In our search for perfection we have often found ourselves, as cultures and civilisations, and indeed as humans, captured by the very things we wish to perfect.
I was recently listening to a broadcast of the 2007 Massey lectures on CBC in which the lecturer, one Alberto Manguel, discussed the role of the story and the story teller in the way we perceive ourselves and others around us. Fascinating as the entire lecture series was, and I suggest everyone go out and purchase the book, it was the fifth and final lecture that struck me as the most poignant.
In it, Mr. Manguel recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey, a story, if you are not familiar, in which humans set off to Jupiter aboard a long distance spacecraft piloted by an artificial intelligence named HAL whose sole directive was to let nothing stand in the way of delivering the spaceship to the planet. Unfortunately, HAL, as the flawless expression of human rationality, came to the conclusion – completely rationally in this man’s opinion – that the humans he was caring for in fact posed the greatest danger to his mission. The humans, save one thankfully, were thusly dispatched. It seems that the machine, crafted by the human maker to achieve a human end, had made that end itself particularly meaningless.
And so it is with our modern economic system. A set of logical and mathematic calculations, of truths and assumptions about how the world works and what ends should and should not be pursued, a rational system of self-regulating ‘markets’ that are designed to create as much wealth as possible no matter the costs. Humans be damned. Profit and growth are the ends towards which we have turned our entire focus, moved our universities from institutions of learning and true education into mere technical colleges, finishing schools for a generation of MBA’s whose sole contact with moral philosophy was the time they read that Ayn Rand book in undergrad, co-opted our governments from institutions of political debate and democratic representation into chambers for middle-management squabbles, visionless short-term partisanship, and economic policy that is devoid of any real concern for what should be the goals of economic growth. The goal and the process have become fused into a perfect machine, safely beyond the troublesome realm or consideration of the human being.
And this machine is at work in our cities.
Density. The new buzz word, term of the informed, considered urbanist. Density is dia-metrically opposed to sprawl, and this is a good thing. Unfortunately, the idea of density as something of an antidote to the ecological and spiritual devastation wrought by that sprawl, as a concept of urban living on a human scale has been co-opted and has simply become another word for growth. Indeed, it has become an end in and of itself, part of the machine and so has, by necessity, become entirely disconnected from the human beings it is meant to serve.
Densification, as a development principle, stands atop a profoundly more holistic notion of urban living than that which drove the growth of suburban sprawl and the flight of people from city centres. Quite simply, what this means is that it starts with the person – the human being – the individual or family unit and considers the environment, the urban sphere to be in some way a means to nurture the human being, to provide the context for the full and complete development of the human. Most deeply, it holds that the city should be in service of the human, and not, as it is now so pronouncedly, the other way around. The idea of (re)creating dense cities, as human environments that understand accessibility to be more important than mobility, that considers the purpose of living in a city to be in the relationships, the social and economic networks of one’s life, and not our ability to flee these things.
Consider for a moment by way of example how the classic suburban neighbourhood is designed, and thus how it conditions the human who grows and develops there. Firstly, we must identify the fundamental unit of its organisation…and if you guess human, you’d be wrong. Think again. Whereas a human-scaled neighbourhood would in all actuality consider the human in her organic form and hold as its central organising principle her central means of loco-motion, that is by foot; a neighbourhood built on automobile scale considers the movement of automobiles as the its fundamental intent. Notice how difficult it would be to walk anywhere in a typical suburban design, and by contrast, how necessary a car would be. Even the design of the suburban home is oriented towards the car. Human space is an enclosed and private back yard, the front of the home given over to the access and storage of an automobile or two. Communal, human space is by and large absent from the public realm of the suburb, and where public space is even precariously hanging on, it has been enclosed in malls and dehumanised in the streets where even sidewalks, the last and only bastion of the human claim to the street, are often considered superfluous.
And yet, with any idea in this era, it has been captured, processed, and re-sold to us by a real-estate and property regime that has moved so far beyond any notion of serving human beings that density, at least as it now appears in Vancouver, has about as much concern for the nurturing of human beings as Kraft Singles have for the health of the children they purports to nourish. That is, much as cheese, a whole food that by the sum of its parts is healthy source of nutrition has been broken down into its constituent parts, reformulated so as to be to be cheaper to produce and then fortified with all the vitamins lost in the reduction of its production costs and sold back to the consumer as in fact cheese…which it most certainly is not. Rather, what we are being sold, and what some of us consume (and shame on you for eating, and secretly enjoying them) is the idea of cheese and health.
Density for density’s sake. That is the question. For the ‘why’ of the density question we have simply replaced ‘how’.
Towers of ten, twenty, thirty stories, ad infinitum are not by mere sake of their density desirable human ecosystems, but are ways to extract maximum economic value from a piece of land.
The machine of economic growth marches on, devoid of any consideration for the end to which it was designed to serve. So perfect and efficient, density, as a development model, has broken down into its constituent parts, privatised any public goods that may come from its success –namely the enrichment of human lives – and reassembled and sold as the idea of human relationships and holistic development.