Jackin' for Streets

One of the great joys of fatherhood is getting to watch my boys’ movies guilt-free. The same movies…over…and over…and over. There is nary a Pixar product that I can’t recite word for word in my sleep. One of their faves is Shrek. There are many memorable quotes, but this passage is one that is habitually stuck in my head:

Shrek: Ogres are like onions! 

Donkey: They stink? 

Shrek: Yes... No! 

Donkey: Oh, they make you cry? 

Shrek: No! 

Donkey: Oh, you leave 'em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin' little white hairs... 

Shrek: NO! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.

When I get involved in anything that has levels of complexity, Donkey springs, unsummoned, into mind. Clearly, a city falls into the category of a multi-layered entity for which the onion simile is apt (including Donkey’s observation of smell). As good as the onion simile is, it’s not as good as the one that my mentor/friend/foil offered when he said:

“Cities, like forests are in a constant state of renewal. While forests recycle in rhythm with natural laws, the city is recycled by the collective will & conscience of its citizens.”

Sorry 'Cube, there's only one OG of urban design in this pic...
That quote has stuck with me since the first time I heard in back in ’99. It is a perfect description of many different aspects of the city. In fact, that is my “go-to” answer if I’m ever stumped during an interview or presentation. Reciting the quote gives one enough time to process some kind of answer and the forest simile is broad enough for one to take an answer in virtually any direction. If you hear me on the radio and I bust out the forest quote, you know I’m vamping...(oh no! I’ve said too much…)

One of the more obvious analogies would be that a building is to a city as a tree is to a forest. In a forest a tree progresses from seed to seedling to growing tree to mature tree to death. In a city, a building moves from concept through design to development and construction to use to demolition. Of course, that analogy is not perfect. Buildings are not naturally occurring things. Humans, of course, create them. Humans that have the ability to think and adapt and change. When a building outlives its original purpose, it is not doomed to die. We have the ability to extend the life of buildings by adapting them for uses other than what were originally intended. As long as maintenance is addressed, this can go on for centuries. Eventually, when the building’s useful lifespan has concluded, it has the potential to provide its resources for other projects, and can in essence continue to live on.

As far as sites go, land was here before the city and will be here long after we have passed. Protecting and maintaining our inherited building stock is a vitally important. However, a healthy city needs sites for new growth. When a majestic tree dies, it is in some sense sad. The silver lining is that the space is now available for a new tree to grow and thrive, and the nutrients that the dead tree contained will be released to nourish other elements of the forest.

The forest simile is nice, it’s a good way of comforting yourself when somebody builds a bad building, or the traffic engineers screw something else up. No matter what happens, the city will continue to evolve and perhaps in the future our children will be able to rectify what we F’ed up. The focus of this blog, however, has been the second part of that quote: the mechanism by which the city is recycled – the collective will and conscience of the city. The city will change, whether or not we choose to address that fact. That is why processes like River City Company’s Urban Design Challenge and the Urban Design Forum are so vitally important. Our collective will and conscience cannot be effectively expressed if there is no mechanism to channel it.

Hopefully, in the future, this lot can fix what we're
letting the traffic engineers screw up now.

There is no finished state for a city. There is no ultimate goal of having “arrived”. There is no ideal state. The city is a constantly evolving entity. It can grow or it can die. How the city changes and evolves is entirely up to us while we're here.

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