I admit, this has a horrible title. But I wanted to get something written about a project that I would like to work a little more on…and creating good titles is not one of my strengths.
Anyone who has encountered a manifestation of B.F. Skinner’s utopian dreams (Walden II as a prime example) is made instantly aware of a certain view of public policy. Under this view, public policy is formulated by experts who mold the behaviors of citizens in such a way to lead to the most happiness possible. We should never have to ask people what sort of policies are good, we assume that certain results are desirable (pleasure, happiness, fulfillment, or whatever) and formulate policy with those as our end. This is the technocratic idea; it presupposes that people generally do not know how to achieve the outcomes we want and that experts can do so better. This is obviously undemocratic, but we do just this sort of thing for engineering problems. We don’t generally question how the engineers decide to build a bridge, for instance, once we have set the parameters. One might argue that we should aim for the same ideal in public policy; this would require an extensive understanding of sociology and psychology (which we don’t currently have) but we might still think that this is the sort of way we should develop public policy.
On the other end we find theorists such as Jane Jacobs, who thought that planners should generally leave people to their own devices and listen to their preferences. During New York City’s highway wars of the 1960s, Jacobs was one of the principal opponents of the technocrats (Robert Moses, most prominent among them) who had a vision of New York that stressed easy vehicular transportation. Such plans, however, typically involved the destruction of urban neighborhoods. Jacobs advocated mostly democratic (and localist) procedures that centered around the involvement of community members in the formation of public policy related to that community. This is similar to the messy process that is common today; there may be (and often are) grand, all encompassing plans for policy or urban design but these plans rarely see the light of day without a good deal of public debate. Of course, this approach is nearly as problematic as that advocated by the technocrats. Many questions arise as to how such a process actually works. How do we know what the goal of public policy should be? It is likely the case that what is actually better for people (what they will prefer in the end) is different from their current preferences. So, it seems that people may not even know what they want (as paradoxical as that may seem). Also, how do we make any cohesive plans if we have to listen to the chaotic preferences of the public? How do we find any commonalities or order among these preferences? It also often seems to be the case that political power overcomes truth in the formation of public policy. If political power is the determining factor of our public policy using the democratic process, such a process seems just as tyrannical as the technocratic solution.
I have a few more thoughts on this topic but I won’t share those today. I simply wanted to get some questions about this topic written down. I’ll certainly write more about it in the future.
However, perhaps I’ll post some coffee reviews next.
As the automobile became the preferred method of travel in the United States during the 20th century, car oriented development became the dominant pattern of city design. Today it is extremely difficult or simply impossible to go about ones daily life without some reliance upon an automobile. Furthermore, in most areas of the country, the lack of one makes a person a second class citizen. For a variety of reasons, there has been a resurgence in the interest for mass-transit oriented developments (TODs). Proponents of this alternative method of city organization argue for its superiority over car oriented developments in efficiency, aesthetics, and livability (to name a few).1 Although there is something to be said for all of these reasons, here I will concentrate on an argument for TODs from the perspective of social justice. Typically arguments from social justice have been among the more controversial because they often involved some sort of redistribution of resources; in American politics it is often unclear how much the rich should be forced to give up in order to help the poor. I hope to bypass this issue by looking at a current public policy that seems to have wide-spread public approval, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and derive from it an argument for government sanctioned support of TODs. In section 1, I describe a number of public policies, including zoning, highway, and accessibility standards for the disabled and from these derive the moral basis for the government support of TODs. In section 2, I explain my argument in detail and address a number of initial concerns. Finally, in section 3, I address the most plausible objection to widespread TOD development – that gentrification could cause the poor to lose their homes. Continue reading Social Justice and Transit Oriented Developments
I have been reading quite a bit lately about how we could design our world to better suit the needs of people. One major debate I have come across is whether Architecture is a form of art. It seems that many architects think of themselves as artists; some of the best are known for the artistry and the revolutionary nature of the structures they design. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright is well respected mainly because of the aesthetic qualities of his structures in and of themselves. People look at the pictures of Wright’s buildings (most of them homes) and see them as works of art; however, we don’t often consider whether they are pleasant places in which to live. It is also interesting to look at the sort of projects that are deemed noteworthy by the architectural community at large, and more importantly how they speak about them. Perusing most publications will reveal that artistically bold designs are the most respected, and much of the debate about their merits happens on this artistic level; there is comparatively little interest given to how these buildings are used or how they affect the people who rely on them.
I think that we should not look at architecture as an art; rather we should consider it to be a science. First, I should probably say that this is not a new idea (J. H. Crawford has said similar things), and also that I’m not making any statement about what architecture currently is (I’m not an architect, so I think it would be odd for me to define the field). However, it seems that the clients of architects (the people who actually live and work in the buildings) would be far better served if the purpose of the profession was to design buildings and living areas that were both useful and psychologically advantageous to the users. If we concern ourselves with these sorts of issues, and leave the more contestable debates about artistic merit behind, then architecture becomes empirical. We can then decide with reasonable conclusiveness which sort of buildings and environments make people happier and allow them to go about their lives most efficiently. Of course, we need to first decide what sort of effects we want buildings to have on people and also the relative weights we should give to the concerns of those who occupy them as apposed to those people for which the building is simply part of the environment. But it seems to me that these are both solvable issues, and once we answered these sorts of questions a systematic description of the properties of ‘good’ buildings is possible. This process, of discovering which sorts of buildings produce positive outcomes for people and then designing these buildings, should be the purpose of architecture.
I don’t find the above process to be all that insurmountable; after all, most of us can discern places we enjoy being around and living in from those that we don’t like. All that architects need to do is take these feelings and systematize their study. Of course, these feelings are culturally relativistic (people in Wisconsin might not be made happy by the sort of architecture that someone in Iran will prefer), however, I would be very surprised if those within cultures had drastically different reactions to many architectural types. If such commonalities can be found, the quality of a great many lives might be drastically increased.
I came across this website called Streetsblog today that shows examples of good bike lanes. If you go to the link you will notice that they are all separated from traffic by some sort of divider. This is often ignored in America; here a bike lane is just an extra small lane that is set aside for cyclists. The idea is that a bicycle belongs in the street just like any other vehicle, and that extra accommodations (beyond a slower lane) for bicycles are simply unnecessary. Madison is a perfect example of this; most bike lanes here are either in the parking lane or between the normal lanes of traffic and the bus lane. This makes one feel extremely vulnerable most of the time; either you are dodging parked cars (and their doors) or have cars and buses motoring past you on either side.
There is a feeling among many cyclists that even though there may be bike lanes on some main streets, the unsepereated traffic makes it far too dangerous to actually use the lanes. And this is considered to be an adequate bicycle accomodation by those who design streets. It seems to me that if we actually want to make cycling a practical method of transportation we need to build infastructure that makes it safe. Simply drawing lines doesn’t do that. The lines only accomodate the cars by getting the slower bicycles out of the way.