Thursday, December 30, 2010

On the Troubles with Foreign Aid Part 3: The Cult of the Individual

If there is anything that galls it is the absolute smug sense of personal superiority that seemingly idealistic people of my generation view the developing world with, and their sense of self in ‘saving’ it. It is the mentality of the post baby-boomer generation – a generation that has had it so good, that feels entitled to college degrees from small and expensive liberal arts colleges, to travel, and gadgets and their own cars from the age of 16 onwards. It is the view of a generation in which the notion of ‘self’ and self-advancement that was novel for the boomer generation has, as Evelyn Waugh might have had it, become habituated settled-opinion rather merely world weary exclamation. It is a jaundiced view that inflates self worth, forgoes the ideas and inherent value of those being ‘served’ and assaults betterment of the collective in favor of the glorification of the individual while simultaneously inveigling the notion of service to the collective.

In the end, the motivation has nothing to do with the experience, the culture or the problems being addressed and everything to do with advancing a grotesque sense of self-edification. As Theroux noted there is something unfinished about Africa that attracts the Messianic above all else. With this approach comes the extension of Western ideals, ideologies and specifically self-edification. The notion of going to ‘save’ Africa has little to do with Africa the continent and more with Africa, the imaginary place of Western imagination. A land completely lacking capacity, choked by mysticism and in need of a savior. And it is not hard to become a savior – all that is required in this view of the world is to give up material comfort for a couple of years in order to garner the praise and adoration craved for the foreseeable future.

This mentality is not much different from the Mission Civilisatrice of the colonial era – that once popular notion advanced by former colonial powers that Western colonial abuse of Africa was somehow justified because Africa was little more than a continent of reckless savages in need of civilization being brought to them. Thus, people could go to Africa to ‘come good’ - to prove their worth by teaching the native peoples how to be proper Westerners. This has been updated within the current Messianic mentality which continues to infantilize African peoples. Thus, white kids with undergraduate degrees can join the Peace Corps and feel that they are off to save the Dark Continent. That the very limited survival ‘skills’ offered by a group of largely privileged white kids boasting liberal arts degrees might improve Africa simply by them deigning to be there may be what is most shocking.

The Peace Corps is a wonderful experience, granted, however one must realize that the PCV is gaining far more from the experience than the community that the PCV is placed in. The limitations placed on Peace Corps Volunteers mean that, basically no matter how strongly one believes in ones work, and no matter the extent to which one can do ‘good’ that will always be limited. The exchange is a completely otherworldly experience within a radically different culture that can provide long term benefit if one, in the Aristotelian sense, one acknowledges that self-examination provides the sinews for a life worth living. This is not to say that the Peace Corps is easy – it isn’t. It is difficult to be the ‘other’ within another culture especially when one grows up accustomed to creature comforts and inter-connectivity. However, it is more to say that the limitations placed on the average PCV mean that Peace Corps is pre-eminently a chance to grow and learn as an individual rather than to ‘save the world’.

The tendency however seems to be towards an almost gloating sense of self worth. A deep rooted solipsism that is reinforced by numerous external inputs at home, where people will treat you as though you are somehow sainted for having worked in Africa, and by a series of Orientalist inputs that make up a constantly re-affirming mechanism for self-affirmation. As the profile of Peace Corps Volunteers has been changed in order to be ‘more representative of mainstream Americans’ this tendency has been further advanced. We have seen increasingly would be Messiahs or those that would, as one member of cohort I trained with did, smuggle suitcases of bibles into Muslim countries in the hope of bringing ‘salvation’ to the locals.

The picture linked here is what set me off on this meditation. The identity of the individual will remain anonymous to protect the guilty, hence the reposting rather than a link to the original. I feel the photo in every way represents the critique I am advancing. Every element of the photo screams of a form of brinksmanship, open to only the privileged and white: a sort of sneering, smug self-indulgence demonstrating both Messianic delusions while simultaneously trying to leverage those into a point of gamesmanship over other well-meaning white people convinced that they too are ‘saving the world’. Even if it meant in jest, the joke fails to meet even the minimum standards or mirth because it is so nakedly and un-ironically indicative of how vulgar the Western view of Africa is.

On the Troubles with Foreign Aid Part 2: Throwing Money at the Problem and Celebrity Messiah

Having discussed agency and policy level problems in the previous post, one must move on to the problems that stem from the tendency to try to solve problems in Africa and elsewhere by simply throwing money at them and in hoping for the best. This approach has traditionally dominated traditional development strategies instituted by large global development agencies. Macro-scale projects have traditionally been attempted everywhere from West African locales like Lagos, Nigeria to East African ones like Kigali, Kenya and throughout Southern Africa. Of the many large infrastructure and other projects attempted, very few saw completion.

In many places, weak civil societies and corrupt governments simply enabled funds to disappear into Swiss bank accounts while incomplete projects often rotted or were scavenged for scrap materials by the urban poor. This is not to say that large-scale infrastructure projects are not necessary or desirable within Africa – and indeed in countries like Senegal and Burkina Faso, good- governance models and appropriate oversight has helped to see important infrastructure built. What development agencies have increasingly learned it that smaller-scale, incremental projects with tightly controlled budgets and external oversight, frequently implemented in partnership with more transparent governments or local NGOs has frequently resulted in good project completion. Powerhouse development capital organizations like the Gates foundation have frequently also learned from early mistakes and found ways to target funds such that they achieve more desired results.

Despite this, many charities, and especially celebrity driven ones have failed to learn from this process and have simply relied on the old model of throwing money at problems and hoping everyone will do the right thing. These phenomena have been best described by novelist, travel writer and former PCV Paul Theroux in a blistering New York Times editorial a few years ago.

In the appropriately titled, 'The Rock Star’s Burden', Theroux notes that dependence on foreign aid payments (drawing the distinction between those and funds for education, disaster relief, etc) and a glut of foreign aid volunteers have failed to generate meaningful results. Theroux states, using Malawi as an example:

I would offer pencils and paper, mops and brooms: the schools I have seen in Malawi need them badly. I would not send more teachers. I would expect Malawians themselves to stay and teach. There ought to be an insistence in the form of a bond, or a solemn promise, for Africans trained in medicine and education at the state's expense to work in their own countries.

He goes on to state that:

Africa is a lovely place - much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed. But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth.

And Theroux is right. Celebrity charities further epitomize that, while also taking on a whole new level of ridiculous waste and egomaniacal banality. Marina Hyde, writing incisively and cogently in The Guardian also targets Bono as the ultimate figure of celebrity Messianic excess. Hyde's piece is worth reading in full, however, her pointing to the paucity of good actually done by organizations like Bono's versus the money that has passed through them, the use of luxury consumerism as a vehicle to advance charity (as Bono's Product RED and most recent African aid tie-ins with Louis Vuitton

Similarly, economist Jeffrey Sachs has been positively bellicose in his claims that poverty can be ended in our lifetimes if not for want of a few million dollars for mosquito nets in Africa. While mosquito nets are important as a vector for helping to prevent malaria, which kills millions every year across the continent, this it and of itself fails to address problems of urban slum development as a result rapid urbanization, ongoing poor governance and corruption, increased desertification in the Sahel and Sub-Sahara, global climate change, poor agricultural management and ongoing declining agricultural returns as population grows, and increased dependency on the West (and increasingly China).

However, the underlying problem remains that all of these projects create the illusion of helping Africa while also failing to effectively help improve government, services or combat poverty. Theroux would likely agree that specific skills trainings and empowerment of local organizations to more effectively address these problems should be the goal of external aid organizations. These external organizations and agencies should not be leading the charge because doing so prevents them from effectively listening to what local needs really are.

Rather than implementing smaller scale projects, through effective locally based NGOs, (preferably run by Africans who actually speak the local languages and understand local needs and power relationships), the celebrity approach to aid and development is increasingly about giving the appearance that things are being done because money is moving around. This tendency, as we shall see in part three, also is problematic when discussing young people who go to Africa and elsewhere to 'make a difference'.

On the Troubles with Foreign Aid Part 1

There is often something immediately crass and altogether guileless in how the United States conducts international development activities. This is true of both the way agencies and branches of government attempt to give aid or engage in so-called ‘nation building’, how private organizations give aid moneys and in the candor of idealistic young people involved in development. Most importantly, the penultimate failing of aid and aid workers today is that they largely fail to meet the needs of the communities that they purport to serve.

The underlying problems seem to be that policy seem to fall into the following categories: (1) developed to meet some form of macro-derived foreign policy aim based on an a priori set of criteria and as a result is non-responsive to human outcomes, (2) agencies and/or individuals simply hurling money at problem regions, frequently driven by (3) celebrities or other individuals trying to experience messianic self-edification via international development.

In each of these cases, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s sufficiently silly comic quasi-roman a clef, The Ugly American appears to be the most appropriate comment upon US practice. Indeed, it is this tendency, a combination of willful cultural ignorance, a specifically American sense of wanting to be part of the “save the world” set and the notion that simply throwing money at a problem will solve it that exemplify the content of The Ugly American and render development patterns meaningless. In this essay I will deal with all 3 of these tendencies as a separate post.

(1) From a policy perspective, a couple of examples from my own experience spring immediately to mind. The first involved a State Department briefing being put on by a DC Think Tank regarding a new policy being jointly advanced by the State Department and Department of Defense at the height of the Iraq War. In those heady days of 2006, the government had finally realized that something wasn’t working and were finally willing to take a gamble on something else. As a result the Provincial Reconstruction Teams or PRTs seemed to be one way.

PRTs had been in use for the last couple of years in Afghanistan and would factor heavily upon Bush's ‘new way foreword’ for Iraq, which later became ‘the surge’. The idea behind the PRTs is that they would be small, well-equipped teams designed to deal on a province-by-province basis with various reconstruction problems. The panel I attended was made up of the State Department official heading up the PRT program in Iraq (and who, like every state department official I met in Washington was a very blonde lady with a Virginia accent), an NCO who ran a PRT in Afghanistan (also a blonde lady with a southern accent) and filling in for a the scheduled DOD panelist, a think tanker who had studied PRTs (a blonde man with a Virginia Accent). So this quasi-Aryan super-panel was going to solve Iraq’s problems once and for all with a new, more culturally sensitive approach. I was skeptical, but nothing could have prepared me for what followed.

The PRT lecture itself was ludicrous in that, despite receiving very detailed information on the inter-agency nature of the PRTs, exact, to the penny, cost-accounting as to how the PRTs were to be funded by percentages by the different agencies, and what sort of state department employee made good PRT material; no one actually said what the PRTs specifically would do. The State Department lady seemingly joked about how they certainly hope to equip at least half the teams with an Arabic speaker in each of these 60 person or so teams, but noted that this goal wasn’t really ‘realistic’. She also stated that actually including Arabic speakers should not necessarily be a priority - which seemed a somewhat counter-intuitive to put it lightly, as the PRTs would be dealing one-on-one with Iraqi civilians in helping them rebuild the country. Actual communication or dialogue with Iraqis however seemed less important than the lofty goal of ‘fixing’ Iraq. Actually asking people what they wanted or needed is apparently not part of the State Department’s standard operating procedure.

What should have been the nadir of the presentation came when someone got up and asked something to the effect of:

"Well, we know these PRTs are going to be flexible, but can you give us some examples of what it is they do exactly in Afghanistan?"

Fair question one would think, however all of the panelists were hard pressed to say. Eventually, the state department lady decided she would give the question a go, noting: "We are teaching them proper professionalism. This means teaching Afghans that it’s unacceptable to wear sandals to work and things like that." At this point my already dropped jaw came unhinged. One would think that perhaps the Afghan sense of ‘business casual’ was not the pre-eminent problem facing that troubled state. Things went on to get slightly worse when, while discussing the possibility of political assassination of foreign leaders, which would "have drastic and harmful geopolitical consequences for the United States"; the state department lady had trouble controlling her very visible giggling.

A second anecdote that springs to mind involves the activities of USAID in Niger. USAID is a government run food aid organization that delivers surplus agricultural product to places in the world with food shortages. While this is an important and useful practice, the protocols under which USAID operates have severely hindered its ability to successfully combat starvation. Specifically, USAID will only issue food aid in cases that a child can be diagnosed with the medical condition starvation. This means the full distended stomach and everything else.

The problem with this procedure is that, once someone can be diagnosed with starvation, because the body has gone so long since having food, it stops to manufacture the enzymes needed to break down foods. What this means is that, if a person begins to eat again, they will likely die of stomach infection from being unable to handle the micro-organisms that live in everything we eat. Starvation requires hospitalization, careful monitoring and medications to jump start the system once again. As a result, rather than simply triggering kids who were just very hungry and could have benefited from the food aid, USAID instituted a policy that simply put lives at risk.

Additionally, the food aid itself was a corn meal mixed with sugar – something not part of the typical Nigerien diet. As a result, people did not know how to prepare this corn meal and found it distasteful. I remember being fed a large plate of it while serving as a PCV in my village in Southern Niger by my neighbors when they had me to dinner. They believed, as a westerner, I would like the stuff. Remember again, this was food aid issued to them by USAID in order to help prevent starving children from dying. It was a combination of poor policy, an unwillingness to tie food aid to education or culturally appropriate protocols and realities that saw it being fed to me.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Railway and Civil Society

Tony Judt's follow-up piece on trains is also worthy of comment as he posits some important further notions about trains, modernism and civil society.  Judt was a great humanist as well as historian - something that carried across in his final book Ill Fares the Land.   Judt's outlook as a historian was to try to exemplify those elements that advanced that humanism, the most important of these he felt was civil society.  Thus, in this peace on rails, Judt rightly equates the railway with civil society:

The railways were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord (and, in recent times, common expenditure), and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike. This is something the market cannot accomplish—except, on its own account of itself, by happy inadvertence. Railways were not always environmentally sensitive—though in overall pollution costs it is not clear that the steam engine did more harm than its internally combusted competitor—but they were and had to be socially responsive. That is one reason why they were not very profitable.

Thus the classical railway stations, many of them the product of the City Beautiful movement, were designed as great public monuments that would dominate the built environment and uplift the civic spirit. This notion is carried out in all of the great classical stations: Orsay, Grand Central Station, Gare de L'est, Waterloo Station, etc. Additionally, Judt makes the very salient point that trains exemplify comprehensive, rational use of public space.  The notion of public space is rationalist and highly modernist.  Thus the betrayal of public space is a betrayal of modernity:

If we cannot spend our collective resources on trains and travel contentedly in them it is not because we have joined gated communities and need nothing but private cars to move between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who don’t know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life.

It has been the US alone among Western Countries that has truly eviscerated in rail lines and allowed them to fall into absolute disrepair.  Additionally, it has further been the United States that has most fully advanced the ideal of the singularity and triumph of the individual over the collective.  Thus, the decline of civil society and the destruction of the Art Deco styled monuments to civil society are linked.  Robert Putnam's work Bowling Alone continues to serve as the most important study on the decline of civil society and community within the United States, and while Putnam studied the decline of community bowling leagues, he could have just as easily studied the disappearance of trains and train stations from the American landscape. While others such as Richard Florida have attempted to refute Putnam by arguing civil society has merely morphed into new skills-based "creative" communities, this argument does not compel and rather speaks to an increasingly individualistic vision of self-edification rather than of a wider community.

Thus, rail, civil society and public space are all inextricably linked.  The return of rail to the American landscape should be made pre-eminent.  It represents a compelling use of public space and the reestablishment of civil society, and the good of society, versus that of the individual as cardinal.  The railway is a means of establishing urban aesthetics and form, equity, regional linkage and civics in a very palpable way.  As Judt notes, most of the the railway stations that survive retain the purposes and forms that they were built for.  The generational failure of the baby boomers has been the taking of services for granted, followed by the eventual dismantlement of infrastructure and services in order to serve short term individual gains.  Rail encourages, due to it's longevity in form, for us to think in terms of long-term outcomes.  For civil society to prosper, perhaps railways must again prosper.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Suburban Railhead Aesthetics

Rain pours from the heavens and collects in sheets in the parking lot of the Willow Creek Transit Center. Impervious surface interrupted only by the odd pothole providing a low point in which the rain waters can collect. It is water constantly in motion but also stagnant, shimmering with the diaphanous light cast by the streetlights. A spine of track cuts through the darkness and pulls this desolate stretch of Beaverton, this sterile, paved and ordered stretch of suburban strip development into the maw of Portland. Here in the darkness, the fog and the rain there is almost something strangely beautiful if not otherworldly about the suburbs. That absence of human activity – the very feeling that many suburban dwellers wanted – is finally pervasive. It takes the fog to depress the sounds of cars and the bright hiss of neon-lights from the unerringly uniform commercial strip development to create this. It takes that dampening of sight and sound, leaving only that singular gleam of the railhead: this strip of infrastructure that seems to stretch on into the infinity.

Without the rail, Beaverton is just suburban America: as easily situated here as anywhere. The same shops reproduced, with slight variation across the sweep or North America. It is real estate without place - human settlement without identity, or even a distinguishing birthmark. It represents a sterile ideal, isolated from the other. Suburbs are designed to keep them out. They reduce us into a singular non-identity based on uniform consumer spending choices rather than through ideas. Great stretches of this country are those descended from the suburban idea. These are people who now may feel some form of gripping nostalgia for strip malls, white walls and stucco; people who come to lack imagination because their sense of the world comes from watching rather than by doing. Novelty is developed in the fringe of narrow, often technologically motivated confines, rather than in any holistic sense. The suburbs, though they may be very temporary exude a sense of unchanging permanence. National brands seek to create a sense of perfect consistency, and their presence further reinforces this sense of temporal and emotional fixedness.

The irony is, as Joel Kotkin notes, the most innovative technology centers are suburban rather than urban.  Sterile environs drive software and technology.  Technology thrives on consistency.  Just as cities hate stars, those distant nuclear orbs that remind them of their insignificance, technology hates the unpredictable daily innovation that takes place on city streets.  It is crippled by the constant re-colonization of urban space and ideas to fill needs, only to fluidly dissolve.  Technology, for all it's fluidity, for all it's willingness to dictate changes in how we live, thrives on static environs.

The rail line then is perhaps beautiful because it is subversive. It both reinforces and represents a real threat to the underlying order. It is deeply post-modern: infrastructure is order, but it represents an alternative order, open to definition, interpretation and inventiveness, while still providing a means of prolonging and reinforcing the suburban landscape around. It is a seed for nascent land-use reinvention.  It allows entropy from the city access to hardened suburban lines.

The rain begins to pour harder as the train slides effortless through the sea of darkness and to the platform.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


More than any other technical design or social institution, the railway stands for modernity. No competing form of transport, no subsequent technological innovation, no other industry has wrought or facilitated change on the scale that has been brought about by the invention and adoption of the railway. - Tony Judt

The late historian Tony Judt has an wonderful piece about trains in the current New York Review of Books. Trains have historically served vehicles of modernization, affecting everything from how we think about time (with the advent of the train schedule dramatically rearranging the Western lifestyle) to how we have historically planned cities.

Trains have historically gone far to assert social mobility firmly on behalf of the downtrodden - it has been said of the creation of the rail network in India did more to emancipate low-caste Hindus than anything done to reform the caste system- while also driving intra-regional connectivity. At the same time, as Judt argues, the rail system imposed a whole additional set of social classes based on what types of rail seating one could afford. The connection of European cities to each other through traditional (and now high-speed) rail networks has done much to drive the regional economic and social linkages that have allowed the European Union to thrive. Meanwhile, lighter rail has historically been the vehicle that allowed cities to grow and reduced near toxic densities in Victorian cities - the first suburbs were, after all, rail suburbs.

Rail has affected cities in other ways. The construction of rail-centers within cities was a monumental challenge, and many traditional rail centers have further served as vehicles to produce monuments, being a favorite construction project during the City Beautiful movement of the early 1900s and later. The great spines of architecture and infrastructure with their off-shooting vertebrae on which the rail system rested, while costly, became, much like the docks to previous generations (and the airports today) the lifeline of the city.

While much of the United States' freight shipping is still done by train, the percentage of goods shipped by rail is diminished every year. Additionally, the good most overwhelmingly shipped on trains is coal. Low-cost airlines have supplanted commuter rail in all about a few areas (New York and New England being notable exceptions), however, a new push is being made to develop high speed rail corridors within the United States. Most notable among these include a proposed Midwestern line that would connect Chicago with Milwaukee and the Twin Cities as well as a San Francisco to LA line (with a hope that this line could eventually be expanded to reach all the way North to Vancouver, BC - passing through Portland and Seattle).

Spearheading passenger high-speed rail connectivity has been an important aspect of President Obama's infrastructure redevelopment push and has helped to reinvigorate the idea of rail in the United States. The notion of developing the type of high speed, efficient and modern rail systems found in Europe is certainly one that appeals greatly. Trains, especially the modern variety, are comfortable, attract wide multi-social class ridership and represent one of the more environmentally friendly means of transportation. While the infrastructure requires large up-front infrastructure costs - high speed requires new tracks to be laid as it uses different technology and different rail gauges than it's historical counterparts - the sort of regional connectivity afforded by a well-integrated rail system in invaluable. France has been a model in this, having decided to extend high speed rail service to almost every city in France, allowing for easy, rapid connectivity to regional centers resulting in wider cultural exchange and improved economic, social and other benefits to it's population.

There remains, however, a great deal of dubiousness about high speed rail projects within the United States, with many recently elected conservative governors, notably in Ohio and Wisconsin seeking to block projects, and to forgo generous Federal funding in order to do so. The Economist notes that rail is increasingly becoming an ideological issue upon which political parties are fighting tooth and nail over.  Many on the right have come to view high-speed rail as simply a Utopian liberal scheme, or worse, a white elephant for which the Federal government will simply endlessly pour money in the form of subsidy.  This apparently ignoring the billions spent annually on both road maintenance - subsidizing both suburban expansion and the commercial trucking industry, which chews up roads through with heavy cars but also requires highways to be kept pristine to avoid snapping axles - and on the airline industry through lucrative, and potentially needless defense contracts to airplane makers.

Additionally, critics within the environmental community, most notably peak-oil theorist and general Malthusian James Howard Kunstler, has argued that it may be too late for high-speed rail, the push towards the development of rail represents simply falling into a technology trap, and that the money would be better spent in improving and maintaining our existent rail infrastructure, which has increasingly fallen into disrepair.  Besides, Kunstler notes, few Americans even bother to take commuter rail as it is and the success of European rail lines likely has more to do with a long-established European culture of rail-ridership that does not exist in the United States.  This argument remains a persistent voice that must be considered when promoting high-speed rail.  Despite this, however, high-speed rail remains promising.

To me, the argument for high-speed rail trounces that against it.  Rail is a technology that, as Judt notes, in a very modern sense links communities.  While the personal car has always been viewed in the United States as the ultimate vehicle for personal freedom - Bruce Springsteen made a career of singing about ephemeral dreams of escape through the open highway - true cultural freedom, to me, lies with effective regional linkages that are accessible to the population at large.  The notion of promoting trains requires thinking increasingly collectively, or in thinking about the us as a society rather than thinking in terms of freedom of the individual.  More so than airlines, which are only open to the truly affluent and are hardly environmentally or economically sustainable to begin with, rail is the genuine vehicle of national and multinational linkage and connectivity.  They are a technology that was historically revolutionary in a positive sense, and are a technology that can again be salubrious to the very way we organize our society to how we think.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Gaddafi and the City

In continuing with the Gaddafi sub theme that has crept into this blog over the years, I came across the following Guardian article. While Gaddafi is best known, literarily at least, as the author of his Green Book, outlining the theory and practice of "Islamic Socialism", Gaddafi has also turned out a series of what are apparently supremely terrible short stories come rants.

A favorite topic of Gaddafi in these stories is apparently the decadence and evil of the City. Gaddafi, very much in the vein of Victorian-era Western European (especially German) literature portrays cities as inherently corrupting and corrosive to collectivism with it's focus on the individual. To Gaddafi, the City does little more than isolate the individual and drive a wedge between man and God.

From the Guardian article:

"This is the city: a mill that grinds down its inhabitants, a nightmare to its builders. It forces you to change your appearance and replace your values; you take on an urban personality, which has no colour or taste to it... The city forces you to hear the sounds of others whom you are not addressing. You are forced to inhale their very breaths... Children are worse off than adults. They move from darkness to darkness... Houses are not homes – they are holes and caves..."

Part of Gaddafi's anti-urban bent may, as the article notes, have to do with his Bedouin roots and his constant insistence of shoring up his Bedouin credibility, something made explicit to an almost stupefying degree by his insistence on erecting a giant Bedouin tent in New York during his visit last year to the United Nations.

Gaddafi's anti-urban reactionary stance, is, like all things with Gaddafi, perhaps in some way reasoned by largely given over to extreme bombast in parlance:

"Yesterday a young boy was run over in that street, where he was playing. Last year a speeding vehicle hit a little girl crossing the street, tearing her body apart. They gathered up her limbs in her mother's dress. Another child was kidnapped by professional criminals. After a few days, they released her in front of her home, after they had stolen one of her kidneys! Another boy was put into a cardboard box by the neighbourhood boys in a game, but was run over accidentally by a car."

In a way, Gaddafi's anti-urban tirades remind me greatly of the near propaganda films about the City Lewis Mumford made in the 40s and 50s as a vehicle to help sell Ebenezer Howard's Garden City and Patrick Geddes' regional city ideas to the United States. Indeed, the City in these films, is perpetually painted as a dirty place corrosive to man's long-term health, enlightenment and general edification. There was something to this, the conditions in early 20th Century major cities were in many places despicable, resembling the West African, Asian and South American slums of today. Much of the Urban Planning throughout this period centered upon redevelopment, de-densification, and generally how to disburse the urban poor population. A lot of these ideas did not change until Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a spirited celebration of traditional urban development and the hussel and bussel of downtowns, that encouraged planners to begin to view cities differently.

What is most striking about Gaddafi's anti-urban slant is that it has so much in common with anti-urban reactionary movements that have driven suburbanization. Many people in suburbs ringing decaying urban centers such as Detroit and Cleveland believe the city to be a place of evil, corruption and decay. In a way, Gaddafi has more in common with the Middle American suburbanite than perhaps either would like to admit.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Living Building

The 'living' building currently being advanced by the Portland Sustainability Center and the City of Portland brings to mind Daniel Burnham's famous injunction about making no little plans. Specifically Burnham said:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

For those not in the know, a 'living' building challenge is a green building advocacy tool in which is said to promote the most advanced measure of sustainability. The standards placed on a living building are incredibly rigorous, requiring the building to yield a net carbon reduction, to serve to eliminate toxins and to use exclusively renewable energy and storm water (or grey water) run-off. Metrics measured are to be based on actual performance rather than forecasts, thus, the proposed building would require a year of use prior to it's certification as a 'living' building. As it stands, there exist only two other certified living buildings in the world.

The building would represent an impressive statement on the part of Portland to extend it's 'green' credentials, while serving as marquee project for ongoing green development. The building remains controversial, Advocates believe that the building is exactly the type of project that Portland needs to advance to put the City firmly on the map, while critics have pointed to the high cost of the project ($65 million in public money) and fears that the project could become a white elephant. Further, many have also pointed to the idea that the money going into the project might be better spent on retrofitting existing buildings with many of the technologies involved and that a new office building is apparently the last thing that Portland needs at the moment, as the city has already an excess of office stock, and the building is so expensive, that the costs of renting the building are likely to price even the most ecologically minded of firms out.

The Willamette Week has published a lengthy editorial on the topic of the building including a discussion of many of these issues. It in the end argues that the building is precisely the sort of visionary project that Portland needs, however, I am not completely convinced if I share the assessment. Portland has traditionally been a city that has developed small-scale bottom-up style projects well, resulting in net environmental advantages. Further, much of the planning approach, specifically through the metropolitan governance model has been consensus driven. The idea of a large scale project is initially appealing, however, it is likely to to be highly problematic. The potential for cost over-runs (frequently associated with this sort of large-scale project) poses one set of problems.

More importantly, I am wary of the type of Utopian thinking associated with this style of large-scale project is equally worrying. Traditionally, many of the attempts at Utopian urban development, from the enormous Brutalist towers of Le Corbusier (and those projects inspired by Le Corbusier) to the large-scale motor car based redevelopment projects advanced by Robert Moses in New York, frequently attempts to create Utopia have resulted instead in dystopia, massive public expenditure and frequently, the marginalization or the poor. With all the verve for green building within Portland, the money being spent on this project could go far to rehabilitating existing downtown building stock, leveraged to incentivize renewable energy improvement and in developing better storm water management systems (including rain gardens) for existing buildings - reducing the loads on out already overtaxes storm water/sewage system. This is not to say that I do not find the idea of 'living' building to be a good one. It is more to say that the amount of public to be invested, taken with the capacity for large-scale failure (especially considering the newness of the technology being incorporated) seems to indicate that a project of this size is fool hardy. Indeed, the living building project almost seems like something out of a more eco-friendly Dubai, where hubris has largely served as a vehicle to advance increasingly grandiose building projects.

An alternative for a more modestly scaled 'living' building project, in the form of a multi-family bungalow housing unit, has been proposed by SERA Architects several years ago. This project seems to be of a more manageable scale to first begin to understand the associated technologies and to learn how to more effectively incorporate them prior to the development of a large-scale project. This project appears to have be, for the moment at least, derailed due to the current economic recession and partly due to a lack of support from the mayor's office, strikes me as being the more sustainable option. It is a project that could be built with modest outlays of public money and which would create an important learning experience that could eventually inform a larger living building project.

In the end, Burnham's notion or large-scale inspirational still has some resonance, however, it is no longer how planners plan. The emphasis on incrementalism, public participation and more human-scale redevelopment, frequently following traditional neighborhood design strikes me as being the best approach. With environmental development, the emphasis should also lie on making as many small-scale improvements to as many buildings as possible in order to mitigate net carbon emissions rather than sinking a great deal of capital into a large project for a building that does not appear to even be needed. A couple of years ago David Owen wrote an impressive piece (later adapted into a book) arguing that more traditional, human-scale development urban development results in the lowest per capita carbon footprint for urban dwellers. This sort of pragmatism is what is necessary to advance the environmentalist agenda and mitigate global climate change. The idea of a large living building appeals, however it lacks practicality. While the 'living' building project appeals viscerally, indeed 'stirs the blood', it represents sort of tyranny of rationalism given over to the most sanguine impulses. It is then, as Kipling would have it, a case of 'thinking with the blood'.