In the last six months I moved from a large Asian city to a small town in upstate New York, quit my job at a large university and now work for a much smaller organization, a coffee shop. I also became a wife. My passion for understanding urbanization though has not been completely abandon. Now that I am not focusing my working hours on large-scale urban policy issues I seem to notice and appreciate many smaller urban interventions in my daily life more than ever before.
As an employee of a third place instead of merely studying third places I have not only come to appreciate amazing coffee but also the details of each coffee shop that allow it to truly contribute to its community. From planters beautifying the neighborhood, to strategically placed outdoor tables on a sunny day, to walls for local artist to share their work, even down to looking forward to the changing artwork on our chalkboards outside, each of these aspects of a cafe helps to build community. Many urban planners note the importance of “café-culture” and sidewalk cafes as contributing to the public life of cities, but its certainly a more hands on experience helping to maintain these details as my work now instead of just documenting them as a researcher (See Jan Gehl’s related research on pedestrianization and cafes in Melbourne here).
Although my contribution to urban planning as a field may now feel smaller than it was in my previous job, I am excited to see the immediate influence of the details surrounding our cafes that shape our larger community. I am reminded also that it is not how large or influential my work is that matters, but having a heart behind it that is willingly to serve others. Be it a daily dose of caffeine to graduate students or writing a research paper trying to shape urban policies, each action contributes to the common good of a community.
As this next stage in my life continues to be filled with changes and many unknowns I keep challenging myself to appreciate the little things which make my city home and also to recognize more little things that I can do to contribute to my community. Today this may mean providing a hot cup of coffee and welcoming environment for people to exchange ideas inside, away from the chill of an autumn day. Tomorrow these interventions may take another form. In the mean time though I hope these thoughts challenge others to look for small ways they can also contribute to their cities.