In the age of corporatism, we must fight for good urban design – or lose social trust – Development and architecture


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

A MEDIA SOURCE generally not prone to hysteria informs us that “a survey published in May 2021 by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 15% of Americans – about one in seven – subscribe to QAnon’s central belief that the government is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles,” and that 20% – one in five (essentially, the Christian right) – believe that “there is soon a storm that will sweep away the ruling elites and restore the rulers legitimate.”

And from, we learn: “Recent polling results from Bright Line Watch have provided the first tangible and chillingly conclusive evidence that Americans are moving rapidly down the road to a national divorce.” The accompanying card makes this statement chilling:

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

And the pickle on that shitty sandwich is a recent headline in Huffpost: “Vaccine or this marriage: conspiracy theories tear couples apart. “He said if I took the vaccine I could pack up and leave his kids here.”

The widespread confusion, disappointment and despair and the incendiary levels of public anger all point to a lost or misplaced national purpose, with a diminishing ability to see a common future; and it invites deep concern about America’s social, emotional, and even geographic outlook. Yes, it’s tempting to dismiss it as the newest chapter in a long messy American tradition where democracy is messy, or blame it on COVID-19 and the stresses of global warming; but whatever the causes, consider the potential local impacts (Victoria) of such a “mood” spreading south of us.

When measuring risk, consider Soufan Group Director of Security Policy Colin Clarke January 22, 2021 New York Times comment citing far-right violence encouraged by Trump in recent years as “missed opportunities to take the threat seriously.” My guess is that the threat runs much deeper and deeper than Trump himself, and that Trump’s election itself should be seen as a reflection of widespread social anger and desperation.

Let me guess… you believe: “That’s all American, and nobody here thinks that way anyway. Canada, remember? Peace, order and good government. So all this American craziness has no cross-border implications.

Can I sell you a cheeseburger that plays the accordion?

I opened this column with such disturbing thoughts to add substance to the perception that we are in one of the great chapters of history, and that Victoria could do well to start a wide public conversation on the subject and lay the foundations for a contingent response. In fact, since it’s axiomatic that when the going gets tough, Victoria hosts a workshop, perhaps we skip the conversation and jump right into the content.

No, not the building of walls or the guns, but the strengthening of social and community ties – the feeling of connection, of a we– through our civic structures, our protocols and our physical identity – which, in its totality, could be called social architecture.

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

We don’t (or shouldn’t) need the threat of an American social eruption to motivate us to make our buildings and our public realm more welcoming, richer in social messages, more lively and humane. But it may take such a perspective to remind us of the risk to our precious but still vulnerable uniqueness.

We are in the era of corporatism, a corporate way of seeing the world. It seems to have many attributes of ideology, and its sensitivities, its internal logic, invade the realm of real estate development and land use as it influences many other areas of social practice. Among other things, it produces a kind of smoothing, a disengagement, a loss of authenticity, a failure (or death) of architectural expression; and this, in turn, weakens the basis of community and social ties, a we.

And I ask this question: why is it so easy to get mediocre and uninspired buildings approved? Why is the inner voice of the city so quiet?

There are, of course, many answers, but one is that these concerns need – but don’t have – a political champion.

In my opinion, the best reason City Hall is aggressively uncompromising and demanding of developers and of itself to deliver exceptional public buildings and environments – friendly, warm, welcoming, empowering – is that right now every new building and civic project must remind people that this place is different from other places in substance and character; must enlist or re-enroll us as citizens; strengthen our ability to define and recognize community identity and character…not to protect us if and when the great wave of history rolls our way, of course, but to provide social definition, a meaning and a reason for pride in everyday life at this time.

None of this requires the City to play a new role, or to go too far in social prescription, to “tell us what to do”. The City, on our behalf, is doing it now. The whole zoning code, all of these land use rules and regulations, did not come out of nowhere, but from the sensitivities, values ​​and preferences of us, the public. For example, our precious and almost sacrosanct single-family R-1 area was not a paradise, but came from people asserting (for better or for worse) “family residential” as an important value not to be compromised by other co-permit immediate land uses. In other words, the city has always been deeply rooted in the work of arranging and maintaining social values ​​and questions of taste through the tools of urban planning and design.

The community, for various reasons, is very hard work right now. Community doesn’t just happen or function forever. And hidden from platitudes about human interdependence and collaboration lurks the emerging fact of unprecedented personal autonomy which, in turn, reshapes and in some ways challenges the very need for social connection.

It is within the framework of such reflections that I express my concern for architecture and town planning. To put my beliefs most simply, good urban design and good architecture enhance the foundations of social trust which, in turn, promotes greater social connection and greater adherence to civic history – both its social facts and, equally important, the romantic idea of ​​place.

“In non-places,” writes Darran Anderson, “history, identity, and human connection are not offered. In the past, non-places were relegated to the outskirts of cities in retail parks or airports, or confined inside malls. But they have spread. Everywhere looks like everywhere else and, therefore, anywhere looks like nowhere in particular.

David Denby, in a film review by Pedro Almodovar Talk to himwrites, “You can’t have love without a fable – every love story is an improbable tale snatched from non-being and loneliness…as true of the collection of individual souls that make up a city as of a single person.

That is, you need a story, and you don’t get citizenship without a story; all you get is urban strangeness and anomie: a loss of confidence in the civic project.

Founder of Open Space, founding editor of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller currently promotes ASH, an innovative concept of affordable housing, and writes “Futurecide”, a book that argues that disaster is ecological.


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