Prose v. Poetry

First, let me say, that I know my writing is not poetry. Hey, I'm doing the best I can with an Alabama public school education. So, moving swiftly on...

One of my favorite books of all time is A Pattern Language. For those of you not familiar, it is one of four books written by Christopher Alexander that provide insights into the design and construction of our built environment. The book comprises 1171 pages of “patterns” for everything from the scale of cities to the tiniest detail of a windowsill. The author suggests that the 253 patterns together form a language.  The designer selects his patterns and makes a composition based on his pattern language in much the same way that a poet would select words to create a sentence. However, this book is not a kit of parts. I better let Alexander explain it:

“This language, like English, can be a medium for prose, or a medium for poetry. The difference between prose and poetry is not that different languages are used, but that the same language is used, different. In an ordinary English sentence, each word has one meaning, and the sentence too, has one simple meaning. In a poem, the meaning is far more dense. Each word carries several meanings; and the sentence as a whole carries an enormous density of interlocking meanings, which together illuminate the whole.”

I love this book, but it’s not an infallible work. There are some passages that are a bit quaint, some that are seemingly contradictory and he is harsh on all things Modern. Additionally, a number of the patterns seem a bit hippy-ish to a slightly-right-of-center Alabamian. But get past that and the work has a wealth of insight on an incredibly broad range of topics.

Read this book

This past week I was consulting APL for some insight into the nature of light (one of the great strengths of the book) and stumbled across pattern 75, The Family. Alexander asserts, “The nuclear family is not by itself a viable social form.” He goes on to say that only in the past few decades has the extended family broken down due to unprecedented mobility and societal conditions. His critique of the nuclear family is that “It is too small. Each person in a nuclear family is too tightly linked to other members of the family; any one relationship which goes sour, even for a few hours, becomes critical; people cannot simply turn away toward uncles, aunts, grandchildren, cousins, brothers. Instead, each difficulty twists the family unit into ever tighter spirals of discomfort”.* After rereading that, my first thought was that Christopher was on some ole Hillary Clinton bullshit (19 years before she came up with it).  But I allowed for the distinction between “village” and “family” and moved along (although Alexander does go on to make the leap to community relationships as surrogate for extended blood relatives.)

Insert liberal/democrat joke here

Let us accept that a healthy city will accommodate all manner of families (however you choose to define them) and at all stages of their lives. If you consider specific elements required to service people at various stages of life, they actually exist (for the most part) downtown. For the very young there are hospitals and doctors for medical care, a bevy of daycares for supervision, and a number of parks for recreation and exploration. School aged children have two new elementary schools, and adequate open space for recreation. Adolescents, have a number of opportunities for recreation and socialization- places to see and be seen. Young Adults have institutions of higher learning, reasonably priced rental housing and any number of bars and restaurants. Middle-agers have a wide variety of housing options, the biggest job pool in the region, the best restaurants in the region, and ample opportunities for recreation and diversion. But despite the fact that all of these elements exist, can we argue that downtown Chattanooga is the ideal place for an extended family?

We are a real life example of the prose v. poetry point that Alexander makes. We have words and sentences, but limited poetry. As we have all heard, one of the big challenges cities everywhere will soon face is how to accommodate the needs of an aging population. How are we poised to accommodate that in downtown? We have assisted living facilities in the Westside, a pharmacy on Frazier, a slew of doctors and hospitals on the eastern edge of downtown, a green grocer on the North Shore, and a free electric shuttle downtown. But how do these necessary elements work together? They don’t. They are singular elements that essentially work independently of each other. They only work if you hop in your car and drive to each of them. Of course having to access a car defeats the purpose of downtown and is a luxury many seniors don’t have.

That's a long walk for a 70-year-old.

All of this is to say that simply continuing to add or regulate singular elements does nothing for us. We have all seen examples of places where “words” are strung into simple “sentences”, these places result in dysfunctional monoculture. We need to return to the art of city building as science has failed us. We need to structure our city as a poem with an enormous density of interlocking meanings, which together illuminate the whole. This cannot be accomplished by a set of design guidelines. This cannot be accomplished by individual property owners. This cannot be willed into existence by politicians. This can only be accomplished by a community that has an engaged and energized citizenry that mandates their elected officials to act on their behalf and demands action of the private sector. Of course, no one likes to hear that answer because it's not simple and it's not easy. But as another Democrat once famously remarked, we should do these things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win"

*Of course, I have no earthly idea what he’s talking about. Spence and Stern are, without exception, angelic gentlemen. Denise is ever without fault. And, as you may have guessed I am as close to a perfect husband and father as can be found on this green earth...or something like that...

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