A great song can turn what is hidden, ordinary, or confusing into something that inspires us. While the musical landscape is loaded with songs about love, sex, and money, a much smaller body of work delves into an also-very-important subject: The places we live.
Here are five of the best urban design-related songs, running the gamut from satirical to celebratory. If as a society we’re going to fully address the importance of building our environment in the right way we’ll need music to open our eyes and inspire us to push for change. All of the below songs do that in their own way.
Can you think of any other urban design-related songs? Let us know in the comments below.
1. Little Boxes – Malvina Reynolds (1962)
“Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes made of ticky tacky / Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes all the same.”
On a drive from their Berkeley home, through San Francisco and down the peninsula, Malvina Reynolds and her husband passed through the burgeoning suburb of Daly City. “Bud, take the wheel. I feel a song coming on”, said Reynolds.
“Little Boxes” mocks the sameness and cartoonishness of suburban tract housing, embodied in places like Daly City. The song also links repetitive architecture with samey behavior, echoing the assertion made many times on The Plaza Perspective that the design of the built environment has enormous effects on the personalities of its inhabitants.
Even today, a trip to Daly City can be a jarring experience. The long blocks of near-identical houses feel other-worldly, places that seem to have been designed by machines rather than humans. The legacy of short term profit over spirit-nourishing places is strong here. If songs like “Little Boxes” can awaken outrage at this situation, which is still rampant today, perhaps we might start to address it.
2. The Message – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1982)
“You’ll grow in the ghetto livin’ second-rate / And your eyes will sing a song called deep hate / The places you play and where you stay / Looks like one great big alleyway”
“The Message” describes the way of life in the Bronx Projects in the 1980s, places of despair with broken glass, the roar of automobiles, and piss on the stairs, dismal buildings that reflected the ghettoization of the poor prevalent throughout the 20th century. For decades, hip hop artists have connected urban design with social issues. The article “How Bad Urban Planning Led To The Birth Of A Billion-Dollar Genre” delves deeper.
The politics behind housing for the poor are not usually hard to discern in low income architecture (itself a telling phrase). Generic buildings made of industrial materials for large numbers of people speak of a top-down view that the poor are a homogeneous demographic worthy of a one size fits all approach, unaffected by ugliness, not worthy of places of characters. This approach to housing continues today in places such as the recent Valencia Gardens in San Francisco.
3. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) – Arcade Fire (2011)
“Living in the sprawl / Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains / And there’s no end in sight”
“Sprawl II” is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to “Little Boxes”. Decades after Reynolds’s song, the government-corporate suburban machine has rolled on, carpeting the land in suburbia, and now we hear from those who grew up there. Surrounded by the hopelessness of shopping malls and sprawl, young people kiss in the park at night and run from police lights, struggling to retain their spirits in the sterile suburban landscape.
Arcade Fire didn’t end their suburban commentary with “Sprawl II”. In fact, they wrote a whole album on the subject. It’s well worth checking out.
4. Where Do the Children Play? – Cat Stevens (1970)
“I know we’ve come a long way / We’re changing day to day / But tell me, where do the children play?”
There have been stacks of books, articles, and presentations on urban design since the dawn of the automobile and yet Cat Stevens brings it all down to one simple question: “Where do the children play?”
Children are sometimes called the “indicator species” of cities. The more children you see the more humane a city is, since only a safe walkable place allows children to be free. We discussed this in a previous article. Why do we cordon children off in playgrounds (aka “kiddie reservations”) when in places like Venice everywhere is child-friendly?
5. Penny Lane – The Beatles (1967)
“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes / There beneath the blue suburban skies”
“Penny Lane” is an joyful celebration of place, a real place: A street in Liverpool near John Lennon’s childhood home, where he and Paul McCartney would meet to catch a bus to the city center.
It takes Places Worth Caring About, places that facilitate human connection and happiness, to inspire a song like this. How likely are we to see such a celebration about a 10-lane highway or a strip mall or any of the soulless buildings springing up today? When we create places of character designed for people, not automobiles, songs will be written about them.