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Tuesday
Jun292010

America Needs Better Places

This TED Talk given by James Howard Kunstler is fascinating because it goes a long way to explain the problems with suburbia outside of the direct issue of energy efficiency:

The problem of impoverished public spaces has several sources, many self-reinforcing.  If people drive everywhere, they don’t spend a lot of time in between-building public spaces, so there’s no incentive to improve those spaces, and thus no incentive not to drive everywhere.  If culture values private space over public space, the resulting public spaces reinforce those values.  If people have hard jobs and long commutes, they might not want to linger anywhere on their journey back to their family, so even the indoor public spaces put convenience and speed over the friendliness of the space itself.  And after a long drive home to the kids (who have no access to any sort of public space on their own), one might prefer playing in the back yard to driving out to the park (if there is one).  On the architectural side, building one nice building won’t rehabilitate an otherwise unpleasant space, so why bother.  And based on the idea that the right thing to do in public places certainly isn’t “hang out”, architectural fashions have risen disproportionately promoting elements that are intimidating, disorienting, or disconcerting.

A digression on that last point:  It seems almost like America’s wholesale rejection of urban design fundamentals gave American architects a form of Stockholm Syndrome.  These are the people tasked with building good spaces, which is often impossible and requires knowledge that has been largely discarded.  That leads them to make horrible design decisions even in places where good public spaces could be created and the resources are available.  Kunstler uses Boston’s City Hall plaza as an example, and I can see why:

Boston City Hall

Wikipedia’s discussion of the critical response highlights that architects rated the building far more highly than the general public.  Seriously, did the architects actually think, “It would be great if Boston’s City Hall looked like an imposing concrete inverted UFO filled with bureaucrats, surrounded by a vast brick buffer zone where people have no reason to habitually linger, that’s what the face of local democracy and civic engagement in Boston should look like”?  Presumably not.  It’s just that it seems like a cool idea, any sort of cube-dwellers can be installed in any sort of building, the wide-open space makes for some dramatic light and shadow and consequently some pretty interesting photos if you crop them right.

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