"They all live in cities." That's Thomas Jefferson in 1790 writing about his suspicions about the whole urban, centralized power and economy thing. The quote comes from a book I'm reading right now, "Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation," by Joseph J. Eillis. I've been enjoying reading each of his vignettes focusing on seminal moments in the formative years of the country. It might not seem like this has much to do with green design and sustainable development, but it's extraordinarily enlightening on the origins of many of our deeply rooted values...and conflicts.
I'm writing this morning from the library of Virginia Tech's main campus in Blacksburg. I rolled down here yesterday (on rubber tires, alas, not steel rails) through the agrarian landscape that Jefferson treasured. Discussions about property, resources, policy, rights and responsibilities...these are not abstract issues outside of design and construction. They bear directly on it. The media often talk about "the political landscape" without realizing just how accurate they are: the landscape is in fact political. Jefferson and his ideal citizen farmers saw the landscape as both physically and politically productive. It was the source of all wealth, food, and citizenship. This was Jefferson's sustainable landscape. We who live in cities, whom Jefferson mistrusted, see the landscape around us as productive in a different way. The city's open space is public space, not the private land of the farmer. It is First Amendment space, productive for nurturing our rights to assemble, to speak, and to petition.
The city of Washington, about which Jefferson had decidely mixed feeliings, is rich with open space from circumscribed Edens like Dupont Circle, to the great green field at its monumental center, the National Mall. The radical urban proposition of filling the center of a national capital with an immense green space is lost to us now. It's too familiar. But a visit to any older city in Europe will reveal how different the symbolic center of Washington is. Getting the capital city designed and built is a long and wonderful story. It's told through the Building Museum's own "Symbol and City" exhibition which sits right below the Green Community exhibition. This sectional adjacency is just a consequence of space allocation, but the fortuitous result is an opportunity to think about the political landscape in all its complexity. Symbol and City then provides a kind of foundation for thinking about the processes of planning a city.
Each of the communitites in Green Community sits in its own unique political landscape, drawng from it energy and resources in the form of activism, advice and consent, legislation, and leadership. Masdar City's situation in the Arab Emirates is radically different from Greensburg, Kansas, even as both are mustering the same range of elements and technologies for their respective futures. Mona Terrace was born of such a complex political landscape that we challenged our graphic deisgners to devise a kind of "kinship diagram" and include the dates that each player came on the scene.
The two hundred plus years during which time L'Enfant's, and his clients,' visions have inched toward fulfillment with fits and starts, give scale to what the communitites exhibited on the second floor are doing. The future, as Shakespeare has said, is the undiscovered country. What our founding brothers and their architect knew, and what all of the communitites in Green Community also know, is that it's best to head out for that territory with at least vision and a map of where you want to go.