Green Communities

Musings from the midden and other worthy places: urban remote

What is a city? A question I was asked as part of a university entrance interview some forty years ago. I was reminded of it the other day as I was cleaning the barn. “Why?” you say. I do not know. What I do know is when a mindless sort of chore is being done my mind wanders, and that day it wandered from the chore into things urban.

So, I put the question to you. What is a city? Before you read further take a few minutes to decide what you think makes a city and then read on for my opinion. Then I want to explain why I believe our cities reinforce remoteness.

Now, as it was forty years ago, my answer is as follows: a city is people. Whatever else it may be, first and foremost it is people. We are the creative force that conceived it, built it and maintain it. Take away people or banish them to their rural pursuits and cities would evaporate. But, I hear you say, ”They are so much more.” Well, yes they are and they are based upon five other elements people have employed: a location, structure, links, technology and institutions. These are the foundation elements in all their various arrangements upon which our cities have been shaped and organized.

Jump forward thousands of years from the first cities to the present day. Layer upon layer upon layer of creativity and variation in arrangement of the foundation elements has established a global network of cities where a majority of people live. Unfortunately, not all is well on the urban front.

I said above a city is people. Therefore, based upon such an assumption, it should follow our planning and design should be primarily for the needs and requirements of people, but in so many ways I believe we have failed. For sure people inhabit urban areas, work, go to school, play, grow up and grow old. People inhabit what we have built and continue to build, but at the price of less than optimum community living, which is after all our natural inclination in its many forms, and at the price of excessive energy use. We are social beings and thrive upon well functioning communities. We are also creative and thoroughly enjoy attractive and supportive urban environments. On both counts we have short-changed ourselves. We have not failed completely as elements of urbanity work well.  However, in particular and incrementally with the process and sequence of past decisions, we have allowed urban remoteness to take hold in an iron grip.

I do not believe there is any one reason we can point to saying, “There it is, that is the reason our urban areas are the way they are.” In fact there are many reasons, which tend to be mutually reinforcing. So, lets look at some of them.

In part this is a chicken and egg dilemma in that it is quite impossible to determine what reasons preceded and followed. I need to start somewhere and so here goes.

We are constantly confronted with the need to make choices. We do this as individuals, as communities and in enterprise trying to make the best choice to achieve advantage for ourselves and our constituencies. Our choices are made based upon held attitudes and values and our perceived requirements and limitations. Many of these decisions are short-term in nature as we fail to recognize or look at or have enough information to consider the longer-term view and consequences. In reality, our appointed surrogates, the leaders, are the decision makers for so much of what is really important in the shape of our urban areas and they bring personal viewpoints and concerns along with professional and expert advice to their decisions. These are the decisions having wide impact across our societies and communities. Of course some of the decisions and the legacy of those decisions just seem to happen. There is no paper trail as such. One day the change was apparent, there were sixteen lane highways much like the emergence of Spring. The highways just took longer to grow, more like a tree. So choice, decisions, consequences, choice and so on is a circular process into which we draw a whole bunch of concerns and pieces of information to inform and influence. Exactly where it will all lead and the materializing results are largely unpredictable because the goal posts and side-lines are constantly being moved at it seems an increasingly rapid rate. Lets look at some of the concerns, beliefs and information.

The Industrial Revolution and its processes has a lot to do with the shape of our urban environments today. It was the first real wedge pounded into the rural and agricultural phenomenon. Slowly but surely people were attracted into urban areas for employment and other attractions developed as towns grew larger. Money, power and decision-making gradually was placed into the hands of a relatively few surrogates with their own vested interests and influences. Changes occurred in urban areas to accommodate industrial requirements. A growing impact on the natural and urban environment ensued. Equally across the board societies and their economies have been permanently altered.

Out of this process has grown, for very good reason, the notions of “economies of scale” and “bigger is better”. These notions are alive and well today, but I believe are far to widely applied and represent the core of the reasons for urban remoteness. In so many ways the notions have informed our decisions where they had no business being in the first place. We have given up nurture and nature for engineering and planning efficiencies. We have regulated and zoned where compassion and creativity was required. We have encouraged and supported unfettered growth ignoring limits and degrading consequences. We have, it seems, abandoned the notion of “fixing at source” in favour of picking up the pieces later. Prevention has been a foreign concept struggling to survive. We have developed the technologies to support and encourage our decisions and we were able to harness the energies required to support the technologies. With an ability, it would seem, to install unlimited amounts of infrastructure based upon relatively cheap and constant energy supply and resource materials, more and more people have been encouraged to buy into an ever-expanding urban fringe. Our urban areas have become humongous in population, enterprise, technology and scale. To support all that we have become tremendously acquisitive following the promotional leads and chasing down the sales. Our responses have become knee-jerk reactions, just one more step in the process of supply and demand. More and more all of this is being achieved in a remote fashion and in turn is reinforcing the conditions for more remoteness.

There are so many examples of remoteness in our urban areas to choose from, it seems limiting and unjust to focus on only a few. Yet, that is indeed what I have to do, as space is limited. Once you get the hang of identifying remoteness, you can discover on your own other examples.

First, I will remind you remoteness involves distance and separation from information required to make informed choices. Where and when remoteness is present there is an information deficit and the future consequences of decisions cannot be determined with consistency and confidence. As I mentioned above two remote inducing factors, scale and surrogates, have become very influential. Our urban areas and the global nature of our economies and decision-making have become so large and complex full information and prediction is impossible. At best we can suggest trends, as was done with global warming predictions, but then taking notice of these and doing something about them when the consequences have not affected us yet and there are lots of conflicting opinions and there is a dearth of opportunities and options available to make the changes, well it all institutionalizes remoteness. We turn off and say, “Oh, there will be a technological fix.” We assume others, the surrogates, will fix things. We are blind to the notion we are the problem.

Decision-making out of context, in a remote fashion with insufficient information, is similar to introducing non-native species into an environment. The new species could be absorbed, but as has happened so often it could run-amok causing immense damage. The technologies we have created are a case in point. Henry Ford, General Motors and the like released the motor vehicle into our urban environments and beyond. They dominate. There is no natural predator to keep them in check. They just keep on expanding in number, location and economic influence along with the infrastructure required to support them.

Information technology is another case in point. It is a tool now being used for various reasons: information capture and dissemination; commentary; social networking; promotion, selling and buying; entertainment. It is really an extension of older technologies, but is more efficient in its roll and far more widely dispersed creating a global network. However, I cannot help but feel it is or has become or is becoming superficial with the sound bites and tweets contributing to information overload. I don’t know where we are going with information technology. I do know there will be more toys to play with, the information available will continue to inform and influence and our reliance on surrogates will be modified.

Finally I want to comment on the shape and size of many of our urban areas. They are too large, too “big technology” dependent and have become deterrents to community living. We seem to have to drive everywhere for every reason when in principle, the whole notion and concept of an urban area should be to bring destinations closer together. Our work, shopping, entertainment, schools and the like have become removed and remote. We have a diminished stake in them as they have become enclaves separated out of our communities. Indeed, our communities are less together now and are rather sprawling collections of grass-cutting and two and three car garage subdivisions without focus. They have become amorphous in design and function. So many opportunities to do better have been missed in the name of size, growth and profit all supported by cheap energy.

There is so much more to be said, but for now I have said enough.

I am Steve Tubb.