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  • In the age of corporatism, we must fight for good urban design—or lose social trust


    Gene Miller
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    Corporatism has invaded land use, producing a loss of authenticity and a failure of architectural expression, which in turn, weakens the basis for community and social connection.

     

    A MEDIA SOURCE generally not given to hysteria informs us that “a survey published in May, 2021 by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 15 percent of Americans—roughly, one out of seven—subscribe to the central QAnon belief that the US government is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles,” and that 20 percent—one in five (essentially, the Christian right)—believes that “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.”

    And from andrewturner.medium.com we learn: “The results of recent polls by Bright Line Watch have provided the first hard and frighteningly conclusive evidence that Americans are moving fast down the road towards a national divorce.” The accompanying map makes this assertion scarily real:

    graphic.thumb.jpg.bfebddcb927b31eb1c7d632b14ded6b3.jpg

    Bright Line Watch polling results by region. Question: “Would you support or oppose [your state] seceding from the United States to join a new union with [list of states in a new union]?”

     

    And the gherkin resting on top of this crap sandwich is a recent headline in Huffpost: “Vaccine Or This Marriage: Conspiracy Theories Are Tearing Couples Apart. ‘He said if I take the vaccine I could pack my bags and leave his kids here.’”

    Confusion, spreading disappointment and hopelessness, and incendiary levels of public anger all point to lost, or misplaced, national purpose, with a diminishing ability to see a common future; and this invites deep worry about American social, emotional and even geographic prospects. Yes, it’s tempting to wave it away as just the most recent chapter in a long, fractious, democracy-is-messy US tradition, or to blame it on COVID-19 and the stresses of global warming; but whatever the causes, give thought to the potential local (Victoria) impacts of such spreading “mood” south of us. 

    As you measure risk, consider Soufan Group security policy director Colin Clarke’s January 22, 2021 New York Times comment citing Trump-encouraged far-right violence in recent years as “missed opportunities to take the threat seriously.” I will guess that the threat runs much deeper and more to the heart of things than Trump himself, and that the election of Trump should itself be seen as a reflection of broad-based social anger and desperation.

    Let me guess…you believe: “That’s all US stuff, and nobody up here thinks like that anyway. Canada, remember? Peace, order and good government. So all of this US craziness has zero cross-border implications.”

    Now, can I sell you a cheeseburger that plays the accordion?

    I’ve opened this column with such unsettling thoughts to bring substance to the perception that we’re in one of history’s big chapters, and that Victoria might do well to initiate broad public conversation on the subject and lay the foundation for a contingent response. Actually, since it’s axiomatic that when the going gets tough, Victoria holds a workshop, maybe let’s skip the conversation and go straight to content.

    No, not wall-building or pop-guns, but strengthening social and community bonds—the sense of connection, of an us—via our civic structures, protocols and physical identity—what in its totality might be called social architecture.

    Within this column’s themes of urban design, architecture, land use and development, I have a special interest in the relationship between the social cues, the messaging, of buildings and public spaces—what feelings and human possibilities they encourage or dampen—and public pride in and identification with the civic project…matters of community identity and coherence, really.

    We don’t (or shouldn’t) need the threat of US social eruption to motivate us to make our buildings and public realm more inviting, more rich in social messaging, more animated and humane. But it may take such a prospect to remind us of the risk to our valuable but always vulnerable singularity. 

    We are in the age of corporatism—a corporate way of seeing the world. It appears to have many of the attributes of ideology, and its sensibilities, its internal logic, invades the field of real estate development and land use as it influences many other areas of social practice. Among other effects, it produces a kind of smoothing, a dis-engagement, a loss of authenticity, a failure (or the death) of architectural expression; and this, in turn, weakens the basis for community and social connection, an us.

    And I pose this question: why is it so easy to get uninspired, mediocre buildings approved? Why is the city’s inner voice so still?

    There are, of course, many answers, but one is that such concerns need—but do not have—a political champion.

    To my way of thinking, the best reason for City Hall to be aggressively uncompromising and demanding of developers and of itself to deliver superlative buildings and public environments—friendly, warm, welcoming, stimulating—is that right now, every new building and civic project needs to remind people that this place is different from other places in substance and character; has to enlist or re-enlist us as citizens; strengthen our ability to define and recognize community identity and character...not to protect us if and when History’s big wave rolls our way, of course, but to give social definition, meaning and reason for pride to everyday life right now.

    None of this asks the City to take on a novel role, or to overreach in social prescription, to “tell us what to do.” The City, in our behalf, does it now. The entire zoning code, all those land use rules and regs, didn’t come from nowhere, but from the sensibilities and values and preferences of us the public. For example, our treasured and nearly sacrosanct R-1 single-family zone wasn’t heaven-sent, but came from people asserting (for better and worse) “family residential” as an important value not to be compromised by other co-permitted immediate land uses. The city, in other words, has always been deep in the job of arranging and sustaining social values and matters of taste via the tools of urban planning and design.

    Community, for various reasons, is very hard work right now.  Community doesn’t just happen, or run forever. And hidden from platitudes about human interdependency and collaboration is the emergent fact of unprecedented personal autonomy which, in turn, is re-shaping and in some ways challenging the very need for social connection. 

    It’s in the setting of such thoughts that I express concern about architecture and urban design. To put my beliefs most simply, good urban design and good architecture improve the grounds for social trust which, in turn, fosters greater social connection and greater subscription to the civic story—both its social facts and, equally important, the romantic idea of the place.

    “In non-places,” writes Darran Anderson, “history, identity, and human relation are not on offer. Non-places used to be relegated to the fringes of cities in retail parks or airports, or contained inside shopping malls. But they have spread. Everywhere looks like everywhere else and, as a result, anywhere feels like nowhere in particular.”

    David Denby, in a film review of Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her, writes: “you can’t have love without fable—every love affair is an improbable narrative wrung from non-being and loneliness…as true of the collection of individual souls that makes up a city as it is of a single person.” 

    That is, it takes story, and you don’t get citizenship without story; you get only urban strangerhood and anomie: a loss of faith in the civic project.

    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.

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    All of the new buildings going up and already here are bland, faceless, square boxes devoid of any unique features that make them interesting to look at and improve the sense of our city being different from Anytown, USA, or for that matter, Lethbridge or Mississaga.

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    Recent vacation to Winnipeg was an eye opener in both stunning and boring designs by architects. Calgary has some unique buildings like the creative Music Museum. Winnipeg’s warehouse district is vibrant with the live/work conversion of old brick buildings but also has some pretty boring new subdivisions. Victoria council really needs to be more mindful of the overall affect of all of the glass condos downtown. They really are too cold and sterile.

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    Thank you for writing this. I am fed up with our Council not caring about the look and feel of our City. More and more cement/glass boxes and less and less Victoria.

    We need a citizens’ group to take up this issue. That would be community building.

    With a 32 story high rise under consideration in the North Park neighbourhood, this article is well timed…”Tall Buildings, A Boon for Housing, A Bane for the Climate Crisis”, Adam Mahoney, National Observer, Aug. 18, 2021

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    I have contacted our Mayor and Councillors and suggested strongly that they read a recently published book on Architecture and Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, titled Icebergs, Zombies, and the Ultra Thin by Matthew Soules. It is essential to understand how capitalism makes property and "how finance capitalism dramatically alters not only architectural forms but the very nature of our cities and societies."

     

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