Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cargo Cult Urbanism

The internet is a funny and beautiful thing. A mirror to humanity in a way; in that you see/read/learn something new, then integrate that new knowledge and re-frame it so it helps you understand or to explain other things. You then blog about it.

Today, I came across a commencement speech given to Cal Tech students by Nobel Laureate and all-around badass Richard Feynman. Feynman is one of those individuals who occupy the special and sacred ground for this blog reserved for those walking the fine line between nihilism and purpose, genius and insanity. We appreciate those who work hard, achieve something, and live like a rockstar while doing so. I digress...

In the speech, Feynman introduced a new concept he called "cargo cult science." He explains:
I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.
Perhaps you can already tell why this struck a nerve with me because I often find myself similarly annoyed at certain developments, err attempts at something-like-urbanism around the state, country, and world. You may even have seen the expression of some of these frustrations. See: Park Lane Place, Victory, and the latest Villages at Allen and Whatever.

I have no particular beef with these particular places, they just so happen to unluckily be the chosen representatives for something bigger, which was the intent of the Villages@A&W article. Projects where the will was in the right place but not the aptitude, fortitude, or something like it.

In many ways, these poor projects are caught between two distinct and opposing forces. Suburban lifestyles that try to control every last detail to the point of often suffocating actual spontaneity, aka life and urbanity, which is very loosely controlled. If there is any control at all, it is found through some natural order out of the chaos where every bit actor is looking out for their own enlightened best interest, which means the neighborhoods best interest.

When I first described the idea for the VAW column to the D editors, which spawned the subsequent artwork, I described it as such:

It's like trying to bake a cake. You have all the ingredients, but you willfully or ignorantly try to make the cake without proper measurements or step-by-step instructions. All you end up with is an undefinable vat of goo.

This characterization applies unfortunately to VAW and PLP. Somebody in some boardroom somewhere found buzzwords in the latest Urban Land Monthly, "mixed-use" "urban" "walkable" "live-work-play" "transit-oriented development" "live above the shop," etc. and decided to try their hand at it. To quote a personal favorite movie, "sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken."

I get so frustrated by these because their heart was in the right place and the successes/failures measured to date are surely only short-term because the measurements, the order, the interconnectedness is all wrong. It is like trying to make a sentence without syntax. What if I removed all punctuation, qualifiers, participles, adverbs, adjectives, etc. then mixed up the words and sentences in no particular order. It wouldn't make any sense and if it did, there would be no character, nor liveliness to it.

As I wrote in the D column on VAW:
The developer...put in every detail prescribed by the manual of good urban design. Decorative lights stand over tree-lined streets. Parking has been consolidated into a centralized garage to promote walking. Fountains large and small offer the comforting sound of bubbling water. A plaza ringed with chess tables surrounds an oversize chessboard with accompanying supersize pawns, rooks, and knights. There are programmed activities for children and parents alike, and the retail tenants strike a balance between local businesses and national chain retailers. It’s all there.
Other things cut from this laundry list of "good urbanism" include: housing over retail, a hotel, a civic presence (city hall and a civic center), and RAISED CROSSWALKS! I would die to be able to get raised crosswalks into a project. They went to the expense for raised crosswalks but not quality urban syntax, which is really the driving force in creating real, authentic value, long, lasting, and profitable - economically, socially, and environmentally.

If nothing else, I write this blog to help prevent missteps, to raise the level of awareness and aid in the democratization of design. Accurate assessments and evaluations are only achieved through brutal honesty, which is also only achieved with a citizenry empowered with knowledge and understanding. And for Dallas to get to the place we all want it to be, a truly great, livable city that is the envy of the world, it won't happen behind closed doors.

Forgive for the occasional caustic tone. Truth is, it is quite fun to write that way sometimes. I try to balance it with the positive. The next column I write for D Magazine will be along these lines, how to resuscitate Victory. Expect it in the April issue, I think - if I have the time lag right.