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« Walkscore and Taxes | Main | Toward Robust Town Building »
Wednesday
Nov282012

Vigorous Cultures

Hurricane Sandy's impact in Tuckerton, New Jersey (US Coast Guard/Getty Images)

How neighborhood design inspires problem solving 

In our slow but deliberate move back toward robust town building, we will see a built environment that will be and act much different than it does today. It will be less efficient but more productive, require more energy but yield disproportionately higher yields, and be more redundant but hyper-adaptive and resilient. This is not a job simply for architects, planners, and designers alone but calls for a collaborative spirit of tinkering that will require all disciplines, the re-discovery of some old ones, and experimenting with some new tricks along the way.

Built and location-based patterns can make settlements, themselves, resilient and adaptive. But old and new settlements that have proven themselves investment-ready have a positive feedback loop that reinforces these place's ability to thrive in good times and in bad. Recently this was made clearer to us in Hurricane Sandy. In one horrible storm, we have seen within the same region communities such as Manhattan's lower East Side come together to solve problems while others have have struggled to understand why the storm had such a destructive effect or wonder if rebuilding's return on investment is sufficient or fair enough to justify. 

Pedal-powered recharging station in Manhattan's Lower East Side (Credit: Jonathan Maus)

But these types of events that are hard to predict (despite their apparent increase in frequency and severity) and devastating to communities need not be as severe as a hurricane to illuminate how places can respond. February, 2010, for instance, brought Snowmageddon to Pittsburgh. 

Snowmageddon, Pittsburgh, February, 2010The immense amount of snow shut down the city for days. But in many (sadly not all) neighborhoods we witnessed self-organizing social behavior that positively reinforced the neighborhood's ability to adapt to such an event. So while the neighborhoods' densities, street networks, mix of uses, and multi-dimensional transportation infrastructure (walking, skiing, snow shoeing, buses, 4-wheel drive vehicles, etc) were good enough to allow the city to effectively continue operating, it was the relationships that the neighborhood had allowed to form over a longer time horizon that actually brought people together to respond as a community.

The highly adaptive manner in which neighborhoods are organized such as Pittsburgh's Shadyside allowed for residents to still carry on with life despite the encumbrance of snow.While the neighborhood design allowed for it to function, it also engendered the relationships necessary to come together and solve problems. (Credit: Joel Tarr)The 1995 Chicago heat wave further illustrates this point. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg found (despite expensive United States Department of Health analysis) that those parts of Chicago that most successfully avoided heat-related deaths were those neighborhoods that had the strongest neighborhood ties where people were checking in on one another, pooling resources, and solving problems together. In fact, his data found little correlation between deaths and neighborhood wealth or access to air conditioning or other technological advantages. The social capital made possible in robust town building is what allows for these positive externalities to be spun off.

But, remember, this pertains not just to disaster response but taking advantage of hard-to-predict opportunities as well. We saw it in places like Nashville, Tennessee, where neighborhood patterns foster jam sessions that then drive an innovative and creative economic culture. 

We are reminded of Jane Jacob's observation:

When our society was much poorer than it is today, it nevertheless managed to meet the inherent expenses and inefficiencies associated with its continuation. How did it do this? How do poor but vigorous cultures manage their continuation today? The answer is that all cultures depend heavily in the past, on the natural redundancies to be found in their communities.

Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead, 2004

Building adaptive and resilient places create positive feedback loops that justify their oft-perceived messiness, disorder, inefficiency, and expense. It makes possible the "vigorous cultures" we are going to need to meet head-on the many challenges and opportunities ahead.

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