By David Paul*
A Conference on Sustainable Urban Design (PDF) was held at U.N. headquarters in New York last month, far from the regular lanes of diplomatic traffic.
There, at the end of a hall on the southwest end of the U.N. campus in the Dag Hammarskjold Library, expected tradesmen and an assortment of delegates along to camouflage the mix, did what they do: alternatively bore and Hummer-bash.
But the highlight of the afternoon session of the program would stand as a refreshingly undiplomatic and enthusiastic address delivered by Michael Sorkin, including references to the “bandage” of humanitarian aid and the evils of America's vehicle-dependent society that is looked upon by emerging nations as an ideal.
In a race against time to finish his presentation, with his collar askew, one side pointing up, Sorkin would speedread to the audience how the green city will be a highly walkable one and recall the strangely familiar motto “Stadtluft macht frei,” while delivering a lone expected moment - the image of a particularly garish Hummer, a the product of what he called America's “virtually psychotic” automotive industry.
There were technical aspects to the afternoon program. Two Japanese professors gave some technical presentations.
Professor Tomonori Matsuo, president of Toyo University defined sustainable development as this: Meets needs of present without compromising ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Matsuo then showed extensive data on the improvement of water management in Tokyo.
Junichiro Okata, a professor of urban planning at Tokyo University, discussed progress made over “vulnerable space” in Tokyo. The city had a weak planning system in the 1920s and was developed plot-by-plot.
Sporadic development resulting in narrow and winding streets throughout became worsened by the popularity of wooden housing in creating a nightmare scenario in the event of a large fire or earthquake.
Government-funded affordable housing to replace wood structures has helped, a plan launched in the early 1980s, he said. Particularly in the Kyojima district, roads have been widened however they can be. Sometimes that may not mean following a straight line, Okata explained, but acquiring whatever property becomes available on each side of that line.
He said the planning of small “pocket parks” have helped, particularly in the Taishido district, again through a decade-long plan beginning in 1983.
Okata also described the practice of Roji Son, roughly translated as God of Alley, where water pumps and other urban appendages are decorated in fauna. Increasing the mixed-use proportions and adding art districts has also helped, he said.
A Canadian critic invited to the stage for a discussion ended his take with a word he said was recently invented by university students to describe someone who is out of tune with the environmental state of the world. The critic said he'd told the students that he would spread the word they came up with - depletist - to describe that person. First Hummer reference occurred here.
“A depletist is an individual or group, showing apparent negligent or reckless disregard for the environmental consequences of their actions,” he said, adding that he thought the term could help effectively introduce policy change.
Then Sorkin took a seat onstage to begin perhaps the spiciest address delivered within the building since Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez called George Bush the devil, at least, that is, if you're into urban planning.
The focus of humanitarian aid can be a bandage, he said, without any ironic pause that his talk was hosted at the headquarters of an organization responsible for distributing that aid. But his greater concern was that the destructive practices of the “first world,” or U.S., have been regarded by aspiring nations as the model of progress.
“What is needed ... is for us to learn to do with less, the presumption that those of us who are so rapidly robbing the planet of its future have no sacrifices to make, that the transfer of technology of and knowledge of how to live should proceed from us to them is exactly backwards,” Sorkin said.
The planet is suffering a crisis of overdevelopment, he said.
Extreme times call for extreme measures, Sorkin seemed to be saying when he suggested that the “footprint” of consumption could be reduced if the world were to go vegan tomorrow, freeing the people, in part, from “corporate nutrition-delivery systems.”
He pulled no punches, citing rising heart disease in Japan as cheeseburgers and fries assault traditionally healthy diets, and as his Japanese colleagues looked on.
Sorkin also said Americans are “wedded” to their motorcars and that the automotive industry “has become virtually psychotic” in how they do business and disregard the gas crisis.
Sedentary lifestyles, motorcars emitting toxic hydrocarbons, “the first world leads the way,” he said.
Sorkin warned that others see unchecked consumption as a model.
China's appetite for cars while banning bicycle traffic reminded him of the kind of dangerous escalation of destructive behavior and thinking of the Cold War arms race.
But the realized trademark of contemporary urbanism is the rise of the megacities (those over 10 million), he said.
“Like systems and organizations of many other types, cities too can reach a scale at which they are simply unable to perform coordinated movements,” Sorkin said, adding that rising beyond a certain size they become unmanageable and insurmountable for poor residents to raise their status.
He continued to pick up speed, declaring that the rise of these cities must be stopped along with their proponents, because the solutions will be local.
“Our economy directs the major portion of our urban investment and development, not to traditional urban areas but to the endless periphery of the multinational globapolis. Unfortunately, this unbridled growth has also acquired a large cadre of enthusiasts who range from the usual laissez faire creeps to mindless architectural exponents of bigness, eager to be caught up in the wave of hyper-growth.”
“One of the cultural resistances that must be overcome by a sustainable urbanism is our own inclination to think in terms of technical solutions,” he said, clarifying that technology must not be shunned, but used properly. “Think of technology as an instrumentality that confound and secure the benefits of the local.”
From this point Sorkin, under the crunch of time, skipped large sections of his speech while increasing the pace of his reading. The audience remained mostly engaged, if not slightly distracted.
Sorkin called an end to sprawl by suggesting clear city boundaries.
-- Diversity is crucial to renewal and to health.
-- Starbucks on every corner is the enemy.
-- The green city will be delimited. The only cure for sprawl is to call a halt to it. To build cities where boundaries are clear to enable them to properly monitor their resources.
-- The green city will be body-based. The city must be conducive to the mental and physical health of its inhabitants. The requirements of the body are the single most crucial measure for urban design.
-- Mobility. Low architecture. 5-6 stories is the natural limit. Mobility will influence horizontal and vertical axis.
-- Propinquity. Providing for the coincidental and intentional meeting of bodies. The physical right to the city is fundamental.
-- Respiration. Indisputable motto: Stadtluft macht frei. “Only however, if you can catch a breath of it.”
-- The green city will be green.
On a final point, Sorkin said the sustainable city will be “eutopian,” adding that he changed the spelling of the word, adding an ”˜e', to change its meaning “from no place to a better place” and to suggest that its building must be collective “and their forms shifting and mysterious.”
Photo montages by John Jourden
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John Jourden is an (a)rchitect and pathological thinker living in New York.