I have two kids under the age of 4, so with the recent bout of super cold weather, I have been watching more than my fair share of “family movies”. These include the usual Disney hits as well as several films featuring the Muppets that I have now seen dozens of times. This past Sunday, as I sat cutting up hotdogs into bite size portions, The Muppets rendition of We Built This City came on. As an urban planner, I have always found this song amusing, but never given the concept much thought. For some reason, as I watched Beaker chirp in fear as he ran from a vacuum in tune with the music, I realized that building a city on rock ‘n’ roll would probably be a horrible idea.
Knee Deep in Something
The song is from the Starship album Knee Deep in the Hoopla (No I am not a total ‘80s nerd, I googled this), but it is more likely that the band’s Rock ‘n’ Roll City would be knee deep in something else. If hanging out with some of my musically-inclined friends has taught me anything, “rockers” are not the most reliable at anticipating needs of others beyond the next round of beer (at best). Building a city on rock ‘n’ roll would undoubtedly result in a reactive (not proactive) approach to infrastructure development with roads, water, and sewer going in wherever the next band decides to drop its gear. As Rock ‘n’ Roll City grows, insufficient capital improvement funding and capacity issues would likely result in frequent boil water alerts and a not-so-attractive riverfront where an overburdened combined sewer system found its course (“One pipe should do it right? Yeah, let’s go jam”).
Diversity is an Asset
And, if we can build a city on rock ‘n’ roll, surely there must be others building cities on country, or R&B, or punk, or jazz, or classical… The point is you can’t have a reliable tax base if its built on a single industry. As soon as a couple big bands leave or retire (please don’t do it yet Rolling Stones), your tax base is in peril and you’ve got out of work musicians considering workforce development programs to target band openings in other communities. Sure, Dubstep City is booming now, but if it doesn’t diversify, it becomes tomorrow’s Hair Metal Town.
Then there is the Guitar Center vs. local music guy debate. Yes, despite the anti-commercialism bent in Starship’s hit song, big boxes would still probably exist in Rock ‘n’ Roll City. There is a growing fear that “the man” will squeeze out small shops without proper planning. But what should be done? A specialized district with incentives for small businesses? An outright ban on any new big boxes? Is a white elephant ordinance needed for when Guitar Center decides to expand and move down the street? The solution that is right for Jazz Town or Country Village may not be the right fit for Rock ‘n’ Roll City and targeted community outreach, complemented by market research, will be needed. The smoke hazed debate at the coffee house/city hall continues.
What are cities really built on?
The point of all of this is not to shame those who truly love Starship’s ‘80s pop classic (you know who you are). It is to underscore that cities are complicated organisms. As planners we must balance the desires of a diverse group of stakeholders (not just rockers) with the resources available and our knowledge of best practices and what has worked in other communities. The next time you hear We Built This City, or another smash hit from Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship, hopefully it reminds you that a lot goes into creating and maintaining the quality places in which we live and work. And hopefully you can hit skip.
If you haven’t already seen this music video, you’re welcome!