Daniel Appell: October 9, 2011
More on sustainability.
I liked your question, yesterday; Is there more then one guiding principle to urban design then efficiency?
Well. . . always assume that health and safety are paramount. I hope you understand that I’m always talking about urban design assuming that health and safety issues are resolved.
Also, I tend to assume John Locke’s principles of property ownership. However, there is enough evidence from other parts of the world to suggest that these principles are not particularly necessary. China, for example, can build efficient cities without liberal principals of ownership.
Also, the notion that fascism was a particularly good system for building efficient form not correct. Getting the trains to run on time, does result in efficiency, but that does not necessarily require fascism. The English had a very disciplined train system. And Italy, Germany and Spain already had pretty efficient urban forms before the fascists got there. The cooperate fascism embraced by North America after the war, actually, sped the development of inefficient urban forms.
While we talked yesterday, we tended to confuse the ease of doing something, with efficiency. It’s not easier to take the bus, then it is to take the car, but taking the bus is more efficient. Overall, life becomes easier as cities become more efficient, but that’s a function of critical mass. After a considerable amount of urban reorganization it is possible to get to the point where it is easier to take the bus to work, easier to walk to the grocery store, easier to make enough money to live, etc. Someday, as a result of a concerted effort to make the city more efficient we will make life easier for everybody, but for now, for people who own cars, at least, life in the city is pretty easy; its just not efficient.
Roger, brought up a good point. If sustainability is not your goal, then efficiency doesn’t matter. That’s why he thinks my boring tirades are “facile.” (That really stings.) He doesn’t regard sustainability as a worthwhile goal. Remember, Roger wants all of us to cease existing once he dies.
Sustainability, might be thought of as a noun, and efficiency is the verb. At least, efficiency can be understood enough by most people to allow the distant goal to be reached by taking small steps. That’s what planning is; a way to reach a distant goal by taking small steps. Adopting efficiency as a principle gives us a guide to direct each step toward that goal.
I hope this new attitude towards efficiency will change the relationship we have with urban planner’s.
Right now we tend to look at urban planners as working for us, so they should do what we tell them to do. For example; ‘I have this great plan, I went to the trouble of making these pretty renderings, so you should support me in my effort to develop it.’ We tend to think of planners as our bitches. It doesn’t help when they think their job is to run around looking for cheese. If we assign them the role of arguing for efficient urban form, then we are giving them the freedom to act as design professionals instead of whores or rats in a maze.
For example; If we say to our planners, ‘I want a foot passenger ferry service to Vancouver and I want you to support me in this effort,’ then we give those planners very few options and very little to do. You’ve given them your decision, and all they have to do is say, ‘whatever.’ However, if we say, ‘I want you to find us the most efficient way to get to Vancouver, and then suggest methods of implementing this option,’ then you allow the planner to use all their acquired skills and all their resources towards solving a problem that will have a significant impact on city development. They are, then, required to give you enough information to make an informed decision.
In the same way that a scientific paper is an argument designed to achieve increased consensus, a report by the urban planner becomes an argument designed to achieve increased efficiency.
There is an irony to this approach. This approach to urban design, saves time and effort. While the design professional consumes about the same, he or she produces more and wastes less their time and our money. In other words we are employing them in such a way as to be more efficient, by having them do nothing more then argue for efficiency.
If an urban planner is arguing for efficiency, he or she is engaged in a serious effort to make city life easier for everybody. I think this is a better way to employ planners. This is the most important step to take in the long journey towards sustainability. The sooner all of us take this step, the sooner the dialog between the citizen and the city official improves and the easier it is to find consensus, and work as a team, as we move towards our long term goal.