Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Apocalyptic Paralysis


Snow-cholera-map-1, originally uploaded by ccxtina.

This past weekend, I was thinking a lot about apocalypses (thanks in part to the May 21st "rapture"). Because my profession has been one that deals with the crisis of sprawl at the first stage, I often feel that part of my design duties is to educate my clients of beneficent sustainable means to alternately meet (and improve) their goals. In this task, I’m just a polite and productive version of an angry doomsday prophet pointing out to the feckless masses the impending catastrophes of our collective evil-doing. The irony is that my role as an urban designer, which is connected to both the transportation and building sectors, actually exists to coordinate the projects of the greatest energy hogs in the environment of all, representing together 70% of all carbon-based energy use in our nation. My guileless industry, in the end in net terms, will produce even more global warming impacts, however much I’m off-setting the even worse impacts of less urban, sprawl-based design alternatives. While replacing energy-inefficient sprawl is as worthy a green endeavor as one can have, I’m of even less advantage here than the boy with the finger in the dike, since all I can do is to bend down to the ground to try to drink up some of the overflow. In contemplating this, my doomsday gloom is not lightened any less bit by the salient fact that my own profession seems to have become but a tinier niche service in the ecological nooks that make up the US real estate economy, still reverberating from a post-bubble apocalypse that has produced even less opportunity for the leadership of architects and urban designers. …So, any previous influence I might have had to turn the Titanic around seems to have become more pipe dream than green dream. So much disaster swilling before and around me!

It is tempting here for me to sulk a bit like Jonah before Nineveh. So it was useful, that, in this dark mood, I was reading Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map (covered in my last post). One grand point of the book is that the disaster itself, the apocalypse, is a lecturer of its own undoing. It just needs an attentive pupil. No one can design a utopian alternative without becoming an expert of its dystopian forebear. Besides, as Kevin Lynch noticed, utopian visions always turn out to be rather disappointing bores anyway. Their cacotopian evil-twins are always more engrossing.

As John Snow knew, you have to embrace the caco a little. You have to acclimate your nose to the stench to see the hidden pattern creating the fulmination. A dystopian condition not only points to its own redemption, it makes it astonishingly clear…if only you can get past its miasmic vapors. Like the ghost map, recording with brutal acuteness for posterity the habitual lives and footsteps of people that one random summer day in Victorian London, we must, as John Snow did, engage in a patient dialogue with the Angel of Death, and become unbiased observers of his deft moves. Knee-jerk reactions can place us only with our back to the answers. In much of the urbanist apocalyptic thinking I come across, I see these habitual responses, a condition which, Steven Johnson points out, actually distances us even further from effective solutions. An urbanist diatribe indeed seems suspiciously filled with the over-determined “Gradgrindian” logic of Victorian miasmists, often labeling symptoms for causes. It’s easy to see why so much of it has that ominous apocalyptic tone and can’t help betraying (however subtly couched in distance) its contempt for the na├»ve, or worse, greedy agents of disaster-making.

Take, for instance, this bit of urbanist apocalyptic, which attempts to isolate the agents of the sprawl economy, of which, no. 4 is:
Specialization within the real estate industry

Over the past six decades the real estate finance and development industries have become increasingly specialized in single-use development formats. The evolution of the industry can be traced through the Community Builders Handbook series published by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the real estate industry's leading non-profit think tank on urban land use and development. The original Community Builders Handbook, published in 1947, presented the collective wisdom and experience of leading developers of mixed-use master planned communities, including ULI founders such as J.C. Nichols, the developer of the Country Club District and Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. Subsequent handbooks focused on ever more narrow segments of the real estate industry: subdivisions (Residential Development Handbook), shopping centers (the Shopping Center Development Handbooks but also other handbooks for factory outlet centers and urban entertainment centers), office and business parks (Business Park and Industrial Development Handbooks), and residential segments (e.g., condominiums, multi-family housing and workforce housing).
Real estate analyst Christopher Leinberger has written that the development industry is now focused on building the same nineteen real estate product types in every community in America. These generally represent single-use, stand-alone properties with floor-area ratios from 0.1 to 0.4 (i.e., where buildings cover only between 10-40 percent of a total site area, and the rest is devoted primarily to parking). These standardized product types have been refined by the industry over many decades, making them relatively easy to finance, build, lease and sell. In recent years the growth of real estate investment trusts (REITs) have transformed these real estate properties into commodities that can be bundled and traded as investment portfolios.
Together with a lowering of interest rates, such commoditization has provided much of the basis for the present U.S. building boom. Clearly, these development products have been successful at meeting the functional needs of businesses and consumers, and such development now pervades the fabric of our metropolitan areas. Yet, the staunch opposition to growth in communities nationwide also reveals that satisfying basic functional needs is not enough. While the real estate industry has become very good at building these single-use, automobile-oriented projects, the projects themselves are not very good at building communities. Ad hoc aggregations of single-use projects have proven to be ill suited for building communities that are socially diverse, environmentally sensitive, and economically sustainable.


Overall, the first two paragraphs are quite informative. But the last leaves me puzzled and betrays the author’s dismissiveness with the whole speculative closed-loop cycle of cellular single-use development. Why not end instead with a note on what could be done here with this interesting situation? But this approach does not avail the apocalypser, because this author already has a utopian paradigm and pre-determined conception of community building. The insights that the information preceding could give, without this bias, are literally screaming at you. Consider the perpetuating commoditization loop bundling performance based assets to stiff parameters, for example. Couldn’t simply adding a layer of metrics to compare the performance of urban, mixed-use products, e.g. collocation metrics, walkability metrics, etc., etc., suddenly give analysts a rich base of information to craft urbanist packages for REIT’s? Wouldn’t, in the end, strategies like that prove the case for urbanism, making developers more liable to produce urban results for equity in their projects? Maybe “specialization” can actually play a determining role here. And, with respect to “community building”, maybe communities aren’t looking for “community” as much as the Nimby lifestyle that guarantees property value stability. What they don’t like is the intrusion, period, ad hoc and discombobulated or not. Here again, a predetermined utopia has lurched the author off from what one suspects would be a more productive route of inquiry.

Perhaps a better approach to sustainable urbanism is to start with the baseline cacotopia, and rather than try to enjamb it to urbanism, observe it patiently to learn where the handles can apply the gears. This is why I actually do things like observe traffic and market behavior patiently. For me, apocalypses create a kind of music to appreciate.

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