Tuesday, February 17

A response to David Brooks

I have to respond because Brook's column this morning is speaking directly to me.

"You may not know it to look at them, but urban planners are human and have dreams. One dream many share is that Americans will give up their love affair with suburban sprawl and will rediscover denser, more environmentally friendly, less auto-dependent ways of living."
check, check, check ...

He goes on to say that while planners would like to impose "Amsterdam" on the American people, a new study by Pew indicates that Americans may not actually want that. I happen to think that David Brooks is one of the most vital public intellectuals on the scene right now, but I think he is misreading this data.

The trouble with building a case out of survey results of what people want is that, in real life, we cannot always get what we want. There are trade-offs, and the true test of a value system lies in what you are willing to give up to achieve your ideal. Do I want the 6000 sq. ft. palace or a 400 sq. ft. apartment? Uh ... I'll take the palace. I'd like there to be a wilderness preserve surrounding me, and I want to be within a 10 minute trip to healthy grocery stores. It would be nice if I could walk there. And I'm all for social equality and environmental sustainability too.

When the American dream is disaggregated and privatized ("what is your ideal community?") it makes it difficult to get a good grasp on what people are willing to give up to meet the social, environmental, and economic constraints of life here on earth.

This is not to knock the Pew study. These are important measurements, particularly the question of which cities are seen as ideal communities. It's also interesting that Americans see the ideal communities they have formed in their minds as superior to the one's they live in. It is, however, almost always the case that these surveys of ideal communities end up pointing toward a mish-mash of privatized quasi-utopias, that is American suburbia.

That's why this kind of "American Dream" is curious thing for a Conservative like Brooks to champion. Aren't Conservatives supposed to be the hard realists pulling the starry-eyed utopians away from their fantasy worlds of endless possibility? They are supposed to be concerned about the limits or human potential and the hard choices that come with economic constraints. As Brooks writes,
"They offer the dream, so characteristic on this continent, of having it all: the machine and the garden. The wide-open space and the casual wardrobes."
Cast in this light, maybe the planners aren't so much the crazy idealists after all?


Steve O. said...

I thought that "consevrative" means "preserve the status quo at any cost." Sounds like Brooks to me.

Eric Orozco said...

Was utopia yesterday? Strange thought. Has our financial death spiral produced a softness for snooze city? Nostalgia by Veidt...Are we living in the pre-apocalyptic consumptive lull before the countdown to financial Armageddon? When people are first realizing what might be lost? It will take until we see the gutted hulls of hummers littering the ditches of freeways to think with utopian militancy. Planners get ready. Be prepared to point to the masses. Channel your inner Robert Moses or Corbu.

We'll get to smart growth. It just needs to be picked up as an amenity people want as much as back yards. Folks are not used to living with sidewalks, much less trams. The approach is two pronged, one prong is cultural/grassroots transformation, and the other prong is just quiet suversive tenacity.

If planners were smart we would find ways to market smart lifestyle choices like retro citroens. In the South Corridor here in Charlotte, people are buying Harleys and Vespas. Its as if being out in sidewalks has given people a new notion of freedom. Freedom is being associated with the ecstatic feeling of the wind wicking the back of your shirt. South Corridor has become a noisy rumble strip for body and bike. People accesorize with tattoos. Machine and flesh gets integrated. People want it. Its sexy and cultural. We planners need to understand these things.

The other prong is tenacity. It is simply introducing the sidewalk to all peeps. We can't just saturate people with New Urbanist watercolor utopias. We should instead focus on the amenity. Like NYCDOT's Janette Sadik-Khan...

Daniel Nairn said...

Couldn't agree more, Eric. Many of the current narratives being spun have planners playing the role of the regulatory bureaucrats standing in the way of everything that Americans have always stood for. Unfortunately, this can be a fair criticism at times, but it is certainly not the way things have to play out.

Take self-reliance. Back to Emerson on the East or virtually everyone who picked up their life to push into the Western frontier, Americans have valued a rugged self-reliance and individual exploration. Urbanists would do best not to fight this impulse, but to point out how a vision for real cities and real countryside dovetail well with this spirit.

Just one example: Kids need to be able to navigate their world, as a part of fostering independent maturity. An auto-centric landscape puts them entirely within the control of whoever can chauffeur them around from planned activity to planned activity. The American icon of Huck Finn is an impossibility in modern suburbia.