Thesis – Chapter 1 Introduction: 1.1 Planning Today
“The fact is that the difference between a . . . good town and a bad town is an objective matter. It is the difference between health and sickness, wholeness and dividedness, self-maintenance and self-destruction. In a world which is healthy, whole, alive, and self-maintaining, people themselves can be alive and self creating. In a world which is unwhole and self-destroying, people cannot be alive: they will inevitably themselves be self-destroying and miserable” (Alexander, 1979, p. 25)
1.1 Planning Today
Neighborhood planning today is a result of the evolution of town planning over centuries. While much has been gained through this evolution and the constant advancements that science has provided, much has been lost. Science has replaced the need to rely on our instinctive connections to the natural rhythms of the earth.
Man’s earliest relationship was with the earth. Providing sustenance and shelter, this earth alliance was critical for survival. With this relationship came certain instincts connected to man as a biological entity versus a conscious entity, enabling him to live safely while each day strengthening his relationship with the earth and with his peers as they evolved. Indigenous peoples relied on observation and instinct to determine which herbs were beneficial and which were lethal, when they should plant, and where they should create settlements. Beyond the obvious necessities, such as access to water and food and shelter, they observed and listened to the rhythms of the earth and created settlements as a living part of it, not in opposition or in spite of it.
Our ancient ancestors’ world view centered around knowing that none of us exists independently of our fellow creatures and the myriad beings and things that make up our reality (Linn, 1995). The Japanese saying Shin do fu ji (literally, soil and man not two) reminds us of the unity of human beings and the earth. Indigenous people from all over the globe have understood that we are not separate from our planet, our homes, or one another (Spear,1995).
In our modern world, especially in the West, we often think of ourselves as completely separate and independent of the earth. With technology came the ability to evaluate every thing or event in details so minute that instinctive knowings gave way to scientific provings. This emphasis on physical understanding replaced instinct and intuition until knowings atrophied, and whatever connection might be left is usually coerced out of us as children.
In ancient times, towns grew organically as individuals clustered together for protection. As the spiritual technology of the times developed, astrologers and geomancers were consulted to help design ideal cities (Tuan, 1974). Many ancient cities were enclosed by circular walls, utilizing the symbol of “the circle [as] a two-dimensional translation of heaven to earth” (Tuan, 1975, p. 169). The circle enclosed the greatest amount of space with the smallest perimeter. “The ancient city was a symbol of the cosmos. Within its walls man experienced the order of heaven freed of . . . the vagaries of nature that made country life insecure” (Tuan, 1975, p. 247). Initially, the wilderness beyond the city walls was perceived as dangerous and the city represented safety and community. The suburb was the area beyond the city walls where the lower classes lived (Tuan, 1975). Today this is reversed: the inner city is perceived as dangerous and the suburb represents the ideal.
Early civilization relied heavily on instincts and intuition while an innate understanding of balance and harmony played an enormous role in shaping their environments. In early settlements everyone was involved with building, so everyone had to have some knowledge of the process.
“Once people withdraw from the normal everyday experience of building, and lose their pattern languages, they are literally no longer able to make good decisions about their surroundings, because they no longer know what really matters, and what doesn’t. People lose touch with their most elementary intuitions” (Alexander, 1979, p.232-233).
The process of creating a settlement as a group effort by the inhabitants ensured that everyone’s needs were considered. The positioning of public buildings was a group decision satisfying the requirements and the instincts of all involved. By contrast, when a developer is making these decisions for a large group of people who have yet to be identified, without conscious consideration of the needs of those people, there is a high likelihood that the development will be less successful than one created by the inhabitants themselves. The intuitions of the inhabitants—the way they feel about the form and layout of the community—creates the connection that helps to ensure the success not only of the community itself but more critically of the people who live there.
This reliance on inner guidance all but disappeared during the Industrial Revolution with the acquired ability to break every single piece of matter into its tiniest components. With every part of our physical life definable on the minutest scale, there was no reason to rely any longer on the intuitive life that had brought mankind successfully to this point.
The population expanded exponentially, and specialization of activities removed residents from their participation in the building process. Intuition was being abandoned. The demand for housing became so great that building was frequently done with little regard for people’s basic needs beyond those of shelter. Levittown in New York State is a classic example of early mass-produced single family housing in the last century. It was an extension of the idea of mass production embodied by Ford Motor Company but on a larger scale. As Ford produced cars for the masses, Levitt replicated houses in similar fashion. The focus shifted from an emphasis on providing housing for servicemen returning from World War II to an emphasis on the reduced cost of production, and the subsequent profitability for the developer. Further, as a result of inappropriate uses springing up on contiguous sites, zoning ordinances dictated that only residential uses were allowed within a neighborhood forcing a reliance on the automobile for acquisition of goods and services. In recent decades, a return to Levittown á la Stepford has been witnessed as massive subdivisions have been developed where the potential residents must choose among only three floor plans and six color combinations. Balance and harmony are quasi-achieved in a mechanical, limited, somewhat lifeless manner.
More recently, the New Urbanist movement has challenged the wisdom of exclusionary zoning and championed mixed-use development. While New Urbanism is not the answer in and of itself, it does provide an alternative to some of the undifferentiated development that preceded it.
When we examine the evolution of planning, it is clear that our movement away from reliance on our instincts and natural connection to the earth has resulted in neighborhoods that are disconnected—disconnected from nature and from the city and created in a form that disconnects people from each other. We continue to build neighborhoods. Some work better than others. When we don’t do it well the results become obvious, frequently in a relatively short time as evidenced by physical decline and high vacancy. When we get it right, we’re not always sure why. Why do neighborhoods last? Why do some decline quickly while others continue to prosper over decades? What tools are available to help us evaluate the success of a neighborhood? How is success determined? How can we tell, before a neighborhood plan is implemented, whether it will support the people who live there and continue to nurture them over time?
We have witnessed a gradual diminishing of the ability of our cities and neighborhoods to support all the needs of the people who reside there. This decline has occurred as we have lost our connection to our instincts as they have been gradually replaced with technology. How do we reverse this trend? How do we regain our innate connection so that we can tell when we are creating in harmony with nature? How do we recognize the subtleties of physical form that assure us that we are heading in the right direction, or alert us that we are headed for disaster? Did the builders of Pruitt Igoe have any warning as to the tragic failure that would ensue? Were there physical signs that would point to what was to come? To what extent does physical form determine how a building or neighborhood or city will be used, avoided, enjoyed, revered, or despised?
Planning is a rational process. We attempt to include all possible contingencies in our assessment in order to create the perfect plan. We mechanically work in two dimensions to create a three-dimensional plan, and when the plan is complete we stand back and examine our creation. It is all very physical and logical and rational. But at what point do we say, “How does it feel?” Certainly the drawings prior to the construction of Pruitt Igoe appeared appropriate and reasonable, but how did they feel? How can we add this final and critical step to the planning process, to balance and validate the rational with the intuitive? How can we acquire this missing element in a manner that is somewhat quantifiable? What clues are provided by the physical form to guide us to an understanding of the potential non-physical impacts of the space?