I have long had a theory that if the businesses in cities like Detroit initiated a culture of a 2-hour lunch break, we would immediately restore the life of the city.
But first, a bit of background.
We were surprised recently when a member of a client’s staff, invited to a workshop in our offices, asked about our address—where was the street we are on? The street we are on is the most historically important street in the city, an artery that begins at the river and runs 20 miles into the suburbs, and is 2 blocks from our client’s offices. This condition of not knowing the basics of the city and the names of streets just a few steps away from your place of employment is generated by some very specific conditions of defensive development and occupation.
The key underlying context here is the fear formed around a faulty memory, but certain reputation, of urban crime that has driven much of the planning and design in the city. Very few people who are employed in the city live in the city. Most of those from outside the city who are employed in the city fear it.
Employers who have made noble attempts to play a civic role by locating headquarters in the downtown area entice staff to their jobs with promises of security. Each of these enlightened moves to the city has been accompanied by models of planning and design that create inward-turning multi-use centers where the basics of the day are fully provided for the staff who make their way into the city.
Major employers provide transportation by company bus from suburban pick-up lots; their employees drive from suburban home to suburban mall, and then are bused directly to the corporate offices. Those who drive have been given parking privileges in decks that are part of their office buildings. Once there, employees have fast food restaurants and subsidized meals to satisfy the need for a cup of coffee or a sandwich. There is nothing to cause or invite a foray by them outside of the buildings where they work. It is truly an 8 to 5 town, defined by transportation and the limits of corporate amenities.
To save our city, I imagine, instead of capital intensive building programs, simply a mandatory two-hour lunch period. I image a length of time that is too short to go home but too long to stay at your desk.
I imagine a period of time that initially evokes boredom, but eventually causes exploration. I imagine people finding a way out of the office onto the streets where the visibility of their presence and their need provokes others to invest in sidewalk carts, then maybe cafes and restaurants, perhaps a bookstore or two, and then more.
I imagine even a bit of inappropriateness—perhaps initially a couple of small hotels where two hours may be just enough time—but then a reconciliation to norms and the development of pied-a-terres, then real housing to meet an expanding demand for a place to live nearby the office of a company that provides too much time in the middle of the day.
I imagine then a place where, without the need to flee on a schedule defined by the company bus or a departure defined by the hour in the car on the freeway before the expected arrival home for dinner with the kids, the day finds a natural end, and a social end, in cafes and restaurant bars, in extended conversation and a rich development of community.
I imagine the eventual loss of memory and forgetting of fear in a place where buildings have been turned inside out by time.