In Defense of Vanity Projects
All bad cities are alike; each great city is great in its own way. Or something like that. All else equal, the more good things a city has, whether they be buildings, institutions, universities, restaurants, parks, bars, novel attractions or any of a thousand other categories, the better that place is. This much is intuitive, as places are the sum of their parts. But what importance do great places hold beyond surface level? One could argue that primarily, they increase the quality of life for their residents, and provide a nice place for tourists to visit. These are good ends in and of themselves, surely. But of secondary, and perhaps ultimately equal importance, they serve as beacons.
Cities with more great parts attract more people — both physically and aspirationally. On the ground level, some of those who are attracted to a city may become inspired to add their own unique building blocks to the fabric of that place. The Chrysler Building would never have been built without the backdrop of New York serving as inspiration to reach higher. These building blocks may be ephemeral and last for a day, a month or a year, or they may have longevity and last for a decade, a century, or more. In this cycle, future generations may become inspired by these new building blocks, and seek to add their own contributions to the city. While this could kick off a flywheel effect of potentially inspiring ever more people, at the very least, and most relevant to those who live there, it may provide some bit of joy to everyday passersby — a non-trivial thing. This cycle continues, so on and so forth, in that well known principle of compounding. The ceiling for a city’s greatness is theoretically limitless, as gains can compound ad infinitum.
This capacity for attraction extends beyond buildings and borders. This is the realm of aspiration. The best places are broadcast out to the world through books, movies, articles, social media, etc., with the most iconic places seared into our collective knowledge from an early age. Places can serve as settings or characters in their own right in film or literature, taking on their own personalities, and still have the capacity to amaze. A child in Bangalore may know nothing about life in…