About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Can you find Nirvana in Utopia?

New Urbanism

In my last blog post I wrote about nostalgia, and how the imagination of a past that never was is influencing the course of the future.  In this post I want to examine one of the ultimate expressions of nostalgia, and how the imagined past is destroying the neighborhoods of today.

The idea of New Urbanism is a Utopian vision of the American neighborhood.  Which brings me to the question, can you find Nirvana in Utopia?

First for those of you who may not be familiar with New Urbanism, I will sketch it out for you.  First, it advocates a slightly higher density than the average suburb, with six to eight houses to an acre, as opposed to the standard three to four.  It prescribes neighborhood stores, preferably in walking distance to the residents.  Garages go in the back, off of alleys, because garage doors and driveways destroy neighborhood cohesion.  In the same vein, the front of the house should have a large porch, to promote neighborliness.  White picket fences, tree lined streets and an overall walkability dominate.  In short, it is Seaside, Florida, which was one of the first and most influential New Urbanist projects.

It is a completely hollow, and overly precious answer to the suburban condition.

Please don't think that I am advocating traditional, postwar suburbia, which is also hollow and on top of it, soul-killing, but the answer cannot be a false recreation of a model that ceased to be valid when Truman was president.

There are many problems with New Urbanism, that it doesn't actually stop sprawl, that it still promotes an environmentally unsustainable lifestyle, and that it reinforces some very bad demographic patterns, but one of the most important is that it is a complete nostalgia fabrication.  It attempts to wind back the clock, through environmental determinism.

In that regard, it is the bastard child of Pruett Igoe, which was the first "housing project."  The project was based on the idea that if you take people out of the slums, and put them in good architecture that's designed to inspire them, they will become better and happier people.

It was a complete failure within a decade.  It was so bad that it had to be imploded in the early 70's.  (On a side note, Minoru Yamasaki had two buildings that he was noted for, Pruett Igoe and the World Trade Center, both of which met a visually similar end.)

New Urbanism draws from the same deterministic roots as the housing project; both envision altering the patterns of human behavior through design.  If you make everything in walkable distances, and make those walks visually interesting, people will stop using their cars and walk to the store.  If you put the garages in the back, and add large front porches, people will sit on them and get to know their neighbors.  If you put people in traditional turn of the century neighborhoods, they will stop having modern problems and live a traditional happy turn of the century life.

First I would like to deconstruct those propositions. 

Whether or not the store is in walkable distance, people will still drive there.  I have lived in New York City, and trust me, if you have an alternative to lugging your groceries several blocks, or more, you will take it.  You will find freedom in not having to stop by the store every day for stuff to cook for dinner.  Add in dragging along a couple of cranky children, whom social services frowns on you leaving at home alone, and you have a recipe for a very unpleasant afternoon.  Driving to the store for groceries is one of life's major conveniences, and one that most people are not ready to abandon, no matter how pleasant the walk might be.

And I would like to add in a tangentially related complaint.  The car is not the enemy to sustainability, it is the internal combustion engine, and our desire for a single family detached residence.  I hear many "green" people say that we need to get rid of the car, because it is the cause of all of environmental ills.  They advocate that no one should have a car, and everyone should walk or use mass transit.

There are two problems with this attitude.  First, except for the environmental zealots, this attitude will turn off the majority of Americans.  Even people who care about the environment will turn away if you tell them that in order to be green, they have to give up a car, even a hybrid or electric.  Second, all of our cities, with the exception of the borough of Manhattan and part of San Francisco were designed based on the car.  Mass transit for everyone will not work in most cities.  To make it work, you would have to demolish everything built after about 1940, and rebuild it at a Manhattan density.  All of that reconstruction would take far more resources than finding clean sources of energy to power the car.

Getting rid of the car is another nostalgic impulse that is false; the idea that getting rid of the car, and returning to a pedestrian centered lifestyle of the past will make cities better.  This is a false re-imagining of the past because, in America at least, we have always had personal transportation.  People had horses and sometimes buggies.  They had bicycles, which are still acceptable to the environmentalist, even though people on bikes are every bit as rude on the road as a car. (Even though they seem to not think so, they are still bound by all of the same road rules as a car, including stopping at stoplights and obeying speed limits.)  But the upshot is, most people have always had access to some sort of private transportation, at least for in-city transit.

This is not to say that we should not have mass transit.  Alternative transportation should be a part of any new development, but it is not a panacea for all of the problems of cities.  But even the vaunted streetcar suburbs still had plenty of private transportation as well.  For example, I live in one of the streetcar suburbs in Denver, and almost every house in the neighborhood has a carriage house that is as old as the main house.  Most of them held actual carriages in the day. 

Moving back to the problems with New Urbanism, the porch in the front, garage in the rear set up does not inherently promote neighborliness.  Yes, in the past, people sat on their front porches, but it had nothing to do with preference, and had everything to do with what the backyard used to be.  This is again where nostalgia fails us, because we do not understand the original purpose of the backyard.

The backyard in 1900 was not a place you would want to spend time in.  It contained the kitchen compost pile, probably some chickens, and maybe a pig and quite likely a horse.  The carriage house would hold a horse drawn cart or buggy, and probably a stable space.  Prior to about 1870, it would also have had the family's privy.  In other words, it would stink like manure and rotting food, both of which would be used to fertilize the kitchen garden.  In the hot summer, you can imagine the stench.

Because of this, people would spend time on the front porch because the smell would be less.  Not gone, because of the piles of horse manure in the streets, but that was at least a distance from the house, and you could plant roses and other fragrant flowers between you and those horrific hills.  Why do you think the traditional home has fragrant vines and climbing roses draped around the porch?

Also, in the days before air conditioning, sitting (and sleeping) on the porch was the only way to escape the oppressive heat of the inside of the house.  They weren't out there to enjoy the neighbors, or to participate in community engagement, they were trying to avoid heatstroke.  The human interaction was a side effect, not the reason for the behavior.

The last issue, that people will be happier in traditional neighborhoods is woven from the whole cloth of nostalgic reinvention.  As I discussed in the last blog, people in the past had many of the same problems as we have today.  Also, the neighborhood that we are recreating in New Urbanism was not the norm one hundred years ago, it was the exception.   Most people lived either on farms or in crowded tenements.  The New Urbanist vision was actually only available to a small segment of middle class and working class people.  Trust me, those people had just a many problems as we do today, and they had to deal with them without indoor plumbing.  Saying that a neighborhood plan can solve societies ills is the same sort of wrongheaded environmental determinism that has failed over and over throughout the decades.

It is Utopia, which actually means "not place" in Greek.  It is an imaginary or fictional place, someplace that cannot be real, but only envisioned.  The use of utopian to describe the New Urbanist vision is very fitting, but for all of the wrong reasons.

They are trying create a place that never was for people who do not live in the way that they want to prescribe.  For good or for ill, the patterns of our lives have shifted.  We are not going to sit on front porches and talk to our neighbors while escaping the heat inside, we are going to crank up the air conditioning and sit on Facebook chatting with our virtual friends.  The garages in the back are not going to make walkable streets, it is simply going to make the street appear uninhabited.  This is because we will still drive everywhere, even if it is only a few blocks away because we no longer have the time for a meandering walk to wherever we are going.  And with the garage in the back, we will drive into the garage and go into the house through the back door.  We may never set foot in the front yard, except to mow it, and if we have a service for that, we may never go there.  And now that mailboxes are conglomerated in a hut at the neighborhood entry, we don't even need to go out front to get the mail, we just swing by the box on the way in or out.

The patterns of suburbia are very empty, which is the actual meaning of Nirvana; the word does not mean heaven, it means nothingness.  We do not have actual engagement with the people around us, we stay locked in our air-conditioned sanctum sanctorum, except when forced to venture out for supplies or to earn money to pay for this lifestyle.

I understand the motivations of the New Urbanists; they understand the hollowness of modern suburban life.  But the problem is, rather than addressing it by developing new typologies, they are fueling the fire by producing a new suburb that only differs from others in terms of being slightly more dense and somewhat more attractive.  Even though environmental determinism is a false syllogism, urban planners can attempt to create vibrant communities by inferring current behavior patterns and developing their designs from them.

Unfortunately, they are as caught up in nostalgia as everyone else today is.  They operate from the idea that the neighborhood of 1900 is the greatest and best model to work from, and adamantly try to recreate it.

And because of this, the answer to my earlier question is yes, you can find Nirvana in Utopia, as long as you understand that what you are finding is nothingness in noplace.

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