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We All Know Cool

We all know cool, right? Cool, the word. Like wearing a hat backward. Using slang. Clove cigarettes. Still have a vinyl collection in 2021. Playing bass guitar. Cool.

Cool to me, growing up in Cincinnati’s suburbs, was when Kevin got a white Pontiac Firebird for his graduation. Sleek lines, convertible top, power, muscle, independence…the essence of virility. Wow-oh-wow, that was cool. He was cool. So incredibly cool.

But you know what wasn’t cool? Not having a Firebird. Not having a car at all. Being trapped in the suburbs and needing a car to go anywhere, see anyone, get to work at the Chinese restaurant, go to swimming practice, dance rehearsal, piano lessons. Feeling that anywhere I went was a favor to ask of my parents, a burden on their lives. “Can you please pick me up from play practice at 7?” “Can you drive me to the swim meet Saturday morning?” “Can you give me a ride home when I get off work at 10?” Asking for a ride was, well, emasculating--a slap to the face of a teenage boy trying to establish himself as a man. I was dependent on the car, and the car was an extension of my parents. I was not my own. Not cool. So very not cool.

A half a lifetime later, I sit at my usual perch in the rear of the Chicago Transit Authority Belmont Avenue 77 heading due east from my boyfriend’s place to my apartment in Lakeview, when something catches my eye. Something cool. Cooler than cool. Cooler than a white convertible Pontiac Firebird. Cooler than Kevin.

It’s a troop of five teenage boys on drop-bar fixed-gear bikes, Bluetooth boomboxes blaring bops as they steer smoothly snakelike around storm sewers and potholes, a peloton posse of pubescent pedalers. Cool. So much coolness.

Cool because they had freedom, autonomy, and control. The city was theirs for the taking, and they were taking it. They could hang at the beach, people-watch along Michigan Ave, practice ollies at the skatepark, over-caffeinated at Dunkin Donuts, catch a Chicago dog at Portillo’s, exercise, feel a part of a group, fall in love, escape the stresses at home, and be alive and of their own. They didn’t need a car; they didn’t need a parent for a ride; they were untethered. And that is the essence of cool.

As an urban planner, I study the connection between urban form and stormwater, energy consumption, disaster resilience, accessibility, wildlife, heat island effect, economic development, crime, public health, and justice. But this was the first time that I had consciously contemplated how integral a role urban form and land use play in the psychological development of autonomy, itself. Have cities across the country been intentionally designed to quash teen freedom? How many Americans missed out on those essential years of expression, exploration, and experimentation?

Of course, urban form alone cannot assure young adult autonomy. Some areas of cities are dangerous, either due to traffic or crime. Then there’s repressive wintertime cold and darkness; most don’t have robust and reliable public transit systems; and, of course, parents may not feel comfortable letting minors venture out unsupervised.

But, as much as is within our control, I urge urban planners and city councilors to make land-use decisions with adolescent development in mind. Transform cities into places where sophomores can feel self-reliant with streets safe enough for tweens to bike down, “third places” like parks and beaches where contemporaries can congregate, and bike- and sidewalk-accessible eateries for high schoolers to hang out in or get that first job at. Cities and towns where young adults can experiment with autonomy--now that would be cool.

To the bike boys of Belmont: roll on!

Nolan Nicaise is an urban and environmental planner at ZoneCo, a Cincinnati-based land-use consulting firm that specializes in rewriting zoning ordinances with a focus on community objectives, simplicity, and equity. He earned an MA in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning from Tufty University in 2014. He currently resides in Covington, KY.

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