Note: I found this post on my laptop. It feels unfinished to me, but these ideas are constantly evolving in my life and I won’t be coming to any conclusions any time soon. It’s all an ongoing exploration. In the spirit of working & pondering openly, I’m putting it out there as-is.
17 March 2012
Last night I lay on my floor with a university math student from Beijing. We talked about the dissociative culture of a megalopolis – the crush of people, the aggressive push, and the concomitant loneliness. This isn’t our only option for densely populated human existence.
In the middle ages, urban populations tended to max out at a couple hundred thousand. They were dirty, smelly, dangerous places prone to rampant disease and violent political conflict. We had reached a hypothetical limit to the size of population that a city — a type of ecosystem — could sustain without suffering collapse. However, with time, we reimagined what a city could be and forged ahead with new developments in hygiene, communication, education and food transporation. This allowed for a new flourishing of urban landscapes, allowing cities to grow and host millions of residents. Along the way, extensive social change occurred to accommodate urban life. New forms of urban culture arose, often characterized by greater mobility and stronger emphasis on individualism.
We have reached another hypothetical limit, this time on a global scale, and we must innovate again. The challenge is surmountable, and the solution lies in reinforcing the positive things that we are already doing. As with any truly challenging situation, panic is not constructive, differing perspectives must be accommodated, and everyone must make the effort to look beyond their personal comforts to see both the greater threat and the broader possibilities.
It was over seventy degrees and humid in Minneapolis at 10am this morning, March 17. Historically, this would be a week where 30-degree temperatures (that’s zero celsius) would inspire comments of “ooh. Its a bit warm today… and humid. Enjoy it before the thermometer dips back below zero (fahrenheit).” I’m flying over North Dakota, near the badlands, it’s late winter and the land looks dead but you can see the touches of agriculture. Sparse settlements, a set of farm houses, irrigation and the telltale grid of crop rotations on parceled-out private land. I wonder what the weather will be like here in five years. Where will the water be? What will the temperatures be like? In many ways, this region and areas north of it might benefit from a warming climate — a longer growing season, milder winters, less competition from agricultural states further south whose crops will be failing due to drought, heat waves and severe weather. This region sits on top of the Odwalla Reservoir, which will serve to hydrate the land and moderate shifts in the climate. How can this knowledge guide our decisions? In particular, how should it inform the way we build the cities where most of our residents live?
When viewed from a map, the corridor between Minneapolis/St Paul and St Cloud already shows the markings of a megalopolis — an automobile-based concrete landscape that sprawls like Houston or Chicago, at night appearing as a glowing gash on the surface of the earth. When viewed on a national level, this development into a megalopolis seems inevitable and the patterns of that metropolis seems predictable. Someone who doesn’t understand this place would think of it as derivative — a starstruck little sibling enthusiastically immitating its elder sisters, doomed to repeat their mistakes and destined to show the same blemishes. That is one possible future, but it’s not inevitable.
Each year, Minneapolis becomes more cosmopolitan. In many ways the pattern of growth and gentrification here repeats many of the patterns you see in places like Brooklyn or Oakland, but at the same time there are fundamental differences. We’re a new Metropolis. We are surrounded by arable land on all sides for thousands of miles. We have no Manhattan island. We have a population laced with individuals who are only one or two generations removed from life on a farm. We also have the mistakes of past urban developments, and current successes as reference points. In short, we have leeway to choose how we do things, and we have room to grow in all directions.
It’s imperative that humans begin to create urban landscapes that foster local production of food, community cohesion, and rich, diverse, creative culture. This is the best way to brace ourselves against challenges that loom before us — the danger of potential economic instability, the unpredictability of changing climates, and the erosion of social/moral infrastructure.
The real problems of the modern world cannot be addressed through political means. They must be addressed by gradual, intentional, change to the fundamental structures of urban/suburban life.
It’s easy to think of localvorism as an elitist fad, or as merely a limp-wristed retaliation against the moral failings of industrial agriculture and the global supply chain that it’s part of. Likewise, urban farming may seem like a sweet indulgence by liberal dilettantes. Others see it as a valiant shift away from participating in a global economy — a maneuver which, when you run the numbers, simply couldn’t lead to positive economic results. I propose seeing it as something more gentle and potentially more meaningful. It’s a shift in relationship to our immediate environment. The innovations of the modern economy have made it possible to operate on a global scale. In fact, it has become nearly impossible not་ to operate on a global scale, and this has the unintended effect of destorying our sense of ordinary, day-to-day orientation with respect to our surroundings. Local food production is a beautiful and deeply effective means of addressing that disorientation. Producing some of your own food, or at least consuming a meaningful percentage of your food from within a couple hundred miles forces you to be attentive to things like seasons, geography, and supply & demand. The modern economy has been brilliantly effective at stabilizing prices and stabilizing the availability of commodities, but that also means that it has succeeded at hiding some of the human story behind every product that moves around the planet.
It’s valuable and healthy to be attentive to the interconnectedness of our lives. While we can’t have a personal relationship with every person who played a role in producing every object that passes through our hands, we can increase our appreciation for all those objects and the people who produced them by also maintaining and reinforcing economic relationships with geographically close, small scale vendors.
Likewise, modern communications technologies have made it possible to create and/or maintain relationships with people all over the world. For better and worse, in a context where mobile coomputing is ubiquitous, physical proximity plays a very different role in human relationships. This, together with myriad factors of post-industrial society, has led to a disjointedness that’s literally depressing. We have the freedom to choose, at all times, our own customized social and intellectual environment. As a whole, this is wonderful, but there’s immense social, psychological and economic value in being forced to deal with the people who might be physically near you while socially distant. In the past, this was something that circumstances forced upon us. Now we have the freedom, or obligation, to consciously design our urban landscapes and cultures to maintain the necessary goods of those person-to-person daily interactions.
Luckily, these aren’t new ideas. People have been exploring them for decades. Of late I’ve been enamored with New Urbanism, which is based on attempts to design new urban zoning codes in order to achive better human-scale urban spaces. Of course, there’s also Landscape Urbanism, which is also a great start. Where to from here?