Friday, May 21, 2010

CNU 18: The Big Green Box

By and large, to specialize in one (sub-)discipline or practice is to regard the concerns of all other disciplines and practices as existing in black boxes. The labels on those boxes may be invoked from time to time, but the contents of those boxes, the gritty little details that may be the obsessions of other disciplines, are simply unimportant.

At this Congress, there has been much talk about professional and disciplinary silos and the obstacles they pose to good and thoughtful policy, planning, and design. In fact, the overarching theme of the Congress - “Rx for Healthy Places” - signals concerted effort to more fully integrate urban planning with public health.

"Silo-busting" is all the rage.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

CNU 18: Gettin' Schooled

So, here I am at the 18th Congress for the New Urbanism, which has come this year to Atlanta.

Yesterday, before the Congress officially convened, I attended a session entitled New Urbanism 101, which is designed to give newcomers an orientation to the history and ideas of the movement and the organization.

I’ve been familiar with the ideas of new urbanism for at least a decade: I’ve read some of the main texts, seen talks and videos of talks by some of the movement’s leaders, and I’ve followed up with some investigation of subsequent debates.

I was expecting some of the same old song.  New urbanism seemed to me, with my outsider’s perspective, to have settled into a comfortable ideological groove, or perhaps just to have packaged itself as a kind of standardized product in search of market share.

I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Karori Sanctuary: Public Participation

In Diane Campbell-Hunt's book about the development of the Karori Sanctuary, I note a persistent duality in her portrayal of "the public" and its role in the project.  This is captured almost perfectly in the title of the fifth chapter: "Public Consultation and Public Relations."

I hasten to point out that "public participation" in some deeper and fuller sense is not really part of the discussion.

The chapter opens with the following claim (Campbell-Hunt 2002, p.53, emphasis added):
Public consultation is crucial because you must have support from your local community.
In what sense, must? Is this an instrumental requirement, a necessary condition, a mere means to the predetermined ends of the project? Or is it a normative requirement, an ought, a recognition of citizens' rights to make decisions about the future of their common environment?

Is the goal to manage (or even manipulate) public opinion so the Karori Sanctuary Trust can go ahead and do what they wanted to do in any case, or is it to engage the public in a process of will-formation through which the goals of the Trust might be amended in deference to the community?

In other words, is public consultation a matter of good strategy or of political legitimacy? Or is it a little of each?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ecotechnological Environment

Here's an intriguing idea from historian of technology Thomas P. Hughes, set out in his 2004 book, Human-Built World.

People in industrialized nations have too narrow an understanding of technology, writes Hughes.
We are satisfied to see it used mostly for consumer goods and military weaponry, not realizing that we are unconsciously and unthinkingly using technology to create a human-built physical environment. We do not take responsibility for the aesthetic characteristics and quality of life in this human-built world. In short, we do not understand the range of technology and our responsibility for it. (Hughes 2004, p.152).
In short, we are creating our own environment by means of technology but, because we do not understand ourselves as doing so, we do not take responsibility for the results.

What's especially noteworthy in Hughes' conception is that our environment is never just technological.
We also fail to take responsibility for the creation of an ecotechnological environment, which consists of intersecting and overlapping natural and human-built environments.  More ecologically sensitive and technologically empowered today, we should ask engineers, architects, and environmental scientists to negotiate with one another as they design and construct the ecotechnological environment. (Ibid.)
I have two comments on Hughes' notion.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mr. Sherlock Holmes Holds Forth on Safety in the Built Environment

I have had reason recently to think again about safety and the perception of safety in particular places.

At one point, very early in The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, I discuss some of the difficulties of ethical deliberation, especially when other people are involved.
Making decisions through critical ethical inquiry is difficult, to say the very least. People who come together to make a decision may find not only that they judge particular situations and actions differently in reference to different standards, but that the standards themselves are informed by very different views of what it means to be a human being and to live a good human life. This is plain to be seen in any divisive social issue, from abortion to immigration, when the two sides often seem as though they were living in different worlds. (p. 4).
While debates over the built environment are usually less heated than debates over these particular social issues, they can still have their roots in a basic divergence of perception and meaning.  This comes out clearly in perceptions of particular places, such that:
one person can look at a picture of an urban street and see a vibrant economic and cultural life, while another can look at the same picture and see only filth and the threat of being mugged or swindled; each might think the other is deluded. (Ibid.).