Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Beauty, Love, and Architecture

Beauty is a common topic on this blog. It is in fact the very purpose of this blog. It’s a word that should evoke only the most positive emotions, and yet this is rarely the case today. Just as often one feels sadness, because beauty is becoming increasingly rare in our society. It’s bittersweet. It should be one of the main aims of humanity to preserve and create beauty, but every year we create more and more ugliness. A beautiful new building is one in a million, and not a single beautiful new city has been built anywhere in the world since before World War II. For everyone, this should be a source of great sorrow, but also a call to arms.

At a time when many words don't mean what they used to mean, I think it's important to be precise about what "beauty" is and isn't. Beauty is never selfish or garish, and doesn't shout for attention. It is humble. Beauty, like love, can only ever be a force for good. Beauty is respect, peace, and harmony. It goes beyond mere worldly existence. It's a transcendent force which makes life worth living. Beauty transports us to a better place and helps us believe that we are part of a greater whole.

Beauty as a word has been hijacked, however, used to describe everything and anything. Beautiful this and beautiful that. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a piece of concrete described as “beautiful”. Therefore, perhaps it would be good to substitute a word popular in the 19th century when thinking of beauty: picturesque. It was often used to describe a beautiful streetscape, for example. It's not a popular word today, but it's more visually descriptive about what we are trying to get at. It evokes what beauty really is: ancient country lanes, flowers in an English garden, stunning natural landscapes, and the majesty of an unspoiled coastline. That is true beauty.

Turner's painting of Tours, c. 1796, a Romantic era painting from a time when even a city was expected to be picturesque. Source: Tate Britain

I believe that beauty is a physical manifestation of love, the most powerful and highest of all emotions, just as beauty is the highest form of creation. The two are as equals. Like love, beauty is selfless, and when one is selfless, driven by love, negative tendencies fall aside. An architect who feels love for a place, for example, will not be thinking how a project is viewed by critics and other architects, how boldly it calls attention to itself, or whether it follows the latest fads. When love of place is the overriding driving force, beauty is a natural result. Fear of stepping out of line would be replaced by courage to uphold an architect's duty to create beauty. When love of place is the foremost motive, the individual building takes a back row seat to the composition of the streetscape. An architect then asks themselves not "which design will most benefit my career?" but rather "what is the most beautiful building I can design to enhance this street and this city?" Gone would be purposefully ugly buildings designed with the express intent of shocking just for the sake of shocking.

Beautiful buildings represent the best of what we as humans can create, hence the paramount importance of beauty-minded architects to our society. We can be grateful for those outliers who have not abandoned beauty, even at the cost of ridicule from the architectural establishment and the "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" crowd. This tiny minority of architects and their supporters, people who still have the ability to recognize beauty when they see it (who possess a sense of beauty as I like to call it), can give one hope that eventually the tide will turn.

Architecture has never existed in a bubble. It's always been a reflection of society's values and aspirations, so the current state of architecture comes as little surprise. It's no mystery why architecture as a profession has lost its status in society, when the very architects tasked with designing our buildings and cities not only do not create beauty, but instead create ugliness. So much so that even the word "beauty" is all but taboo in the building industry.

Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly cynical world where a selfless pursuit of beauty is absent not only in architecture but in almost all areas of culture. Today it is more important to call attention to oneself by any means possible than to uphold any kind of standards. The individual is prioritized over the whole, a consequence of our hyper-individualistic "look at me!" culture. Also evident, for example, in the way people dress and behave. Modesty and humility are out, and what we get instead is attention seeking, everyone vying for personal gain and fame. Crassness has replaced elegance, collective beauty replaced by collective ugliness. Technologies such as television, the internet, and smartphones have only accelerated this trend.

It is also evident that atheism is failing us. The growth of a secular, materialist culture parallels the rise of ugliness. Where once humans built beautiful buildings because to do otherwise would be an affront to God and his creation, we now have nothing that obligates society to... anything, let alone beauty. Love for God has been replaced with love for money, resulting in a culture which adores the wealthy, regardless of their character or the means they used to obtain it. We need a cultural transformation, one obsessed not with wealth, but rather love and beauty.

It would be easy to trivialize the importance of beauty, or treat it as secondary to a host of other issues facing humanity, but that would be ignoring the very essence of what makes us human. We are intensely visual beings. Our vision is our strongest sense, and overall is among the best of any species. We are formed by what we see. Whether we spend time in a beautiful or ugly environment has a significant psychological influence on our wellbeing. To suggest that beauty is a luxury, far less important than the basic needs of food and shelter, is to suggest that the mental wellbeing of the poor is secondary to the rich, who can afford to live and vacation in beautiful environments, something further amplified by the economic segregation that is the hallmark of suburbia.

Speaking for myself, I see ugliness as an attack against all living beings. I cannot emphasize enough how pessimistic and depressed I become when I witness an ugly environment full of concrete, asphalt, and steel. It has a profound impact on my state of mind. I'm not the only one, as more and more studies are showing a link between modern built environments and increased levels of stress and depression. We are shaped by where we live.

We can control a lot of things about our lives, such as a healthy diet and exercise, but the external built environment is very difficult to control. Even if you can build a beautiful home for yourself, any kind of travel will very quickly cast you into a land of concrete and asphalt (yes, even in Switzerland, where I live). Ugliness is almost impossible to escape from. It has ensnared all of modern civilization, but why should we be forced to witness it?

Zurich. Even Switzerland is not safe from the scourge of ugliness.

At a time when accusations of rights infringements are the name of the day, maybe we should have a discussion about a right to beauty, about the freedom to live our day to day lives without the stress of an ugly built environment. With countries like India and China urbanizing at a very rapid pace, there's no time to lose. The lives of hundreds of millions of people could be forever altered for the better if beauty was a cornerstone of all new development.

Even if life is tough, living in a beautiful town or city, or even on a beautiful street, can make the difference between a bearable and unbearable day. Being surrounded by Georgian and Victorian architecture in London, and plentiful parks, had a substantial effect on my overall wellbeing during the years I lived there. Seeing the kind of beauty created by past generations also helped uphold my faith in humanity and prevented pessimism and cynicism about the future from creeping in.

Long after today's crop of developers and investors are cold in the ground, their legacy will live on. Their money will no longer be of any use to them, but what they can leave behind is a world more beautiful than the one they entered, somewhere their children and descendants can be proud of, where they and all humanity can fulfill the journey of life in paradise. They hold the key to make this dream a reality. All it takes is love for their fellow men and women.

We must do better. We must be better stewards of our cities and our planet. For Plato, beauty was a universal quality, objective, an idea above all other ideas. Beauty was a central tenet of Ancient Greek culture, and more recently it figured strongly during the 18th century Romantic era. It is time to elevate beauty once again to its rightful place, to enter a new age of beauty.

Modernist ideology is not an excuse to ignore beauty. Developer profits are not an excuse to sideline beauty. It is time to end the cycle of exploitation and destruction of our planet. We're already witnessing a societal implosion as a result of growing resentment and bitterness. The need to prioritize beauty has never been more pressing than today. For the love of all mankind, it is time to once again build beauty.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Absence of Restraint

It has often been noted by architects and designers that great design is born out of constraints, and the more challenging the constraints, the greater the chance of a better design. We see a parallel in the natural world, where plants grown in challenging conditions produce more abundant flowers and tastier fruits. The extra stress forces designers to work harder and come up with more creative solutions. Think of the beauty of Tuscan hill towns or Fallingwater, buildings which could not have been anywhere else.

Today, technology has allowed us to sweep aside constraints. We no longer have to work with the environment. We can level the building site, use whatever materials we want, and ignore climatic challenges thanks to HVAC systems. Who cares if something as simple as louvers or awnings could drastically lower the AC load in the summer? Fossil fuel energy is cheap, and tenants pay the bill anyway. We choose the easy way and show no restraint. 

Restraint has been a necessity throughout most of human history. Architects and builders have had to work with a limited pallet of natural materials, difficult terrain, and rely on their own muscles or simple machines to construct buildings. Yet the results were beautiful. 

Today, the sky is the limit. We have access to advanced materials, powerful machines, and can level the earth however we please. We're also "free" of the constraints of traditional design. We can build whatever we want! Yet our buildings have never been uglier. Humanity could have taken advantage of the advances in technology to build more beautiful buildings than we ever have before, buildings more integrated with nature, and more humane than ever. Instead, we're putting up glass and steel monstrosities, paving our cities with concrete and asphalt, and defacing our cities and our planet. 

We have let the worst tendencies of our imagination run wild, with catastrophic results. The natural goal of humans should be to create a paradise on Earth, but we seem to be bumbling towards a dystopia. Among many modern architects, where even discussion of beauty is taboo, and ugliness something of a fetish (just look at the obsession with brutalism), it's less bumbling, more conscious aiming.

Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square. Image credit: Evan Goldenberg on flickr
If anything is a cautionary tale about the perils of a lack of restraints, our built environment is close to the top of the list, affecting the lives of nearly every person alive, especially in urban areas. Newly sprouting cities in Southeast Asia are the scariest examples of what happens when there is a development free-for-all, with old neighborhoods destroyed and social cohesion obliterated by shiny new districts. Devon Zuegel made some excellent posts about her travels through some of these cities (such as this one about Jakarta), highlighting what alien and dehumanizing landscapes they can be. Unfortunately, rather than seeing these cities as examples of what not to do, more and more cities are building large, out of scale and disharmonious developments (Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square comes to mind). 

As I've pointed out many times before, architecture is a product of its culture, and again we see parallels in our everyday lives, with restraint less and less evident every year. Where once civility in speech was the order of the day, curse words now feature prominently in everyday conversations. Whereas at one time the goal in dress was to show as little skin as possible, today it seems to be as much skin as possible without breaking the law. At one time, before mass manufacturing, the focus was on buying a few things of high quality, and so clothes were high quality, toys were solid, and everything meant to last a long time. Today we have fast food and fast fashion, phones we replace every two years, and gadgets we play with for 5 minutes before chucking them in the closet forever. Quantity has replaced quality. 

So we come to buildings, where the same cultural transformation is evident. Many architects couldn't care less about a design integrating with its surroundings, and most developers only care how cheap a building they can get away with, at a time of record profits. Where once buildings were designed to stand for hundreds of years, today it's a miracle many buildings stand at all. Throwaway culture leaves no stone unturned. 

As children we're taught to leave a place better than we found it. Lamentably, that lesson hasn't carried over to how we treat our planet and expand our built environment. In fact quite the opposite, as every year we do more and more damage to both, much of it irreparable in our lifetimes.

Was all this inevitable? No! Technological advances (with the help of the advent of advertising and consumer culture) tapped into our base instincts, and we showed no restraint to resist. We thought we were breaking free of the shackles of restraint, only to step into a new swamp of the opposite extreme. How do we get back on track? The environmental movement could be the answer. 

Another hallmark of our time is materialism, so only rational arguments hold sway in public discourse. It may be difficult to convince a materialist of the importance of beauty for beauty's sake, but the importance of preserving the environment is a logical enough argument for most. Therefore, as individuals, we can support walkable towns and cities, where the car and all that goes with it (strip malls, surface parking lots, etc.) doesn't dominate our built environment. We can choose smaller, yet higher quality homes. 

Architects must design human-scaled developments made from natural materials and built in harmony with the natural landscape and climate. The health and well-being of end-users must always take precedence over making grand gestures. Controlling that urge takes a lot of restraint, as would breaking free from modernist ideology and once again prioritizing beauty. As for developers, they are both the most responsible for what is being done to our cities, as well as the most able to save them. They must see their role as more than just manufacturers of "units", but rather of homes and communities. A city is not an oil well which can be sucked dry for the sake of profits, and then abandoned. It is home to real people and must be cultivated, like a garden, over the long term.

Just because we can do whatever we please, doesn't mean we should. The greater our powers become, and the lesser our constraints, the greater our restraint must be. Just as architects abandoned restraint over the course of many decades, it will easily take a generation or more to reverse the trend, assuming wider cultural changes. Buildings not designed to be beautiful are merely construction, not architecture. It will have to start among practicing architects before trickling down into education, but first architects will have to understand their role in spreading beauty. When beauty becomes the priority, everything else falls into place.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A difference of perspective

Recently on Twitter, Steve Mouzon (@stevemouzon) asked his followers how many daily activities they could complete by walking. It's an innocent enough question, but being the internet in 2017, it yielded quite a few aggressive responses from suburbanites horrified of the prospect of giving up their cars.

Thing is, I think a lot of the animosity has to do with differences of perspective. My guess is that a lot of the commentators, when they think of a walkable, urban city, immediately envision Times Square rather than Park Slope or a traditional small town. It's not ignorance, it's just that most suburban Americans have so little experience with walkable neighborhoods that it's difficult even to imagine what it might look like or what it's like to live there. Sure there are fantastic examples of traditional urbanism in North America, but it's so rare that most Americans have never seen it (and even those that do rarely spend enough time or thought to empathize what living there might be like). Walkable urbanism is so far removed from the average American existence that it might as well be the moon.

I used to be one of those people, in a way. While I disliked the suburbs intensely, it was more because of the low quality architecture and hideous strip malls, and while I admired beautiful European cities on photos, I had no idea what it was actually like to be a resident. That all changed when I lived in London and finally got to experience how liberating it could be to live without being dependent on a car for everything. And that's a completely different perspective.

If we want to see more walkable communities being built, we need to show suburbanites that being without a car is not a nightmare, but rather extremely liberating. It requires some adjustments, obviously, but most of them are for the better, in my opinion.

Responding to some of the comments
Amidst the baseless accusations of smugness, F* you's, and other insults, it was clear that many commentators didn't seem to understand that this was a comparison between traditional urbanism and sprawl (where the vast majority of Americans live). It doesn't apply to farmers and others living in truly rural locations. Still, although it's true that in most of the US farmers live miles away from town, this hasn't been the model throughout most of human history. Farmers used to live in rural villages, with their land surrounding the villages. Being a farmer and living in a vibrant social community was therefore not mutually exclusive.

There are a couple of replies regarding how is one to do the weekly grocery trip without a car. In walkable communities, rather than a weekly shopping trip, you stop in at the corner grocery on your way back from work or when you're coming back from errands, buying only what you need for a day or two. It's easy when walking is part of your daily routine, and you get the benefit of always eating fresh food.

Another common argument I saw was along the lines of "no thanks, I don't want to be assaulted" or "I like my peace and quiet". It's certainly very regrettable that many inner city areas, especially in the US, have high levels of crime, but that's a whole different discussion and not related to the inherent values of urban living. Furthermore, there are plenty of residential urban neighborhoods throughout the US where crime is not commonplace. The latter comment is in a similar vein. Both these commentators have clearly never been somewhere like Park Slope, or the many neighborhoods in cities throughout Europe, which are often just as peaceful and quiet as the suburbs. I lived on a terraced street in North London for a few months which had almost no cars driving through, and as a result was more quiet than the suburban street I grew up on in Indiana.

Some people will always need a car occasionally (plenty of people in London have a car), but the point is that it's not needed every day. The car is there for the occasional larger shopping trip, or excursions out of town on weekends, but you're not tied to it for your daily commute and could easily go without it thanks to taxis, public transit, and car sharing.

To all those accusing pro-urbanists of trying to inflict our views on them, don't forget that since the 1960's almost all new development in North America has been car-centric, and in most cities it's very difficult if not impossible to live without a car. So if anything, those who would prefer to walk have for years been forced to live with a car, even if they don't want to!

Making urban living more appealing
If we turn the discussion towards how to better promote urban living for those who are skeptical, another very important missing factor in most debates is beauty. Quite the opposite, in fact, with city officials these days going out of their way to avoid discussing design and beauty, such as when former NYC Planning Director Amanda Burden
said: "We never talk about design. We have never talked about design."

For centuries cities cared about architecture and promoted beauty with various regulations ranging from setbacks to the kind of brick used, but in the second half of the 20th century it became taboo. And we're to be surprised that cities look more and more ugly by the day, or that people then don't want to live in them? Urbanists and planners can talk for hours about the benefits of walkable communities (health, stronger local economies, stronger social connections, etc.) but if they're not appealing places to live, they'll never gain traction. Making more beautiful neighborhoods would also lower the barrier of entry. Right now beautiful historic neighborhoods are prohibitively expensive precisely because they're so rare, but if we built more beautiful new urban neighborhoods, there would likely be less people wanting to move to one of the few historic neighborhoods left and housing prices wouldn't be so extreme (supply and demand and all).

Only a very small fraction of the population (those without a sense of beauty) tolerate living somewhere full of sterile glass boxes. Unfortunately those are the sort of places being built around the world, and it really pains me. Lovable communities must be beautiful, period. Ignoring beauty is a losing game.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Government is detrimental to good development

Software companies tend to release regular updates which add just a few features yet still cost an arm and a leg. With most software, though, there comes a time when the code becomes bloated and messy, to the point where iterative updates are no longer efficient and it's better to start from scratch. Government laws and regulations are much the same, and it's pretty plain to see that in most countries they've become so bloated that we're long past the due date for a reset. 

How is this related to cities and architecture? When we consider the efforts of urbanists and planners to turn our cities around and reclaim them from the automobile's dominance, it's very relevant. A myriad of ballooning laws and regulations are making it all but impossible to build the fine-grained mixed-use city districts which are paramount for high quality urbanism and walkability. Regulations are making it more and more difficult for small developers who actually care to compete with large developers (you know, the guys who lobbied for added complexity in the system in the first place). It's quite ironic that the government is always talking about boosting the economy, but when it comes down to it, their involvement is, more than anything else, a hindrance. 

To build anything now, you need an army of consultants to get though the permitting process. You need environmental reports, sustainability reports, traffic studies, etc etc. And has this resulted in higher quality cities? No! On the contrary, it's resulting in the further erosion of neighborhoods, the destruction of historical properties, and increasingly oversized new buildings. 

The building process is becoming so complex and expensive that no small developer can afford it, which means more and more of all building is done by large developers, who in turn build grossly oversized buildings to recoup the expenses of the ridiculously over complex bureaucratic process. You see it throughout cities in North America: giant buildings encroaching on neighborhoods where they're entirely inappropriate, yet there's a complete lack of the kind of mid-rise buildings which would fit into and contribute to the existing context. Worse, the kind of historic neighborhoods most beloved by residents would be largely illegal to build today due to restrictive codes. 

King Street, Charleston, around 1915. Beautiful and beloved, it would be all but impossible to build today, as it would not meet building codes. Among its illegal qualities are no setbacks, no parking, elements protruding over the sidewalk, apartments over shops, and the road itself is too narrow for fire departments' liking. 

With so many regulations restricting what you can't build, everything ends up looking the same while also being far more expensive. Cookie-cutter developments have become the norm, severely limiting choice. 

Whereas in the not too distant past our villages and towns grew organically, planned and built locally with knowledge that had been accumulated over thousands of years, today the most simple of tasks, even a new sidewalk, requires an expensive and extremely time-consuming process of permits, studies, and the involvement of dozens of consultants and government departments. The result is that the regular citizen is hardly involved, and the final product insanely expensive and vastly inferior in both logic and beauty to what laypeople once built. 

In fact, the most beloved neighborhoods of the 19th century were largely built with very little government involvement. Not only very little government, but very little so-called experts in general. In the 19th century, you didn't have specialists separated into architects, planners, builders, surveyors, and dozens of consultants. How do I know? One of the greatest resources available to anyone interested in London development is the archive of the Survey of London. It's an invaluable asset, with detailed information about the history of major developments such as the Grosvenor Estate, Ladbroke Estate, Portman Estate, and a host of other developments (called estates because they used to be, and some still are, private land owned by the landed gentry). Besides a huge amount of text, there are plans and sketches of the developments, and drawings of the buildings. 

What stands out reading the histories is that apart from needing permission to build sewers (likely because it was part of a larger system), developers were largely free to do as they pleased. Surveyors designed the street pattern along aesthetic desires, and architects and builders started work as soon as money was available. Often a surveyor was also an architect and/or a builder, or all three combined. None of them would be considered an "expert" by today's standards, as they rarely had formal training and the professions were not legally protected the way they are now. You were an architect because you designed buildings and called yourself one, not because you went through seven years of training and passed any sort of exam. 

And yet, the neighborhoods these non-experts designed were beautiful, superior to anything built since. Their work is proof of the power of common sense and talent. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely because of a lack of formal training that these men were as good as they were. Unencumbered by ingrained methods, they could follow their intuition. There was no one to tell them what was right or wrong, no "best practices" or government bureaucrats demanding that this or that code be adhered to. 

The simplicity of the process meant that anyone could be a developer, and in fact with the Ladbroke Estate (today known as Notting Hill), among the developers were carpenters, a doctor, a clergyman, and even a cheesemonger. The neighborhood they built is a marvel and the homes beautiful. Standing for over 160 years, they are now among the most expensive in the world.

Kensington Park Gardens, Notting Hill, around 1900. Again, much of what makes this street special is no longer legal.

Today, with laws dictating so much of what you can and can't build, suggesting that our housing development is "market-driven" is a complete sham. On the other hand, those 19th century developments we love so much were truly market driven. Developers built what they believed customers wanted, and everything was paid for by the developers, and in turn by customers. Unlike today, the streets, streetlights, sewers, and plumbing were not subsidized by the government. There were no tax abatements, no zoning telling them where they were allowed to build what, no minimum set back requirements, no parking requirements, and no standards of minimum or maximum units per acre. There was none of that. They simply built what they thought would sell, and the majority of the costs were covered by private investors, so neither were there banks demanding that the development conform to standard forms they could bundle into mortgage backed securities.
This just barely scratches the surface. The simple fact is this: if we want our future towns and cities to be as beautiful and walkable as in the past, we must design neighborhoods that don't prioritize the automobile, and the government needs to get out of the way. We need to start trusting ourselves a little more. We know intuitively what's good and what isn't. You don't need a PhD to know a great neighborhood when you see it, and armies of consultants, big money, and government are all a hindrance to creating beautiful, local places. Especially the government and local and national codes, and the Department of Transportation, who are all only too happy to tell you what you can't do (for a fee, of course). 

I would highly recommend watching any of urbanist Andres Duany's speeches on lean urbanism for a dose of reality on these topics, what he calls "the hurdle of bureaucracy". Here's a good intro. Duany speaks with the kind of common sense sorely lacking these days, and he's also one of the greatest orators around. As one of the most prominent New Urbanist planners, he knows better than most the tremendous amount of effort required to get non-standard developments approved. 

City building is a task for generalists, for a jack of all trades, someone unbiased who can weigh everyone's needs equally, not letting any one group or entranced interest dictate the process. Beautiful developments require the triumph of common sense, something in short supply nowadays. And though it may be controversial to admit, and difficult to see happen, bureaucracy must be swept aside. Of course that's not an easy thing to do as governments never voluntarily relinquish their powers, but we are long overdue for a reset if we truly care about improving our built environment.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A sense of the temporary

There is a troubling, permanent sense of the temporary in London, something you can feel in neighborhoods across the social strata, from Hackney to Kensington. This is unhealthy both for the city and its individuals because it prevents residents from putting down roots, and feeling at "home" in their city. Regular readers know that I love London more than any other city, but this fault threatens the long term vitality and character of this amazing metropolis. 

As beautiful as Knightsbridge is, a sense of the temporary is not dependent on how wealthy an area is. Even in the exclusive borough of Kensington & Chelsea, over half of residents rent, and those that are owned are not necessarily lived in, with many homes owned by wealthy foreigners who are rarely in town, with no interest in the community.

This stems, of course, from extremely high housing costs, far above what students and workers can afford, putting pressure even on high-wage earning workers such as doctors and lawyers. Of course this is something London shares with most other large cities, and this post could probably apply to them as well, but more specifically this is based on my personal experiences in London. 

High housing costs make life in a city more difficult, or even impossible for those earning a minimum wage. In London this is especially acute as there is no specific minimum wage, a strategy often used in large American cities such as New York and San Francisco. A bartender in London makes the same wage as a bartender in the countryside, with obvious consequences for their quality of life. Everyone knows that high housing costs lead to uncomfortable compromises, but they also lead to less obvious problems.

Walking around most of London, you seldom have a sense that you're in a true neighborhood, that residents care about the long term future of their immediate area and are part of a community. Barely able to afford the rent for their apartment, let alone buy their own home, most residents are simply passing through, waiting for their opportunity to move somewhere slightly better or maybe further out to get more space. It's a double edged sword: with housing prices going up faster than wages, many find themselves trapped between wanting to move somewhere better but not being able to afford it. They end up in a limbo, in a constant waiting game, with the end result being that they feel no ownership or connection with their existing community.

When locals can't afford to buy their own homes, the majority of ownership rests in the hands of landlords, large and small. What both have in common is indifference. Except at the extreme luxury end, buildings owned by landlords are rarely as well looked after as owner-occupied homes. They're less likely to be renovated, and far less likely to have gardens out front. All of which further contributes to a sense of the temporary, walking along streets in far worse condition than they could be.

The street in Islington, North London that I lived on my last two months in London. The terrace buildings are decent Victorian stock, but are pretty much all renter-occupied, with landlords who invest little in their upkeep. Most residents, young people like myself, are simply passing through, and the street has no sense of community. Islington, coincidentally, has among the highest percent of renter-occupied homes in the UK at over 70% 

Something too rarely mentioned in articles about the housing affordability crisis is the effect it has on starting families. The decision on when to get married or have children should be a personal decision, but in large cities it has become held hostage by not being able to afford a decent place to live. Many who want to have children can't. Contrast this with my friends who still live in Indiana (like me, in their late 20's). They're not wealthy, just your usual college-educated middle-class working professionals, yet most have already bought 3+ bedroom homes in decent locations, and a few already have children. With my friends in London, however, none can afford to buy even a small apartment, even those in their mid 30's. Most still live with flatmates, something my Indiana friends haven't had to do since their college days. Just to be clear, these are people with good jobs. 

Ignoring cultural differences, my London friends for the most part can't have kids even if they wanted to. Their life circumstances just wouldn't allow it without serious financial consequences and it'd be a tight squeeze as 2+ bed apartments don't come cheap. They're being forced to delay important life milestones, unable to begin a truly "adult" life. The longer this situation stretches, the greater effect it will have on residents into old age as well. Don't take this as me advocating for large suburban homes. Far from it. I'm simply talking about decent 2-bed apartments in reasonably family-friendly locations. 

Waterlow Park, North London

You'd be hard pressed to find someone more enamored with London than me, but if the city continues on its current trajectory, pretty soon it'll be little more than a playground for young singles and the international elite. If home prices don't come down to levels a mid-30's working professional can afford, London will find itself bereft of the middle class which has always been every city's economic engine, which equally impacts local businesses like shops. That's not a sustainable trajectory for a "lived in" city and just further contributes to the city lacking a sense of permanence.  

There's no easy fix. Either homes prices have to fall, or wages go up... drastically. Neither of these is likely to happen anytime soon to the degree necessary for a true and long lasting shift. Eventually, though, I think it will, once society starts suffering from the effects and has had enough. A city like London is perfectly positioned for the shift, with a large stock of resilient historical buildings which have survived the test of time and are always ready to serve owners dependably with a little love and care. 

Housing statistics: Housing in London 2015 report

Monday, September 12, 2016

An alternative perception of cars

Kentlands, MD. Photo from flickr: kaibates/Creative Commons

So much of our reality is based on perception. Take cars. When I was a teenager, like most boys my age I was obsessed with cars. Owning a Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Porsche seemed like one of the greatest achievements one could reach in life. 

Today, nothing could be further from the truth for me. As much of a car guy as I used to be (and I still appreciate some cars as impressive mechanical achievements), when I see a $100k+ car, the first thing I think is "dang, you could go on a lot of nice vacations for that kind of money." Now I'm not saying anyone is wrong to buy an expensive car. I'm not one to tell others how to spend their money. It's just not something I understand anymore. 

That's a lot of nice vacations...

Most Americans live in a built environment where the daily use of a car is all but required, so it's unsurprising that the car has become an integral part of the culture. Actually, this is increasingly true in a lot of countries. I live in a middle-class kind of area in Switzerland, with an apartment building, rowhouses, and single family homes on my street. It's not suburban sprawl in the American sense, that doesn't really exist here, but it's suburban in the sense that it's removed from the city and a car is required for daily activities, with the nearest supermarket 2km away. A two car household is pretty standard. Just like in the US, with the car occupying such an important place in daily life, for many it naturally becomes a status symbol. Keeping up with the Joneses is almost a ritual for many car-owning suburbanites, something that signals how successful one is in life.

The lower portion of my street in Switzerland, with a four-story apartment building on one side, parking on the other
Further down the street are semi-detached/duplex houses (with a shared garage wall), with the front mainly given over to parking
Being removed from a car dependent existence for three years while living in London, I was able to experience the alternative: a life on two legs. Car owners love to play up the "freedom" they get from their car, but for me true freedom is not being dependent on a 2-ton machine, but rather the ability to walk when and where I please, not just where someone at some time decided to plunk down a strip of asphalt. I don't want to be worried about speed cameras, parking, traffic, and whether or not I've had a drink. To me, life has become about experiences, not things, and in that context the car is more of a burden than a treasure, another loan that keeps one tied to the system.

The car culture is deeply entrenched into modern life, and it will remain that way for decades to come, especially if we see EV's and autonomous cars as some kind of panacea. But I think it's paramount to acknowledge that not everyone agrees with or wants to be part of the car culture, and make sure that alternative, walkable communities are available. Of course, the problem with entrenched cultures is that people tend to reject what's different, and in most cities it's not even legal to build traditional walkable communities. That has to change. 

I've always believed the best way to convince a skeptic is to lead by example, so my sincere hope is that once the walkable alternative is easy for all to experience, even those who can't imagine a life without cars will lower their defenses, at the very least making it easier to build more such communities. Maybe some of them will even convert over once they see how gratifying it can be to have schools, shopping, work, and play all within walking distance. Or a bakery steps away so you can get fresh bread for breakfast: priceless. A healthy, holistic neighborhood is one that doesn't require residents to leave for daily needs. Cars have their place, but should not be required for basic daily needs.

Once people see how pleasant the alternative can be, my hope is they'd be less resistant to walkable communities being built in their own cities. Photo from flickr: ugardener/Creative Commons
Small parks like this one in Kentlands are used much more often than most front lawns and help build a sense of a shared community. Photo from flickr: Dan Reed/Creative Commons

Person by person, the change will come, and maybe one day soon an elegant pair of walking shoes will be just as much a status symbol as cars are today.