A hiatus on the blog as I’ve been back in New York and trying to figure out my next step - which have included many opportunities, talks, meetings, interviews, and the such about possibilities here and in India. While I haven’t been writing, I have been thinking - a lot - about many things related to India - but being back in the states, has led me to start analysing the US and urban development over here - something I haven’t done for awhile.
Being back in America, I traveled along the east coast for 2 weeks from Rochester over to Ithaca to Maine and down the coast, Boston, Cape Cod, Long Island. As I flew into Rochester, over a vast landscape of widespread suburbia, corn fields, and the ‘American Dream’ rendered in backyards and McMansions - a thought struck me that I’m only getting to writing out now…
The American dream, prompted by the model design of Levittown has now turned the American landscape into an energy hungry, two refrigerator a house, multiple car garage, over consuming monster. Problems abound in the American lifestyle (costco, walmart, etc) are only supplemented by our suburban design. However, there is one point to the American model I never thought of before, and that is the idea that where we are at today should not overlook what the country did hundreds of years ago - and that is a movement of epic feat and amazing accomplishment - a huge urban development exercise which pinpointed the problems, and addressed them to the best of the capabilities given at that time.
There is constant negativity attached to the ‘American’ model and while that is justified today there are two things also that come to mind
1 - post war, the country needed homes, transportation, neighborhoods, and people - and the country was able to mobilize such an agenda that built neighborhoods, laid down railways, provided jobs, boosted the economy and population, and developed a system for future urban development
2 - this model has now been tried and tested and is not one that should be exported, as clearly noticed there are countless problems with the ‘American’ dream style of living, and so while it shouldn’t always be viewed as an epic failure, it should not be repeated either.
But that’s precisely THE problem, the developing world only sees a skewed image of the big backyard, the shiny cars in the driveway, and children playing in streets - what they don’t see, or want to see, is that America is one of the biggest culprits contributing to green house gases, that the economic gap in America is just as bad as theirs (although, seemingly getting better now), and that the ‘system’ has endless loopholes and is built on false assumptions and credits.
A new lecture by the Architectural League will be highlighting many of these issues and how as designers, we can try to alleviate these problems :
They ask such questions as -
With so many potential actions — from embracing less consumptive lifestyles, to changing land-use patterns and investing in public transportation, to harvesting carbon-free energy sources — where do we start?
and say things like this -
The United States faces two immense and inextricable challenges: how to reimagine the American way of life to address the impacts of climate change, and how to build a new and robust economic structure that offers viable and sustainable livelihoods and lifestyles across the income spectrum for all Americans.
On another somewhat related note - the documentary Chasing Ice, provides a picture (literally) of the impact of climate change on the glaciers - a beautifully shot and interesting movie about what Jean Gardner was telling us back in 2006 - ‘the waters are rising people!!!!’
In closing, there is a lot of research and hard facts, not speculation, and conversation about what our way of living is doing to the environment, however, ill repeat, the American model is being viewed wrongly - 1 - it’s constantly viewed negatively, instead of trying to say, ‘ok this is what we did, how can we fix this? and 2 - it’s being used again, instead of being seen as an answer that was specific to a time, place, and a particular way of living. Instead of borrowing from an old model that needs a lot of touching up, developing cities need to invent new hybrid models of living, particular to their climate, society, and modes of operation; a difficulty of new urbanism, as there is no precedent to guide this discussion - put there are far more tools and research to support this development. As for America in the early 1900s, well - we gave it our best shot; just don’t take our leftovers.
***a note to clarify - I’m not speaking about American suburbs in comparision to Mumbai or Delhi, I am speaking about the kind of development that is happening in China - a quote by Wang Shu, the first Chinese Pritzker prize winner :
“Many modern cities in China have been constructed by blindfolded people. Planners lacked an understanding of what a city is meant to be, what it is for. They build wide roads everywhere, studded with supermarkets and apartment complexes. That’s not a city. It’s suburbia. I often joke that in the past decades the Chinese have worked incredibly hard to turn our cities into huge suburbs.” That’s not “urbanization,” it’s “suburbanization.”
BUT also in India, if you looked at the idea of Chandigarh - that is a western suburban model trying to fit into an Indian urban space - which is, another topic, for another day.