In his essay ‘On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings‘ the American thinker William James relates a trip across North Carolina in which he passed a series of valleys whose forests settlers had torn down in order to make room for simple log cabins and a patch of land to grow corn on. James was horrified:
“The forest had been destroyed; and what had ‘improved’ it out of existence was hideous, a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty.”
Yet a brief yet revelatory conversation with his driver caused him to see the valleys as the squatters saw them, and caused his attitude to be reversed:
“Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But, when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory… The clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very pæan of duty, struggle, and success.”
We each have our blindnesses to what is valued by others. This post is about a kind of blindness that may be extremely common amongst urban planners and about why very predictable cultural changes mean that blindness has to be overcome.
My post on Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), which should be read before this one, traced the rise of a new cultural ideal. Contrary to the sociologist Daniel Bell’s predictions, the progressive, technocratic, gratification-delaying and productivity-oriented nature of the workplace did not prove contradictory to the goal-free, ironic, instantly-gratifying play of the consumer culture. Instead of each undermining the other the two formed a symbiotic relationship and a joint ideal comprising a successful career and of full participation in the post-modern consumer culture. This post traces the severe pressures on that ideal over the last generation and suggest that, although many people will continue to live by it, its influence in the broader culture may fall significantly.
Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is an important trend in how our cities are being built. According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, TOD “refers to residential and commercial districts located around a transit station or corridor with high quality service, 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?
A key goal of many modern developments is to inculcate a ‘sense of place’ so that the development has an interesting character. In order to do this it’s useful to examine how we experience a place, and how we can derive from this practical measures to build a sense of place. Six methods to build a sense of place are derived, with photos of Oxford and elsewhere to demonstrate the suggestions in action.