The tower trash on Downtown’s east and north shoulders adds urgency to understanding the relationship between community values and urban design.
I RECENTLY SAW A SWEATSHIRT for sale bearing the message: “I’m not arguing. I’m explaining why I’m right.” Considering the prevailing political weather south of us, the durable social chaos surrounding the US presidential transition, and the now-deep-stirring threats to American democracy, such graffiti seems overly polite.
Wade Davis, in a penetrating August, 2020 Rolling Stone essay, wrote: “Fluidity of memory and a capacity to forget is perhaps the most haunting trait of our species. As history confirms, it allows us to come to terms with any degree of social, moral, or environmental degradation.”
Against the background of a murderous pandemic (globally, two million dead and counting), I introduce such a quote in a straightforward effort to remind any reader within reach of this column that we are currently in the grip of Big History: plagues, floods, class and racial violence, ecological destruction, social revolution, technological risk—that magnitude of thing—and that there is no normal, no as usual, no return when and if any of this appears to subside or fade, only some ominous different.
Social critic Chris Hedges explains why we may be witnessing the crackup of the global hegemon next door:
“The terminal decline of the United States will not be solved by elections. The political rot and depravity will continue to eat away at the soul of the nation, spawning what anthropologists call crisis cults—movements led by demagogues that prey on an unbearable psychological and financial distress. These crisis cults, already well established among followers of the Christian Right, peddle magical thinking and an infantilism that promises prosperity, a return to a mythical past, order and security. The dark yearnings among [certain social cohorts] for vengeance and moral renewal through violence, is part of the twisted pathology that infects all civilizations sputtering towards oblivion.”
Would that be enough History for you?
The impact of such conditions on us Canadians—I don’t mean some possible messiness at the border, but wider cultural impact throughout Canada—is essential to consider. And do not for a moment delude yourself that Canada countrywide fully shares Victoria’s uncommon progressive social conceits and tolerances or its political dispositions.
In a recent New York Times essay reflecting on the remarkable susceptibility of millions of citizens to Trump’s fictions and cultural reductions, Yale historian Timothy Snyder noted that social philosopher Hannah Arendt believed “big lies work only in lonely minds; their coherence substitutes for experience and companionship.”
Suddenly revealed by the brewing threat of social/political chaos next door is a crucial but buried meaning of “a little bit of Olde England”—not Government Street toffee and trinket shops but a local society coherent and calm enough, connected enough, sufficiently self-aware, productive, confident and socially mature. A community, in other words, with deep reserves of public trust and collective spirit—able to experience government as the expression, the fulfillment, not the enemy, of public values and intentions; not an obstacle to community aspiration, but a means.
It is these ideas that entirely frame this column’s repeated argument that there is a connection between social architecture—a community’s values, style and self-image, its “social ecology”—and its physical architecture/land use/urban design; in other words, between what we permit and encourage to be built and the power embedded in our practice of community.
I’m attempting to describe the nuanced difference, the millimetre of charged space, between permission and opportunity.
All the tower trash (buildings, not people) on Downtown’s east and north shoulders adds urgency to my interest in the relationship between community values and urban design. It’s an easy idea: successful buildings manage to combine their individuality with a feeling of welcome both for occupants and passersby, to convey something about, and to reinforce, our capacity for social connection. File cabinet buildings with little or no sense of social context do none of this.
Reader: What do you think of the new buildings sprouting upwards in Victoria's Downtown area?
This column encourages you to see physical architecture—buildings, public spaces, and also the zoning and land use policies that foster, permit and sustain them—in the larger setting of our social practices: trust, cooperation, aspiration, tolerance, openness, peace-ability, public intelligence, sense of visual delight, and connection, connection, connection.
I anticipate that emergent and spreading war-zone politics, technology-induced employment/income dislocations (read: joblessness), and ever-more-disruptive ecological interventions like the current COVID-19 are going to challenge and test the limits of social integrity of cities everywhere, including Victoria. Based on my readings of history, this is not stuff you want to react to. If possible, it’s stuff you want to recognize and prepare for.
Look up Leath Tonino’s December, 2020 Sun interview of Eileen Crist, noted ecologist and author of Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. At the start, Tonino asks: “What are we talking about when we refer to the ‘global ecological crisis?’” Crist bluntly responds: “What’s happening is the collapse of the web of life.”
It’s hard for a community, a city, to have a serious talk with itself. Couples, families and small groups with a common interest can have such conversations; the conversational and decision-making tools, the protocols for talk and action, exist. It’s highly problematic at the community and city level. You don’t get 75,000 people around the table to discuss and plan the next move. Different perspectives and agendas get in the way and quickly render the process abstract. Enter local political leadership, a mayor and council who, hopefully, never stop depth-sounding on local issues, values, worries and hopes. Still, I’ve yet to meet the political leader who could convince the public that we need to meet and commit resources to emergent social threats in the same way that we meet the accepted risk and threat of fire with a well-funded and -equipped fire department—Victoria’s bike lane struggle a local case in point.
Consider how an ugly or flawed building, a building that doesn’t add to or reinforce Downtown’s character or our city’s social message, is a visual and social offense, a scar, every day of its long life, the mistake that keeps on giving with an almost curse-like malevolence and obduracy. View Towers, east of Quadra, is our classic local example, but these days it has plenty of company, existing and arriving.
At a minimum, then, this essay invites you to sharpen your vision as you move around Victoria studying how buildings behave, and examining the city’s need for architectural beauty, visual interest and “citizenship,” for which Downtown is the traditional epicentre. The rest is commonsense: the more the physical setting conveys conscious social investment, the stronger the sense of us and the more motivation (and community backbone) to fight risk and threat to character and identity…what we might call “social treasure.”
With conspicuous results to-date, the City of Victoria is pursuing a blueprint of Downtown residential intensification—a “warm bodies” strategy intended to keep the Downtown populous, business and culture viable, and the public realm safe. Laudable intentions, but, regrettably, the architectural results have been almost exclusively hard, cold, disengaged, and move-along-unwelcoming, rather than detailed, cushioned, complex, rich in filigree, urban, appealing, inviting, attracting. The German language has a word for all those adjectives: gemutlich.
Current building technologies and business systems may themselves be unwittingly posing a question we never thought to ask before now: does our Downtown even know how to welcome? Do we currently possess the design culture and the building technology—the kit of parts—to produce cushioned, inviting buildings and public settings? Is Downtown shifting from a place you go to meet/work/shop/absorb culture/see and be seen/socialize, to a place where…well, what?
Ever hear of the “still face paradigm?” Wrote Michael Bader in Psychology Today in 2016:
“The experimental design was simple: A mother was asked to play naturally [empathetically] with her 6-month-old infant. The mother was then instructed to suddenly make her facial expression flat and neutral—completely “still,” in other words—and to do so for three minutes, regardless of her baby’s activity. Mothers were then told to resume normal play.
When mothers stopped their facial responses to their babies, when their faces were ‘still,’ babies first anxiously strove to reconnect with their mothers. When the mothers’ faces remained neutral and still, the babies quickly showed ever-greater signs of confusion and distress, followed by a turning away from the mother, finally appearing sad and hopeless. When the mothers in the experiment were then permitted to re-engage normally, their babies, after some initial protest, regained their positive affective tone and resumed their relational and imitative playfulness.”
I invite you to imagine our society as one in which, to a significant degree, a sustained still face culture is practiced across a wide range of social and institutional settings, including still-face buildings in and around our Downtown. Are Victoria’s interests best met that way, or does this city somehow stand apart? Does it wish to stand apart?
You wonder: mightn’t something resembling a citywide conversation on the subject—all 75,000 of us—be useful? Please start below, in our comment section.
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.