Let's Create A Place to Un-vanish the Neighbor

I found myself reading baby-boomer Marc Dunkelman's The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community and it led me to several conclusions, one of them being reaffirmation that architects and urban planners have much more power in there hands/pencils/computer mice than one may deem at first glance. 

A friend brought up in discussion that America in the 1950s went through a process of creative destruction, including but not limited to suburban sprawl and even rock and roll, which by the 1970s became a "commercial jingle."

I would not call it creative destruction. But rather, something more passive. I think what Dunkelman is saying, at least as far as I’ve read, is that certain conveniences, perhaps boiled down to the power of oil, and all its offshoots, have habituated a new environment in which supposedly cheap and easy transportation has distanced us from one another. That distancing connected by such an easy mode of travel has produced a good thing for sales and marketing as the catchment basin explodes further and further out. To reiterate his point, like the Wahsington dysfunction, it not the cause but the result of the environment. But most all other things have suffered: from interpersonal relationships, to fundamental trust of others, including the Millennial Inquisition* going on right now, to the inability to lead fearlessly (government), to the hopeless inability to manage our own affairs (desperate reliance on data and regulations that make no sense), to the explosion of economic prosperity, both up and down, pushing everything to never before seen percentages of rich and poor, and to the wholesale removal of the "missing middle” class.

Initiated by 10 frustrating years deep in Washington politics, Dunkleman escaped to try to figure out why leading this country has become so entirely locked in ineffectiveness. He paraphrases NYTimes Thomas Friedman, pointing out that in the time it took the Chinese to build an entire convention center, the Washington subway system was unable to repair a broken escalator. Darn regulations!

On the completely unsubstantiated pride in America’s global leadership Dunkleman states:

 “The United States once led the world with an unmatched percentage of young adults with college degrees, but has since fallen to twelfth; studies now rank us seventy-ninth in terms of elementary school enrollment; and in a key study of fifteen-year-olds around the world, Americans have rated below average in mathematics literacy and merely average in science and reading. Maybe worse still, only 15 percent of college graduates receive degrees in the natural sciences or engineering, which are purported to be the fields that drive economic growth.”

Dunkelman blames it all on environment, not on individuals. We are ALL part of the intransigence in Washington, not the helpless subjects of Washington intransigence. We have ALL created our own problem. And the changing environment created us.

Dunkelman identifies two periods of fundamental change in American history. One is the late 18th century when local environment, not political will, made former English subjects reject the “lord of the manor” form of routine life prevalent in Britain, and inaugurate a "new social architecture centered more on ties that bound together the residents of individual towns and villages. Rather than have a local nobleman keep watch over a district, as in England, the cohort of Americans nearby took joint responsibility for their collective well-being.” e.g., democracy, completely created by vicissitudes of their entirely different environment, not from politics.  

We are all products of the environments in which we grow up. Those environments, which used to support intense social relationships where everyone knew everyone, churned out people seeking esteem. Environments today, which actually started being formed in the 1950s, dissolve intense social relationships where no one knows anybody, churn out people seeking love. He describes the former as inwardly-focused, whereas the latter, ALL of us today, are outwardly-focused. This may seem a good thing, but it means we are constantly seeking affirmation from others, not from ourselves.

Average Americans spend 110% of what they earn, and retirement benefits, such as Social Security don’t come even close to what gets invested in them through incremental bites out of lives of paychecks. 

Disentangled from social relationships, today everything is data driven, data that’s just accepted without challenge, e.g., regulations. None of it makes any sense, unlike the broader, less abstract data driven, more empirically driven logic that governed the days for which we pine.

I think Lean Urbanism is ahead of the rest in recognizing the problem and seeking realistic doable solutions, solutions that surprisingly carry lower risk, ease of implementation, and higher prosperity, not to mention tighter social relationships, the absence of which caused by the new environment got us to where we are in the first place. 

As what appears to be the singular vanguard, Lean Urbanism** just needs to abandon its focus on the result of circumstances (regulations and barons… and, dare I say, climate change), and focus more on the underlying cause, the environment where we live and bring up our replacements, the only hope for the future. The re-creation of nests for useful rearing, passive rearing, rearing of future functional human beings. 

Based on how quickly things dissolved after Spindletop worked its magic, repair probably will take only 1.5 generations. The good news is that hunger for reclaiming social capital is already palpable in the resurgence of people, young and old, seeking the warm open arms of dense, functional and appealing urbanity.

It seems that fighting regulations is a fool’s errand. Regulations are the result of, not the cause of our current dystopia. Instead, one needs to create better nests, create beckoning environments that create adolescents into more self-reliant people that create routine behaviors that create non-reliance on data and regulations, better nests that create behaviors more centered on empirical resources. That create leadership based more on esteem than on love.

*Millennial Inquistion: the constant categorization of Millennials as dependent, unreliable, and constantly seeking approval, and the resulting rejection by older generations. 

**Lean Urbanism: concept to be discussed further in next blog post.