Marie Kondo is the diminutive dynamo of breakout Netflix series Tidying Up,which examines how people with disheveled homes can find peace and harmony by applying her approach to surveying, discarding, organizing, and displaying the objects that fill our homes, known as the KonMari Method.
“Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.— Marie Kondo
This method to eliminate clutter is part ritual, part skillset, part discipline. But at heart, it is about making the effort to inventory the items that have value and meaning — those that “spark joy” in the parlance of the method — and discarding the items that don’t, while applying an organizing principle intended to maximize the joy and utility of the kept objects.
On one level, the KonMari Method is a ritualized approach to the mundane task of decluttering, but at the beginning of each episode of Tidying Up, Kondo explains that it’s really about envisioning an ideal future, and that the method is a means to optimize joy. Essentially, her approach has two parts: discarding and organizing. Discarding is the process of eliminating items that are no longer of value. Kondo advises we attack five separate categories of items: clothes, books, papers, komono (kitchen, bath, garage and miscellania), and sentimental items. The process begins by gathering all the items of a category and one-by-one picking them up and holding each item. If the item “sparks joy” when you hold it then you set it aside to keep. And if it doesn’t, then you thank it for its service, and let it go.
Imagine yourself living in a space that contains only things that spark joy. Isn’t this the lifestyle you dream of?— Marie Kondo
This is the singular genius of Kondo’s method. She asks us to methodically, ritualistically, and mindfully consider each item, one at a time, for the value it provides and only retain those items that are truly meaningful — it is a wonderful sorting principle. If homes are the dens we fill with our personal effects, then the city is the habitat that sustains us. Are there wider lessons to be gleaned from the KonMari method that can be applied to our greater habitat – the cities that we live in?
After all, our possessions very accurately relate the history of the decisions we have made in life. Tidying is a way of taking stock that shows us what we really like.— Marie Kondo
Similar to Kondo’s five categories of household items, we can imagine the distinct categories of the public urban realm: streets (boulevards and avenues, corridors, Main Streets, residential lanes and alleys); squares, parks, and trails; civic buildings and institutions; activity centers and neighborhoods; public art and monuments; and so on. While making an inventory of the places within each category, we may assess the value that each brings to the community, and consider which particular places in each category “spark joy.”
While no one of us can decide which places spark joy for everyone, it is possible (and necessary) to collectively determine the value of various public spaces if we intend to make cities the best possible places for people. Certainly we can ask people directly what places spark joy for them, but we can also observe the signs on a larger scale — places people are going, spots where children gather naturally, pedestrian paths that defy planned routes, locations popular for selfies or check-ins on Facebook, and so on.
Once the places that spark joy have been identified, we can begin to observe the common traits they share. If we’re looking at a street that sparks joy, we might persue this line of questioning:
How wide is this street?
How wide are its lanes?
How long is its block?
Are there trees? If so, what are their species?
How fast is the traffic?
How wide are the sidewalks?
What is the scale of the buildings?
How far are the buildings set back from the street?
How narrow are the adjacent lot sizes?
Is there on-street parking?
Is it connected to nature?
Is it connected to history?
Does it convey a sense of place?
Do people feel safe there?
By going through this exercise for each place, we could generate a better understanding not only of which places are working, but why they work.
It’s also important to examine the lower-value places — the areas people don’t visit, which contribute less to the city’s social environment — and consider their physical traits as well. Are they over-parked? Do they suffer from overly wide roads and fast traffic? Are their parks poorly designed, poorly maintained, and/or feel dangerous? Does the scale of the streets and buildings intimidate, or overwhelm? Does it convey a sense of place, or does it feel soulless, lacking charm or character?
When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.— Marie Kondo
The next step in the KonMari Method is to discard those items that do not spark joy — there’s a ritual where the owner is asked to thank the item for its service, then let it go.
Cities, of course, don’t have quite the same option of abandoning places that aren’t working, nor should cities hold onto designs and ideas that have failed. We can look at places that aren’t highly valued as an opportunity to create a better future for our community.
Some problematic places might have easy fixes, and we can take the lessons learned from our joyful places and apply them to these spaces as needed — for example, better lighting could make a dangerous alley or park feel more inviting at all hours. Other spaces might require greater rehabilitation, or rethinking from the ground up. In some cases, those areas can offer the greatest opportunity for transformative change. It is only by letting go that we can begin the process of envisioning a better future for that place.
Tidying is not just about cleaning. It’s also about creating a space that sparks joy.— Marie Kondo
The final step in KonMari is to take all the kept items that do spark joy and give them a home — to organize and display them in a way that maximizes their utility and ability to improve our lives. Everything is tidied, put in boxes, or folded just so. The purpose is as much practical as it is aesthetic. For example, soft items are folded to stand on end, so that they can all be easily seen and therefore more often used. Miscellaneous kitchen utensils and tools are given dedicated visible spaces in cabinets or drawers so that they can be easily found. The cumulative impact of decluttering and organizing is a simplified life in which the things that we actually use are always close at hand.
Applying this principle to our cities, what can we do to ensure that the parks, trails, squares, streets, and monuments that spark joy are made easily accessible and beautifully presented so that they can be enjoyed by all? We might think about which places can be better served with public transit, or which parks could use a higher degree of maintenance, or which areas could be better connected to their surroundings.
For example, many downtown areas are separated from their waterfront areas because poor planning decisions in the past built freeways between them and the rest of the city — yet those are exactly the kinds of places that can return incredible value to the city, with many cities now reconnecting their waterfronts.
Kondo has elevated the mundane chore of tidying into a strategy intended to realize an ideal life. As stewards of the public realms we cohabit in our cities, we should acknowledge the rather profound impact of the built environment on our disposition and state of mind — a city that sparks joy is a gift that uplifts and provides beauty, tranquility, and equanimity to all its residents.
I believe that if many cities take the time to work through this exercise and consider each place for the value it gives back to its public, we’ll find depressingly few places built in the last six or seven decades that do spark joy — and the places that do, by and large, come from a different era. I think Marie Kondo would advise us to change that.
What are the places the spark joy in your community? What are the places you’d like to change? Tweet me @Mateo_in_ATX with #sparkjoycity
Next: What Narcos can teach us about better public process.
Header image: Lars Plougmann / Flickr Creative Commons