Sprawl - Cancer of the City

Atlanta sprawl viewed from the air

   Diseases in living creatures may originate outside the creature, like when someone is infected with a virus. It may also originate from within, like when normal cells go haywire and begin reproducing wildly, producing a cancer.

   Disease occurs in a living urbanism just as it does in living creatures. Parts of a city designed by specialists rather than generalists usually act as disease agents to a living urbanism because specialists usually create things for very narrow purposes rather than for the general welfare of the city. Streets designed by transportation engineers are a classic example of a specialist’s solution because they have a single purpose: getting as many cars as quickly as possible from point A to point B. But in doing so, they make no contribution to the overall health of the city: It doesn’t matter if the zooming traffic makes the street a terrifying place to walk, or if nobody in their right mind would even think of shopping there because those things weren’t part of the engineer’s program. A specialist, you see, is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about only one thing. Or, as some would say, they know absolutely everything about nothing at all. So almost everywhere that parts of the city are designed the specialists (beginning in the teens, 1920s, and 1930s,) they cause disease in the living urbanism of the city.

   But there is something even more deadly to the living urbanism of a city, town, or village than the specialists. Since World War II, the very fabric of the city has gone haywire. Where we once built places that were compact, diverse, and walkable, we now build sprawl instead. Sprawl spreads rapidly, just like a cancer. Its parts, from the house lots to the super centers are all boated much larger than the parts of living urbanism in a healthy city. They are super-sized just like the cells of many cancers. Sprawl eats up healthy urbanism just like cancer cells eat up a person’s body. Ever notice how CVS and Walgreen’s find the best historic building on a busy corner and bulldoze it for one of their stores? And when sprawl isn’t directly attacking the living urbanism, it’s gobbling up the farmland that once fed the city and spreading wildly, sucking up the resources of the city just like cancer sucks up the resources of the body... until the life of the place is sucked out and the living urbanism dies. Sprawl is Cancer of the City.

   Today, our world is in crisis. We have a pandemic of global proportions of not just one disease agent, but of every sort of specialist-driven virus imaginable. And if that weren’t bad enough, cities all over the world are eaten up with the cancer of sprawl, so much so that few places remain with any signs of true living urbanism. Many places are preserved in Urbanism’s Cryogenic State: the Historic District. They may appear alive under casual inspection, but will they ever actually live again? And all around them, we can usually find nothing except the sickening, bloated carcass of what might once have started out as living urbanism, but now is just cancerous sprawl. And so the living urbanism died in hideous fashion weakened by the specialists’ viruses and eaten up by sprawl, and those of us who are old enough watched it happen before our very eyes. And as the urbanism died, sustainability died with it.

   What can be done? If we are to have any hope of living sustainably again, we must realize that sustainability goes hand-in-hand with a living urbanism. The two are inextricably linked, so that you cannot have sustainability without a living urbanism. Green power, hybrid cars, and compact fluorescent light bulbs are good, but they cannot even hope of doing the job alone.

   And so, we must revive living urbanism. How can we do that? The operating system of living urbanism is the living tradition. Some think that traditions are historic things, incapable of helping us live more sustainably today. But a living tradition bears about as much resemblance to an historical tradition as a living creature does to a fossil: some of the shapes may be similar, but one is alive and the other is dead. Living traditions can learn, and can adapt to new traditions, and then they spread that wisdom widely and quickly. They are very similar to nature’s way of spreading genetic material: it can be done by millions of people with nothing more than on-the-job experience.

Today, millions of people are working furiously all around the world to try to figure out how to live sustainably today. Once we figure it out, (and I’m optimistic that we will,) we simply do not have the luxury of time to spread that wisdom using only the higher education system because it is far too inefficient and slow.

   But there is an even worse way that we could fail than using a slow system of spreading the wisdom of sustainability. Much of the architecture of recent decades has at its core the precept that if you (as an architect) are to be significant, your work must be unique. So each significant architect is expected to reconstitute architecture into a personal style like nothing quite seen before. The problem is obvious: millions of the best minds are working today to figure out sustainability. It is a highly complicated problem. Once it is figured out, if we then require each architect who would be significant to re-invent all of sustainability in their own personal style, then we can expect nothing other than catastrophic failure because sustainability is such a complex, inter-linked problem. So the requirement of uniqueness goes far beyond the ludicrous to the globally treasonous. It must not be tolerated any longer. We must be allowed to share wisdom! The most effective way of sharing wisdom ever devised and proven is nature’s way: it is a living tradition. And it is the operating system of a living urbanism. We must use them again!

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 - 05:54 PM

Bob Loftin

Saw this TED video about cancer and anti-angiogensis today, then was reading a twitter post about highways being lifeline of tumor-like suburbs. Anti-angiogenesis for city transit systems may be needed.

Engineering vs. Design

ugly rooftop solar water heater in Colorado and beautiful chimney in London

   Look at the image on the left above. This is an on-site heat generation device which we know more commonly as a solar collector. The image on the right is clearly a fireplace, which means that it’s also an on-site heat generation device. They both do their jobs: the one on the left heats water, while the one on the right heats air. But that is where the similarities end. Because the one on the left was conceived only as an engineering exercise, while the one on the right was conceived as engineering and design. So both have similar amounts of engineering, because they both appear to do their heat-making jobs. But the fireplace was also conceived as being beautiful, whereas the solar collector possesses not one shred of beauty.

   So what? Isn’t that just aesthetics? We have sustainability problems far more important than mere aesthetics, right? Not so fast. If you’re old enough to remember the late 1960s and 1970s, you’ll remember that we had another green revolution back then. Many of us (I was in my teens through most of the 1970s) were very optimistic that we were seeing the beginnings of major changes. But that all changed very quickly in just a couple years. What went wrong? I’ll tell you what I remember seeing and hearing.

   I was an architecture student and then a recent graduate when it all came crashing down. And the thing I recall the most was hearing, again and again, the same thing, almost word-for-word: “I don’t care if those solar collectors are saving me a little money; get those hideous things off my roof; I will not tolerate them any longer!” And so, because the artifacts of sustainability were conceived only as engineering rather than design and engineering, the people turned against them and an entire generation was lost.

   The same thing could happen to us. It doesn’t have to happen, but it could happen. And it will happen if the artifacts of sustainability today are merely engineered. So they must work. And they must be designed to be beautiful. Because if they cannot be loved, they will not last. But can we afford to turn another generation against sustainability like we did at the end of the 1970s? Can we really afford to blow it again?

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 10:02 PM

Chad Cooper

Re-entered... originally posted January 30, 2009

I'd be very interested in reading an exploration of this topic in a broader sense as well. Meaning, the role/importance of aesthetics in general. In other words, when confronted with the form meets function mentality in which aesthetics play a part only when deemed necessary. Problem is, aesthetics should always be part of the equation, regardless of factors such as size, prominence, etc. With this, the willingness of some to spend money quickly on engineering gadgets or marginally increased performance, and even tossing aside aesthetics to pay for it.

Any thoughts on this (to help tackle these types of scenarios, or help ease frustrations)?



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