Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pavlovian Response

Making grand master plans and executing them to a T tends to call for authoritarian powers, Popes, monarchs, emperors...DOTs.  All of whom have/had a special security force to ensure a level of protection between them and the people.  For DOTs, the defense mechanism and therefore autocracy, is the immense bureaucracy, arbitrarily devised and applied standards, and intentionally skewed linguistics where words no longer have meaning.  

For example, "improved" doesn't mean anything more than widened.  To stand against them, you quite literally have to stand in front of a tank.  That is, if the tank ran on money, federal pork, and our dependence upon said money for misplaced and abstract notions of "GROWTH" and "JOBS."  Though by now we should know nothing is what it means.  This tank's intention was to build a conveyor belt to transmit tax base from your community outward.  Somewhere else.

Plans are made and implemented alright.  It's only a certain type of plan.  Except, they're far too often the plans that don't actually "improve" Dallas, though they do tend to widen it.  And these same plans tend to ignore property rights.  I got a kick out of page 18 of the historic plans Wilonsky posted, "Buildings not established according to plan.  Road must be widened at considerable cost."  I have no idea what this page is even talking about.  Were the buildings too close?  A rational response to the street by the original owners likely.  So why should it be widened?  Or were they too far off the line?  So then why must the road be widened?  To arbitrarily affix the curb precisely to an arbitrarily devised building setback line?

With regard to plans that aren't so anti-urban, they still tend to operate within a broken operating system.  They're pruning dead trees.  Or they're creating "emerald necklaces along highway loops.  Same thing, actually.  Anti-urbanism in a pretty tattered and torn green dress, like a sex crime victim.  (Sidenote: has any movie penetrated our collective conscience without much box office success deeper than Fight Club?)  All of our codes and operating systems are broken.  Transportation departments, at least the slow ones, still think that widening roads makes movement more efficient.  Zoning is still largely two-dimensional and homogenous except for the nearly 1000 planned development districts in Dallas (our way to get around the also arbitrary and arcane zoning code in place).  Architecture is too focused on clownish and adolescent pursuit of stylistic creativity when we need structural and financial creativity to meet the massive housing need of pent-up or out of place residential markets.

There are a few concrete reasons anthropocentric urban design rarely gets off the ground:

1. They're often overly prescriptive.  They too often say "development, you should do this."  Why?  Because we say so.  A certain part of that is inherent in a civilized society and rule of law, but planning would be better off creating the platform for what we otherwise know and describe as the commonalities of good urbanism to emerge on their own because it's more advantageous to the investor, developer and end users.  Planning for the most part today tries to paint a picture of a garden and sell everyone on how pretty the garden looks rather than digging into the actual DNA of a place, to till the soil, and cultivate the life emerging within the garden on its own.

2.  Part of the reason planning has ended up this way is because it is far easier work to paint a picture than tend a garden.  And that's where we bump into the hegemony of the autocentric city, the immense amount of dollars invested into keeping it going (for lack of a better reason than "improvement."  Improved what? "Traffic flow.  Congestion relief."  Neither of which on their own actually achieve those ends nor are the results that desirable.

We're still running DOS in an everchanging world where the fundamental priority is still human need, social and economic exchange.  But DOS doesn't know that language.  Just 1s and 0s man.  Actually, maybe that can work.  1 is yay and 0 is nay.  Except the operating platform is the affected populous.  More 1s than 0s and the plan moves forth.  And really, that's more like the way cities operate, as fractals of subjective and variable desirability (density) within a framework of objective innate humanity (interconnectedness).

To defend that humanity and the fundamental purpose of the city, we might have to pick up a rock and stand off against the tanks...