Time Tangent

I love Noel Gallagher, and you know this. I must say, however, that he is officially on my shit list. Monday he had a press conference to announce the impending release and pre-sale of his upcoming album…IN MARCH. C’mon man, that’s six months away. Eh, who are we kidding, he knows I’m going to buy it anyway. At least he teased us with the first song.

Moving swiftly on, it’s probably worth reading any article that refers to brunch as “a symptom of the soulless suburban conformity that is relentlessly colonizing our urban environments.” You can find that here.

If you haven’t already, please read K.Fitzgerald’s excellent post on the Benwood site. Less talk, more action, indeed. I will now pile on and take those thoughts on an urban design tangent.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the nature of a city and the current cult of ________ (fill in the blank with your favorite buzzword such as innovation or disruption. By the way, does any one remember paradigm shift or synergy?) The movers and shakers these days are embracing the characteristics of being lighter, quicker, and more nimble. This seems to be a great approach for many things in business and in life. Unfortunately, city building isn’t really one of them.
Clearly, cities cycle over much longer time frames than the activities that occur within them. The innovation buzz will last for a couple of years before we move on to the next paradigm. The city, however, is pushing 200 years old and continues its deliberate, inexorable march into the future. City building is a slow, cumbersome, and tough process. It requires significant capital resources, there exist physical conditions that can’t be ignored, the internal process has many moving parts, and byzantine layers of bureaucracy and legislation regulate the external process. Making any lasting impact on the built environment requires significant effort.

If you will recall, “Creative Placemaking” was all the rage a couple of years ago. The term occasionally pops up, but as with so many other buzz phrases it has been diluted if not neutered. Although they are tough to define as a body of work, the Creative Placemaking projects essentially attempt to impact the city via lighter/quick/nimble projects. While many of these projects have made some impact, the tend to be transient in nature- when the party is over, so is the imapct. The positive activity in the city is great, but the jury is still out on their lasting impact on the built environment (which by definition must be long-term). We expend a great deal of energy on transient urbanistic projects- and this is fine. These projects can be very cool, but don’t mistake a hammock in a street tree for urban design. There is something to be said for temporary measures to address symptoms. The real work, however, is found in fixing the root of the problem.

Inertia is the blessing and curse of the built environment. A city is patient; it outlasts trends and fads. Even American sub-urbs, a “fad” in the long view, came about after determined and decades-long institutionalization of that philosophy (not to mention a gargantuan resource incentives). There is an opportunity to couple the enthusiasm and expertise of the innovation/disruption set with the process of city building. The challenge is to applying that type of thought consistently over a long period.

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