More Than A Mortgage Crisis? Absolutely. This is a crisis that relates to tastelessness, bad planning, egregiously bad design, phony greed, warped aspiration, truncated choice and national myopia that would reduce a latter-day H. L. Mencken to blathering tears.
Let me parse each of the terms I have used to describe our current and still-unfolding crisis.
Tastelessness. There is perhaps no example of architectural depravity more clear and transparent than the bilious design and execution of the BIG HOUSE. The home with umpteen bedrooms and all manner of ancillary chambers that is a cross between gingerbread and drab cardboard with ornamentation that would induce retching if it was not so pervasive and therefore passively accepted. When one puts tons of these together, we end up with serial cemeteries for the living.
Bad Planning. One cannot say that this bad planning was accidental. Ah, no. Our social and economic stratification has driven our metro-sprawl, ensuring that we will proliferate over the landscape like some spreading toxic wave, without once confusing anyone as to the alienation that continues to be produced as yesterday’s little boxes become today’s bigger boxes. Of course, the farther away from the job centers, the more miles to money and the more chance of bankruptcy due to the acceptance of criminally-presented loan terms which are no more accidental than the sad shape of our expanding strip cities.
Egregiously Bad Design This sort of design is slavishly subservient to the private automobile and generally designs everything to assure the car’s supremacy, well above the supremacy of human beings. Bad design is based on an inability to understand that history is based on self-evident realities that are so common and accepted that no one notices them. Our self-evident reality is enslavement by the private car. We will never have design that restores a human scale, that places human well-being above automotive dominance, until a divine intervention occurs. Making our economy tank is a start.
Phony Greed. Phony greed is the worst kind of greed because you end up panting for things that turn out to be worthless, or nearly so. Take the greed for space. An extra room or two. Room for an extra car. The whole legerdemain of marketing applied to intimate financial decision making and run through the skein of realtor and banker greed until what is left is millions and millions of CONTRACTS that include perks that are worthless and provisions designed to defeat one’s capacity to set one foot ahead of the other. And one can be reasonably certain that in this sad human greed parade the least are the most hammered. And the only thing worse than the phoniness is the false sympathy of those who left with the most coin.
Warped Aspiration. We all start out saying we want the best. Marriages start. Families proceed apace. Pets are acquired. And then the hammering starts. Responsibilities. Choices. What can we afford? How much can we afford to borrow? Is this really what we want? How did we end up in this neighborhood? How did we end up believing this superstition? Falling in with these people? Help! My aspirations are seriously warped. I am in danger of not being able to tell a story about myself that I can live with. All that remains is for one to be sufficiently warped and photogenic that the media descend and tell the story of another who is in the process of falling through the cracks. Sometimes these warped aspirations end up in random violence. Often in not so random automobile accidents. More and more in descent into destructive behavior ranging from gluttony to abuse to self-denigration. More than a mortgage crisis, for sure.
Truncated Choice. This is a big one. The older we get the more we reflect on our past choices. Every turn might have led to a different result. Depending on who we are and the resources we have, choice is wider or narrower. The flip side of choice is necessity. We live in a city of choice or a city of necessity. When choice gets truncated, we are more anxious or withdrawn or depressed. I do not intend to provide simple diagnoses here. Only to open up the problem — to show that we are in more than a mortgage crisis.
When choice is truncated, the actual choices are less and less appealing. The rich man or woman can endure multiple failures and still have enough to proceed, chin up, to further calamities. Debtors have no such luxury. The happiness sometimes ascribed to the poorest may simply be the absence of illusion and the capacity to see things whole without dwelling on choices one does not have. For most, however, a diminishing field of choice is a definite downer.
National Myopia Myopia is he opposite of being far-sighted, of being able to peer into the future, to see what is coming. The end of oil has been visible for a century and more and is now existentially accessible as a reality for all with eyes to see. What is NOT seen is that our solutions need to at least be open to some redesign of how we live.
The change I believe in is enough move toward trust that we can have a radical expansion of public transit, a radical redesign of human settlement so they are not atomized and deleterious to the earth, a radical increase in the reclamation of PUBLIC space so that it is a net PLUS rather than an interval between the gated realities of rampant privatization.
I could go on.
It is a theme of this blog that we have failed to consider the design we need to create human settlements that will work for everyone. And that the best political proposals in the world will not work unless our settlements are created to enable goods and services and intellectual and spiritual inputs to get to people in a natural and obvious way.
Pattern Language Onsite Links
Cascadia Living Building Challenge Challenged
Barack Obama’s Apollo Project
The Timeless Way of Building — A Signpost
Our Crisis is Not Economic
Alex Steffen Hits The Nail on The Head in Business Week
Common Sense on Human Settlements
Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language
This consigns big separated houses to some nether world and celebrates communities of 5-10K built around pedestrian areas, ecologically OK (green) with health and education and culture integrated into the neighborhood.
None of this can happen until existing polities (zoning) become loose enough to enable some rebuilding, some redesign, some reclamation of the human in the midst of our rampant creation of dysfunctional realms.
More than a mortgage crisis?
A human crisis. And if we are to have change we can believe in, it needs to begin with creating MODELS of a future that is integral. Or else we are condemned to more of the same, and no real change.
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