The new slow city: one man's mission to live the simple life in downtown Manhattan

Can you live a life of rural simplicity even in New York? Image: Getty.

In 2007, I lived for a season in an off-grid permaculture cabin in North Carolina. No Name Creek gurgled through a lush forest, and I befriended the eclectic neighbors – organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers. I discovered a sustainable but imperiled way of life, and wrote about in my memoir Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream.

Alas, the book triggered angry questions. “It’s easy,” one Twelve by Twelve reader wrote, “to find minimalism, joy, connection to nature, and abundant time in a shack in the woods. But how the hell are the rest of us supposed to stay sane in our busy modern lives?” This question was the genesis of my new book: New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City.

I received, in fact, a hundred variations of this question after lectures and on radio interviews, and always answered by saying I was living 12 x 12 values... but in Queens, New York, the home to which I returned after my time in the cabin.

But as each year passed, the reader’s doubt increasingly became my own. Overwork, material clutter, and the lack of contact with nature – “civilization,” in short – brought me to a point of extreme unhappiness in Queens. Eventually, I too doubted it was possible to live 12 x 12 in a city, and I felt an urgent need to decamp far from urban life.


Not so fast. As I reached this point, my newlywed wife, Melissa, was offered an excellent job that demanded we stay put in New York City. I suddenly had no choice but to figure out how to take what I’d learned in the 12 x 12 – about the Leisure Ethic, connecting to nature, and living simply – and somehow make it work in the real-world context of a marriage and two careers.

In an attempt to do this, Melissa and I embarked on an experiment. We sold or gave away 80 percent of our stuff, left our 1,600-square-foot Queens townhouse, crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, and moved into a tiny rental: a 340-square-foot “micro-apartment” – roughly two 12 x 12s – in downtown Manhattan.

Melissa and I approached our thimble of an apartment through the ideas of philosopher Thomas Merton, who called his stark monk’s chambers “the four walls of my new freedom”. We stowed a minimal kit of kitchenware, toiletries, clothing, and books as if equipping a houseboat’s trim hull. It was a refreshing purge; the apartment seems to expand with each tweak.

We began to feel our well-being rise in proportion to what’s been shed. A slim metal table in the kitchen welcomes the cutting board; jackets laze on his-and-her hooks; sandals snuggle in their micro-shoe-apartment beside the door.

Beyond this minimalist freedom, I discovered that being “Slow” is not at all Luddite. Slow means cultivating positive qualities – receptive, intuitive, reflective – instead of the fast qualities so common today: busy, agitated, acquisitive.

I began living and working smarter instead of faster. Borrowing from author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris, I spent my Slow Year practicing two principles at the same time: 80/20 and the Hodgkinson’s Principle.

The 80/20 principle says that we accomplish 80 percent of work results in just 20 percent of our time. Conversely, we more or less waste the other 80 percent of our time on a paltry 20 percent of the results.

Dutifully, I 80/20ed my life and find that the principle holds true. In one particular week, for example, I looked at all the potential work streams – consulting, writing, speaking – that I could pursue, and distilled out that week’s most strategic one in terms of income-to-time-invested and my current level of enthusiasm: a high-end magazine article. Then I overlaid the Hodgkinson’s Principle. Hodgkinson’s says that work expands to fill the amount of time available to accomplish it.


Thus, having chosen the one most critical work activity, I corralled it into a tight timeframe, and found it works: I condensed what might have been five days of work into just two.

This approach spawned “reverse weekends” for me, where I worked smarter for two- days and took five-day weekends. This is not a utopian idea. Even Carlos Slim, the world’s richest person, recently called for a 3-day work week, and Google is increasingly experimenting in lowering hours and thus increasing employee creativity and efficiency.

Melissa and I discovered other Slow City tools in our year-long experiment.

  • Urban sanctuaries: We began spending more and more time in natural and reflective places right in Manhattan, like Central Park’s Ramble and the tip of Pier 45.
  • “Living at the third story”: I discovered I only need half my attention on the street level. As the rest of my focus rises up, I notice nut-brown oak branches and green leaves fluttering with white butterflies. An off-turquoise sky. Stretchy clouds. Ciao stress.
  • Technology fastin: We “fasted” from our gadgets for stints, diabling our phones and setting email to vacation mode. This helped quality of our relationship because we had more time focused on each other.
  • Silent meals. Even in Manhattan’s fine restaurants, we’d sometimes eat in total silence, deeply savor the food, scents, soundscape, and visual beauty of the restaurant in a meditative manner.

Though not everyone can live in this way, all of us can ask: What’s my twelve by twelve? We can find the elusive contours of enough, and live there.

Enough is the sweet spot between too little and too much. It starts with each of us creating space to slow down a little and ask the core questions, like: How do we find balance in a world that is changing more quickly than ever before in history? And how can we incubate a New Slow City that’s saner now and fit for the future?

William Powers is author of New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City, which is published this week.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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