Thursday, January 21, 2010

Propinquity: the Distance of Stuff

I first heard the term in a meeting with Alex Krieger, who had on a pretty killer figure ground tie. I was not jealous enough however to realize that this man just used a word that I had no idea what it meant. I'm not going to lie. I had to look it up. Of course, when my sister taught me to read as a youngster and I came to a word I didn't know, she said, "look it up. And, don't talk to me you toe-headed brat." So it was nothing unusual.

Anywho, in the previous post I suggested that I wrote about walkscore and the difference between quality of walkable environ and proximity, which is what WalkScore measures. I found it in the archives of a professional discussion list:

One of economist Herman Daly's fundamental critiques of neo-classical economics is the valuation system. Somewhere along the lines, emotionality was stripped from economics because it encountered things that couldn't be quantified. So in our hyper-rational, Descartian world, things like happiness, clean air, clean water, and anything else that one might deem subjective or that couldn't be assigned a defined value were "externalized." Which essentially means we are making decisions without any of the factors that went into city building in the first place.

Statistics are slowly catching up to the to complexity of urbanism, although comparative value seems pretty logical. "Hmm, real estate in Paris and Manhattan is deemed valuable based on demand. Something must be right there."

Things like WalkScore are showing that there is a premium for what we do in applying the principles of urbanism based on an increment of their calculations. WalkScore, like any statistic is able to measure the quantitative but not the qualitative. In this case, proximity, but there is no score for the quality of the pedestrian environment.

You can point to walkability as a fundamental basis for economic development, or the qualitative improvement over the existing. The detailed physical design then addresses that which can't be measured, things that might be more visceral, like pedestrian pleasure.

Backing up to WalkScore and proximity though...what I'm discovering, is that if you think about it on purely economic terms, the distance between consumer and transaction is a barrier, where tax dollars for extensive transportation networks, car companies, mechanics, gas and oil companies, etc etc, all take their little slice of every single transaction in a world where everyone has to drive to each interaction as the cost of delivering goods/services to the consumer in demand is also externalized to the consumer. How often does the average consumer think about that when they are thinking about the price of milk?

We all know that previous policies have spread people too far apart. What happens then, particularly in the Sun Belt and similar cities where "Drive Til You Qualify" is rampant and there are very few affordable places to live near transit or in walkable communities, the poor in many cases then are excluded and disenfranchised from the economy, in some cases spending as much as 40% of their net income on transportation, just to participate and make ends meet. Hardly, a way to generate wealth and "pick themselves up by their bootstraps."