Transit-Oriented Development and its Discontents

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Moments in the sun. Cows outside Chesham on London's Underground commuter railway. © Chris Haile

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is an important trend in how our cities are being built. According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, illness TOD “refers to residential and commercial districts located around a transit station or corridor with high quality service, page with good walkability, parking management and other design features that facilitate transit use and maximise overall accessibility.” It’s seen as a way to ameliorate a number of modern social ills, from the ugliness and inefficiency of urban sprawl to dependence on oil to obesity. It’s also something I’ve long supported. However, a gentle walk on fields outside Chesham that would be a prime TOD site on London’s Underground rail network (were anyone insensitive enough to allow development there) provoked thoughts about the cultural significance and value of TOD and, as in my post on Michelangelo’s David, whether or not it represents an ideal that already is passing away. In other words: is TOD culturally sustainable?

Insofar as it is a profoundly different way of life to the hunter-gathering culture which we evolved to suit, every type of settlement is a philosophical statement. Consciously or not, every settlement inescapably makes this declaration: “this is a better way of life than that for which our instincts equipped us.” No type of settlement is further from our origins as small, mobile bands of extended kin than the populous, permanent gatherings of strangers who form a city; there is no type of settlement more philosophical, therefore, than a city. A city is an unconscious philosophy written in stone, and how it’s arranged may tell us a great deal about what is valued in that culture.

At the rough or exact physical centre of cities throughout history, with the odd blip, has been the buildings or spaces most valued by that society. In ancient Athens the geographical and cultural heart was the Agora, the hub of the city’s political, commercial, cultural and religious, administrative, legal and social activity.

In ancient Rome the city clustered physically and functionally around its centre of public affairs, the Forum, which occupied the low ground between the seven hills of the city.

Beijing was constructed so as to place the Forbidden City at its core.

Tokyo grew up around Edo Castle, later the Imperial Palace, and even today spatial proximity to the Emperor is hugely important, with fierce competition for an address in Marunouchi (‘within the castle walls’)

Lastly, in mediaevel European villages, towns and cities too innumerable to mention the church was placed at the centre, with market squares often humbly set up in its shadow.

The centre of a city — its heart — has for millennia played host to the decisions that shaped the future of customs, societies, states or souls, host to the things that the culture values most and host to the shared traditions that give a culture its weight. In this context, the decision to build communities around a transit stop might seem a little odd. For the beating heart of a TOD town serves to transfer you to another town whose beating heart serves to transfer you to another town whose beating heart serves to transfer you to another town whose beating heart….

At first sight there seems to be something hollow here. Imagine the reactions of some travellers from an antique time: “we Athenians, who created democracy and science, perfected artforms and sparred with Socrates; we monks, who lit candles amid a Dark Age; we Renaissance men who scoured books and ruins to breathe new life into a long-dead culture and, in doing so, tried to perfect our own: is this where all our efforts led? To endless packed carriages of motion-jolted strap-hangers desperately avoiding eye contact? This? This?”

Picture of exemplary TOD transit stop. Note the halo.

Yet the time-travellers’ objection brings to mind the time when Pompey the Great, having conquered Jerusalem, was determined to discover the secrets of the Holiest of Holies in the Temple. Brushing aside armed opposition Pompey strode through the temple, cast aside the sacred veil and stared, baffled, at… an almost empty room. If it is not too sacrilegious a comparison, our time-travelling friends, like Pompey, have missed the point; for the primary value of our transport is not intrinsic but in order to enable the daily commute. It is our career that structures our days, shapes our identity and provides a field for teamwork, competition, progress, achievement and failure, status, loyalty and betrayal, shared traditions and rites of passage. It is our careers that form the core of our lives to a degree that would baffle those who lived before the rise of the Protestant Work Ethic. Perhaps we could even say that it would baffle even a time-traveller from the 1950s, for over the last forty years something immensely significant happened to the way we work…

In his seminal book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell famously argued that

“The social structure today [i.e. 1970] is ruled by an economic principle of rationality, defined in terms of efficiency in the allocation of resources; the culture, in contrast, is prodigal, promiscuous, dominated by an antirational, anti-intellectual temper. The character structure inherited from the nineteenth century–with its emphasis on self-discipline, delayed gratification, restraint–is still relevant to the demands of the social structure; but it clashes sharply with the culture, where such bourgeois value have been completely rejected–in part, as we shall see, and paradoxically, because of the workings of the capitalist system itself.”

For Bell, we, like Faust, have “two souls, alas, dwelling in our breast, and one is striving to forsake his brother.” Bell expected that the two cultures (what we might call a ‘career culture’ characterised by the successive completion of finite tasks in the structured pursuit of greater personal and corporate success, and what we might call a ‘post-modern leisure culture’ characterised by an unstructured, instantly gratifying, ironical and goal-free playful exploration of different identities) would undermine each other. Since both the high-productivity world of producing goods and the playful, infinite desires of the consumer are vital to the working of the economy, this culture clash would lead to a structural weakness of capitalism. What actually happened was that both cultures became more entrenched and powerful, particularly in English-speaking nations — ‘leisure culture’ became extraordinarily focussed on consumerism, whilst an unprecedented culture of the career simultaneously formed.

I say ‘unprecedented culture’ because, although countless people throughout history have plainly had what we’d call ‘careers’, never before in human history had the bulk of the population had them. Merriam-Webster defines a ‘career’ as “a field for or pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement especially in public, professional, or business life” and “a profession for which one trains and which is undertaken as a permanent calling.” These describe neither the cyclical patterns of the farmer in an agrarian age nor the equality of condition and negligible hopes of promotion of those on the factory floor in an industrial age. Although the middle and upper classes, and those in the military, have long had careers open to them, in the last forty years people of all classes embarked on a career, rather than a series of jobs, and it is this that was new.

This newly-widespread career culture accompanied a striking set of reversals of long-term trends: for over a century the length of the average working week had been in decline, leading to now-infamous predictions of the “leisure society” in which work took up an ever-more insignificant chunk of the week; labour militancy had long been increasing; and lower-paid workers tended to work longer than the managerial/professional classes that had vastly greater clout. Since roughly the late 1970s, however, the average working week in many countries has lengthened; the working week of professional and managerial classes has lengthened significantly more than many of their less powerful subordinates despite no lack of agonising about the work/life balance amongst these classes; and these changes have occurred during such a decline in trade union membership and strike frequency that, although legal restrictions on trade unions must also be counted a major factor, we must assume that these changes were largely welcomed by workers. A stereotypical 1970s worker might zealously enforce workplace norms and work-to-rule; his stereotypical children might individually negotiate flexi-time arrangements and deal with work matters on their corporate-issue Blackberries far outside conventional office hours.

At the very moment when the rising culture of consumerism seemed most antagonistic to a culture of careerism, then, the latter blossomed into unprecedented life. Why?

Chesham meadow © Chris Haile

I suggest that, far from the two cultures being antagonistic, they became symbiotic, each depending on the other for its flourishing. The commitment to career culture became a necessary compensation in order to enable greater participation in leisure culture in two senses.

Firstly, and obviously, the greater purchasing power that is hopefully obtained by longer working hours enables a greater ability to experiment with post-modern culture and its attendant playing with constantly-shifting, multiple and juxtaposed identities, even if in practice this often just means purchasing “authentic” and “genuine” signifiers of those identities, and then basking in the identities’ reflected glory.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, the very nature of career culture, with its emphasis on productive progress towards defined goals the accomplishment of which aids the worker’s ascent up the career ladder, provides a coherent way to tell the story of our lives — to find a meaning in it all— which designedly cannot be found in post-modernity’s disavowal of coherent identity,  in its purposelessness, undercutting of narratives, constant reinventions and unrelated juxtapositions. In the same way that the apparently wild improvisations of jazz are typically built upon (and depend upon for their listenability) the strict foundation of a chord progression, career culture undergirds and enables the experimentation, irony and playfulness of post-modern leisure culture both in economic terms and in making such a culture psychologically tenable. Likewise, the ability, through postmodernism, to temporarily slough off identities provides a welcome release from the pressures of goal-oriented, play-free work.

On this basis the notable increase in the working weeks of the higher-paid becomes understandable, even apart from commitment to the organisation or to a calling: the greater the participation in the consumer culture, the greater the need for a career structure to compensate it. In turn, the astounding sums paid for post-modern art by phenomenally hard-working bankers (who as an industry were not previously known for their outrageous bohemian tastes), and the associated commodification of post-modern art, becomes understandable. What Daniel Bell saw as a contradiction between work and leisure cultures in fact became a symbiotic relationship, one central to the post-modern/career age, as inseparable as the ferocious work ethic and constant reinventions of that exemplary post-modernist, Madonna.

To build our towns around transit stops surrounded by consumer opportunities seems, then, to be characteristic of the post-modern/career age. But it is an age that may have already ended. My subsequent post, “The Post-modern Ideal: Decline and Fall?” will deal with some reasons for thinking this might be so.

Meanwhile, it’s worth making clear that, for all my concentration on what is located at the centre of cities, the reason for the location of huge numbers of cities themselves is their strategic position in transport networks. For example, Paris and Rome were founded beside mid-river islands that aided the crossing of navigable rivers, whilst the names Oxford and Cambridge speak for themselves. New York, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai are all seaport cities near the mouths of major navigable rivers or straits. Another map of Golden Age Athens tells you a great deal about what the Athenians also valued:

If you had seen the walls close-up then you might have noticed that they were built partly from ancestral gravestones.

Many other cities, of course, grew up around important crossroads or a comfortable stopping distance along the road from the previous settlement. A place’s position on a transport networks are key to its level of prosperity. There are a large number of reasons for favouring relatively compact urban areas, some of which were alluded to at the start of this post. Compact urban areas both operate far more efficiently when transport in the area is predominantly transit rather than car-reliant, and I believe that where transit predominates over cars it is much easier to create a decent urban environment. None of my above fulminations change any of that, of course. Furthermore, glossed over was that the physical centres of cities are usually occupied by what the powerful in that society value, and this may not always be the same as what the society values as a whole (see my post on Michelangelo’s David for more on this.) The post is merely intended to draw attention to the cultural significance of how we arrange land use in our cities, and of the suggested structure and internal tensions of a cultural ideal.

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