Patchwork Design Lab

April 19, 2010

Creating a Place on Earth

Taos Pueblo in Winter - Bruce Gomez

Are you concerned about how economic growth will affect your home town? Are you worried that too-rapid growth will kill any trace of your town’s individuality but that a lack of growth will simply kill it? For the first of these concerns there is a simple solution. I can give it to you in a phrase. You’re not going to like it. Limit your town’s size. Don’t allow growth to proceed beyond an optimum. For the second of these concerns I have another strategy, which I can also give in a single line. I doubt you’ll like it any better. Roll up your sleeves and work with what you have. Let me explain.

Just Say No to Cargo-Cult Economics

There was a reason that your town appeared where it did, assuming that it was founded before the sprawling growth of throughway suburbia, with its attendant, cancerous proliferation of McTowns with their centerless, boundariless, soul deadening sameness. Either the location was favorable for farming, ranching, mining or some other economic activity, or it was situated at crossroad of some sort that made it a strategic choice for a market or trade center. Maybe it originated as a resort catering to people drawn by the site’s hot springs or natural beauty. Whatever the reason, your town is imbued with natural capital of some kind or else no one would have settled there to begin with.

The point is that your don’t need a Walmart or a Hewlett Packard phone center, an Intel or a Toyota plant to bring jobs to your town; you can create them for yourselves using the natural capital that’s all around you. I’m not saying that there is absolutely no place for large corporations to participate in a local economy, only that you should not allow them to replace your local economy. Don’t allow your city council to turn your town into a cargo-cult. Don’t send tax-incentive-perfumed prayers to the corporate gods hoping that they will look upon your community with favor and reward you with a couple hundred low-paying jobs.

Overshoot – Wile E. Coyote Was Here

Okay, why limit growth intentionally? Well there’s the obvious reason, the one that I usually rant about. There are physical limits to growth. You can’t continue to grow forever, whether you want to or not. Eventually you overshoot the carrying capacity of your economic base and find yourself walking into thin air over an abyss. And that is never pretty. Carrying capacity is an ecological term used to describe the population that a given eco-region can support without sustaining significant damage. By significant damage I mean reducing the natural wealth that made your city viable to begin with, stealing from the future. Reduced carrying capacity is called draw down. Historically, many civilizations have overshot the carrying capacity of their homelands and destroyed their natural capital through agricultural practices that tended to destroy rather than to build topsoil. Pastoral cultures have achieved similar victories over nature through overgrazing. These patterns were a major driving force for all the wars, conquests, and migrations we found so fascinating in World History class. Who’s your favorite general? Genghis Khan for tea, anyone?

There is an escape clause, here, it’s called trade. Trade allows you to exceed your local carrying capacity by exporting goods that you have or can produce beyond your needs and importing those which are in shorter supply. Ecologists call this process scope enlargement. The interesting thing about scope enlargement is that it may sometimes enable two regions joined by trade to support a larger combined population than the sum of what both regions could support separately. Of course this kind of heightened prosperity makes larger families more viable, and eventually either the new, enlarged-scope carrying capacity is exceeded or else other limiting factors come into play. If your wastewater and sewage stream exceeds the ability of your local wetland (assuming you have one) to filter and clean, then you begin to degrade the quality of the soil and water downstream. You can leap this hurdle by building a water treatment facility, but that requires additional materials and energy and investment which may lock you into further dependency on imported goods and services. If you’ve never had to do this sort of thing before, it’s likely that the skills you need will have to be brought in as well. The town will grow to accommodate the influx of people coming to answer the demand for these new skills. The thing can snowball, as you can see. Growth begets more growth.

More is Not Better?

But let’s forget about that for now. The common view these days is that growth is a good thing. So what tangible benefit can you gain by limiting your town’s size and population on purpose? What you have to gain is a sense of place, to begin with. Secondly you have a shot at creating a sustainable community with a substantially self sufficient, local economy. You can establish a degree of economic security that no number of troops and weapons purchased with your tax dollars and sent overseas will ever provide. Let’s start with a sense of place.

You have a head start in this regard, because every place-on-earth is naturally unique, provided it hasn’t already been paved and polluted beyond redemption. Either way, there are some guidelines. People have given this problem quite a bit of thought. Architect Christopher Alexander, has written two great books about this problem: The Timeless Way of Building, and A Pattern Language. David Seamon, of the Architecture Department of Kansas State University, describes these works as an implicit phenomenology of designable situations contributing to a sense of place.

Creating a sense of place goes hand in hand with another key consideration. Biologist, anthropologist, and systems thinker Gregory Bateson once remarked that there are no monotone values in biology… items of diet, conditions of life, temperature, entertainment, sex, and so forth – are never such that more of the something is always better than less of the something. Rather, for all objects and experiences, there is a quantity that has optimum value. Above that quantity, the variable becomes toxic. To fall below that value is to be deprived. This is quite relevant to my argument because, as Bateson goes on to point out, this anti-monotony principle does not apply to money; more money is supposedly always better than less money. Thinking in these terms, we tend to extend this monotony of value to the things that money can buy, thereby going against biological reality and undermining our own well-being. We are deceived into thinking that greed is good and that growth is prosperity.

Quality is a Pattern?

I would like to resurrect the tired, old, clichéd distinction between quantity and quality – clean it up and buy it a new suit of clothes. Give it a job and put it to work.

This distinction is important to grasp if we want to understand the rationale for limiting economic growth and rooting the global economy in local, relatively independent markets and enterprises. It is the distinction between standard of living and quality of life. We tend to measure standard of living quantitatively: GDP, annual income, the number and cost of our toys and the quantity of goods and services we consume. Quality of life is something else entirely. Quality refers to beauty, durability, good health, well being, vitality, and life. Living in an ugly building or town, no matter how exclusive or expensive, can undermines a person’s health and well-being. Much of this is a matter of perception and taste, it’s true, but there is a commonality to our preferences and perceptions which makes it feasible to identify some general patterns and implement them to suit our individual tastes. We are all drawn to experiences that manifest certain qualities despite the wide variation in how we may define or describe them.

Why, for example, do people working in corporate cubicle farms the world over aspire to the corner office? It is because within the dehumanizing context of such a space a corner office is the only place that fulfills two basic and universal human needs: a room of one’s own, and contact with the natural world in the form of adequate lighting, which a corner office provides by having a window on two of its sides. These two needs are explicitly recognized in two patterns in Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language:

A Room of One’s Own: No one can be close to others without frequent opportunities to be alone. A person in a household (or office) without a room of his own will always be confronted with a problem. He wants to participate in the [group] life and to be recognized as an important member of that group; but he cannot individualize himself because no part of the house (or office) is totally in his control…

Light on Two Sides of Every Room: When they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are only lit from one side unused and empty…

Of course, there is a third need that applies in particular to the workplace and which neither of these patterns addresses – the need to be connected, to belong. People cannot work effectively if their workplace is too enclosed or too exposed. A good workplace strikes the balance.

Christopher Alexander’s solutions never involve new or energy intensive technologies. They are purely geometric in concept, purely architectural, the essence of pattern – the arrangement of forms in space. You have a set of design criteria, backed by research and experience, which you try to fulfill by the felicity of your design. You are looking for the Goldilocks effect, balancing opposing influences or effects until you get a result that is just right. In this case Alexander and his colleagues chose 13 variables to experiment with and came to the following conclusions:
  1. You tend to feel more comfortable with a wall behind you. If your back is exposed you feel vulnerable.
  2. You feel more comfortable in a workplace if there is a wall to one side.
  3. There should be no blank wall closer than 8 feet in front of you. As you work, particularly if you work with a computer, you need to look up occasionally to rest your eyes by focusing them on something farther away.
  4. Workspaces where you spend most of your day should be at least 60 square feet in area. A smaller space will make you feel cramped and claustrophobic.
  5. Each workspace should be 50% to 75% enclosed by walls or windows.
  6. Every workspace should have a view to the outside.
  7. No other person should work closer than 8 feet to your workspace.
  8. It is uncomfortable if you are not aware of at least two other persons while you work. Too much exposure to others makes you feel like a cog in a machine; too little makes you feel isolated and alone.
  9. You should not be able to hear noises any different from the noises you make.
  10. No one should be sitting directly opposite and facing you.
  11. Workspaces should allow you to adjust your chair to face in different directions.
  12. You should be able to see at least two other people, but no more than four.
  13. There should be at least one other person close enough to talk to without raising your voice.

These are not hard and fast rules, but rather patterns, rules of thumb whose flexible application can have a profound effect on one’s quality of life in the workplace. They will also have an impact on other design decisions involving the shapes of individual rooms, the placement of windows and what one sees when one looks out of them, the lighting scheme, the shape of indoor space, etc. You may even disagree with some or many of them. That’s alright. They are only a starting place. What is important is the process of thinking and design that produced them.

Balancing all these variables is a job of work, as they say. But thoughtful work is part of what fulfills us, part of what enhances the quality of life and makes for a rich and meaningful place on earth. For now, though, it is enough to consider the possibility that an economy based on maximizing quality, the quality of life, the quality in terms of usefulness and durability of the products we produce, the quality of the soil, air, and water where we live, is possible and practical and not at all utopian. On the contrary, the utopian delusion is thinking that we can continue to multiply and consume more and more in perpetuity. And I would like also to suggest that a healthy local economy does not have to be purchased at the price of our sense of place or identity. Nor does a reasonable quality of life call for a standard of living that would make any reasonable person feel deprived.

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