technology and material conditions bound by a philosophy of elevating community as an exercise in self-actualization.

    Today a location containing components and functions arranged primarily by economic values associated with cost control and pro-formas will tend not to have the outward character that calls on us to reflect on anything but ourselves and what we need to get done as soon as possible.

    Off my rocker...
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    Cyburbian
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    I'd also add self-expression and self-actualization. I think the term, "boring", means something specific for university students describing a city.

    How many different avenues can one take in one's life in a particular city? Are there dead-ends or limitless possibilities? Certain places seem designed to crush the soul and others facilitate its full realization in sometimes unexpected and surprising ways.

  25. #25
    Cyburbian Wildono's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Pragmatic Idealist View post
    I'd also add self-expression and self-actualization.
    Pragmatic Idealist,

    I'll have to think about the 'self-expression' addition. I don't quite see it that way -- I believe it was easier for past developers of the buildings and spaces we cherish today to leave the details (and yield on costs) to the architects they sponsored to carried out the expression of the willfulness of the developer.

    Splitting hairs at this point. Which can be fun. Enjoyed your earlier inclusion of the sex factor in vibrancy. Tension is good.
    "That guy handles the puck like a cow handles a gun!" - Mike Lange

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