Sunday, September 23, 2007

Beatley and Register Reading Reflections

I chose to read Chapter 2, “The City in Evolution” in Ecocities. Register describes the state of our planet with a sense of urgency and apocalyptic dose of reality at times, while maintaining a hopeful outlook; presenting the plausibility that we are not entering the “Ecozoic era.” He makes mention of the architect Paolo Soleri throughout the chapter, beginning with Soleri’s concept of “neomatter,” which is basically all this human-made stuff we have brought into this world and now have the responsibility to find a way deal with.

Register gives a thorough explanation of how the city can and should be designed as an organism (38-39) in order to be sustainable. He gives a very poetic description of Soleri’s concept of “miniaturization … a fundamental rule of evolution, (28)” which I found a little confusing, but will do my best to describe here. Basically, it seems to me, miniaturization (also termed “complexification” and/or “quickening”) occurs, as a universal law of nature, after things fall apart and come (or are brought) back together, and through the process of renewal and revitalization become more intricate and complex systems within systems. An additional factor is that the complexifying intertia “remain[s] on go: they move toward further miniplexion (29).” Register goes so far as to say that “Nothing exists separate from it (29).” To sum up, it seems that this is the process of things coming (back) to life on and exponentially and infinitely smaller and smaller scale.

Another term Register brings up in this chapter is “noosphere,” or sphere of knowledge. True to his description of “complexification” as being part of everything, he describes “noosphere” with Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s argument that “cities brought together concentrations of people and their technologies as nodes of consciousness – nodes of intense complexity and enormous leverage for further evolution – in the evolving noosphere (31).”
Register goes into a description of the inevitable consequences of extinction of various species, from a micro level up, and calls for a need to understand “the relationship between extinctions and evolution … and to explore ways of reversing the process (35).”

Many smart growth policy examples given in Beatley reminded me of the city of Boulder, CO. (Beatley mentions Boulder as a city to have adopted growth containment programs on page 67.) I grew up 20 miles south of Boulder and went to undergrad at the University of Colorado at the School of Architecture and Planning, and so I was exposed to the pride of the city’s minimal growth laws not only within the city limits, but efforts to extend their influence to other parts of Colorado. For example, over the past several years, I remember hearing about Boulder buying up several hundred acres of land from a neighboring county (Jefferson) that would have surely sold the land to developers relinquishing the beautiful prarie to the sprawl that is creeping across the rest of the state. I just looked it up and found a recent article, Sept. 3rd from the Daily Camera:
“The city of Boulder is nearing completion of a $10 million deal it has sought for two decades to keep nearly 300 homes from being built on ranchland in a neighboring county. … The city has wanted to buy the land from the family for more than 20 years, in part, because Jefferson County has zoned the property to allow for up to 295 homes and commercial uses … The chance that a developer could purchase the huge parcel so close to Boulder's interests has prompted city officials to negotiate a conservation easement … "Residents will have the benefit of looking over a beautiful piece of property, rather than 300 homes," she said. "A lot of people are really pleased this keystone piece of property will be available to be preserved."

Beatley describes how contrary to popular belief, European cities illustrate that density and compactness are not antithetical to economic productivity, but actually may enhance it. I was confused as to why most people would assume that cities are antithetical to economic productivity, as I tend to think of cities as just that. Is it because most people assume agriculture in wide open spaces to be the most economically productive?

Beatley gives a few examples of “ideal sustainable” cities, but then admits that these places are not all economically self-sufficient. (Almere, Lelystad, Houten…) I am not saying that they are not worth mentioning unless they are, in fact, ideal, but it just seems like economic self-sufficiency is a key-stone in sustainability of a city. Just like many other components of a holistic system; without enough jobs in a city, the prospect of sustainability falls apart. These sections would have benefited from some examples of cities finding creative ways to develop economic stability, perhaps with “green-jobs”!

Overall, I was impressed with Beatley’s ability to tie up many issues he brought up. Throughout the beginning of the chapter, I found myself feeling very critical of Beatley for giving these examples of European cities, for although they were inspiring, I failed to see how they would work in the current culture in the United States. Especially when it comes to changing the average U.S.-American’s consuming habits. When he mentioned how in Norway “the government, by royal degree, banned new shopping malls located outside of city-centers for a period of five years (p 56)” I laughed at the thought of how this would go over in the U.S. Unfortunately, Americans love their malls. But as I said, Beatley didn’t fail to address this; he brings up American culture with its “American Dream (62)” and “strong anti-city bias (59).” He points out though, that the main objection for Americans of the urban renaissances is “founded in the fear about what he visual implications or ramifications (65)” of density will be. He suggests that the “incorporation of trees, sidewalks, on-street parking, varied rooflines, and so on would substantially improve the attractiveness of higher-density forms of housing (65).” He also asserts that “successful approaches to compact urban form in the United States must consist of making it more difficult to build in the wrong places and making it attractive and desirable to grow in the right places (69).” And finally, he advocates for an “Urban Containment Movement (73)” to get the “process of norm-changing” underway. Although I appreciate that he has made some helpful suggestions, I think the chapter would have been bolstered by more concrete examples of existing successful implementation in the U.S. But the chapter is extremely useful as a thorough examination.

I do worry that there is an underlying assumption that the historical infrastructure in the U.S. is similar enough to that of the European city to implement similar sustainable designs. I am not familiar with what elements exactly of the European infrastructure might facilitate sustainable planning today, but I have a feeling that they are different than those in the U.S.

I love Beatley’s term (and hate the existence of) “soulless sprawl.” I just appreciate (and am saddened by) the name on the face of the endless rows of cookie-cutter houses and big-box stores and endless desecration of open space that has infiltrated this country.

In both of the Beatley and Register readings I was continually bothered by the thought that there seems to be an underlying assumption that people will think that reversing the process of global warming is a) their responsibility and b) possible. Unfortunately, and to our demise, in much of this country especially, I don’t think this is the case.

Something that kept coming to mind in both the Beatley and the Register readings but was not delved into by either author was the issue of the social connections today that exist more and more frequently in cyberspace. The ways our cities are designed seem to push us farther and farther from pedestrian-interaction, and more to our computers for social networking. This is not a criticism that it was not brought up, but I would be interested in a discussion of how the role of the internet has become both constructive and destructive to social capital, and what should be done about it.

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