12.04.2008

Streets or Rivers?

I took an old friend of mine through the Green Community exhibition a few weeks ago. She’s a card-carrying environmentalist; she pays her dues to Sierra Club; she recycles; she drives a hybrid. But she’s not an urbanist. She lives in an Arcadian, curvy, woodsy suburb well outside of a small city the core of which has suffered from all too typical disinvestment of the last 40 years. Like many older, smallish American cities, it’s become a donut: thick on the edges with nothing in the middle. And, to continue the pastry analogy, even the thick stuff is not healthy. She saw the image the Highlands Gardens project in Denver and said: “It all looks so regimented, the straight streets, and dense packed houses. It looks so urban. Where’s the green?”

Her green paradigm just couldn’t handle it. And she’s not alone. Traditional environmentalism often carries the expectation that green is going to look a certain way...and that way is not this way. We can blame Jefferson for a lot of this (see 10.31.08 post, “they all live in cities”) We are still burdened with a set of green synonyms and antonyms that set urban improvements against nature: Arcadian vs. urban, photosynthetic vs. synthetic, open vs. bounded, expansive vs. dense, naturalistic vs. artificial, organic vs. technological, curved vs. straight, transcendental vs. contaminating...add your own. In this context the phrase “off the grid” means more than just opting out of big energy, it also means a rejection of the grid as a symbol of urban organization, of the hand of man. What could possibly be green about a grid? Yet, the word “green”, in whatever form—verb or adjective—has become a synecdoche for the larger complex of sustainability. And it’s within that new paradigm of sustainability that these two worlds have to find a literal common ground.


To Sustain: To strengthen or support; to keep (something) going over time or continuously; to confirm that (something) is just or valid. ORIGIN Latin sustinere, from tenere: “hold.”


To put it simply: sustainability is an end, green is among the means, which is where those old oppositions show up. In his prescient book, The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx talks about what he calls “2 kingdoms of force”-- the Arcadian and the technological, the natural and the human made-- as being the dominant themes of 19th c. American literature and painting. Of course, the desire to escape the 19th century industrial city for healthier pastures, literally, had very real reasons behind it: cities were dirty, diseased, and dangerous. That’s no longer the case—at least in the developed world-- but our cultural narrative still lags behind.

I call this the “Streets or Rivers” problematic. Streets and Rivers represent those two kingdoms of force in all their contradiction and opposition. The resolution of these contradictions resides more in the world of rhetoric and demonstration than in design and construction. By that I mean that we in the planning, design and construction worlds should brush up on our reading and art history to find a richer language to frame the changes we are trying to make. The education and enlightenment of the public, the citizens of the environment, is antecedent to changing public policy; changing public policy is antecedent to planning, which is antecedent to design, and eventually to construction. The issue is the conjunction: the problem is the “or”.

There are several communities in the exhibition that prove the value of other relationships between streets and rivers: in Mendoza, the river in the street; in Greensburg, the river and the street; in Bogota, the river of the street. The founders of Mendoza didn’t set out to get LEED ND status when they rebuilt their city in the 19th century after an earthquake. They just wanted to make a viable...sustainable...city. They designed as if their lives depended on it, because they did. And they still do. Mendoza reminds us that these are not new issues. History, as much or more than technology, contains the essence of sustainability.


Greensburg, Kansas is a world away from Mendoza geographically, but a kindred community. This farming town of 1400 was flattened by a catastrophic tornado in the spring of 2007. Only the grain elevators remained standing. As often happens, the disaster strengthened the community and gave them an unprecedented opportunity to reassess the town’s relationship to the elements of earth, air, fire and water that sustained it. Greensburg is where it is, and is a town at all, because of water. It is the site of deep well that served first passing stagecoaches and then steam trains on their way west. But like many towns Greensburg had taken its water for granted. Its new streets are designed and constructed to be part of a treatment train to capture, clean, and return rain and runoff to the aquifer beneath. Just like Mendoza’s acequias, this is clearly an engineering solution. And just like the acequias, the prosaic task of water management has been poetically revealed, celebrated, and made an essential part of the character-defining experience of the place.

In Bogota, the street has become a river, metaphorically. Only a tiny % of Bogotanos own cars but their needs had dominated the transportation spending priorities for decades, leaving the majority of less affluent citizens to fend for themselves, walking in unsafe conditions and hitching rides in the patchwork of private bus services. Under the leadership of Mayor Enrique Penalosa, that all changed. The money was redistributed and the infrastructure was redesigned. Cars got a little bit, to reflect their population, but pedestrians, cyclists, strollers, public transportation got most of the funding...and the design attention. As a river needs biodiversity, a street needs socio-economic diversity. A monoculture, whether in a street or a river, is by definition unsustainable. It is neither just nor valid.

Leo Marx wrote about the “current flight from the city”--current being 1964 when The Machine in the Garden was published--which had many contributing factors supported, he argues, by the deep cultural biases revealed in our synonyms and antonyms. He describes the “inchoate longing for a more ‘natural’ environment” and the resulting contempt for, and thus disinvestment in, cities. This, he claimed 40 years ago, was the great issue of our time. Our challenge today is to get these two kingdoms of force—the natural and the human-made, the urban and the Arcadian-- to converse...and reverse. The old model of fleeing the city for the Arcadian fields has been proven unsustainable, in the full richness of its definition. The new model has to bring the fields into the city, the garden into the machine, as it were, for both nature and culture to sustain and thrive.

1 comment:

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