One of the best cartoons ever made was called Hey Arnold! on Nickelodeon. It ran five seasons from 1996 to 2004. To this day, it remains one of my all-time favorite childhood cartoons for its mature, yet incredibly accessible story lines, symbolism, music and heart.
Hey Arnold revolved around the lives of Arnold (last name never revealed) and Helga Pataki, Arnolds secret admirer and nemesis. Like any good kid show, it tried to teach life lessons. Many of these were lessons such as standing up to bullies, tolerance, leadership, and first loves. The lessons were taught in a slightly more mature way compared to other cartoons. And for all the great aspects of this lovable cartoon, one of its greatest and under-appreciated strengths was was it’s setting.
Set in a city setting, Hey Arnold! was one of the only cartoons to depict life in a dense urban environment. Even the show’s music director, Jim Lang, used jazz as the primary theme music for Hey Arnold! which gave the show even more of that mature, urban feel while still maintaining its child-like accessibility. (Scroll to end for soundtrack clip!). Arnold’s character utilized everything that makes a city great, from his constant use of the local bus and walking around his very livable neighborhood, to the fact that everything from the butcher, florist and grocery store was within walking distance of his home.
Hey Arnold depicted the end-result of the kind of urban design that America has strayed from but now planners wish to re-create: a walkable neighborhood where walking and transit are more viable means of mobility than the automobile. But beyond that, it fosters a kind of social interaction that is often ignored when planners and the public discuss urban planning. The environment we wish to create and animated in the Hey Arnold! cartoon helps foster relationships with multi-ethnic, multi-income families where individuals (in this case, young kids) co-mingle; crossing many social boundaries to form a cultural narrative unique to dense urban settings.