Thursday, October 19, 2017

The purpose of urbanism

My vocation, that is, urbanism or “making cities better”, is concerned with the supportive function of places and institutions in the pursuit, by individuals and communities, of self-improvement and self-governance. The opportunity space for the work is defined by three large categories of human endeavor:
the development, through the agency of individual effort, of ever deepening personal capacities and ever deepening social bonds, with the ‘production of social meaning’ as both means and ends;
the formation, strengthening, and renewal of institutions, paradigms and norms, and their ongoing maintenance and re-calibration toward the changing needs of the individuals and communities they serve; and
the production, signification, entitlement, and emancipation of urban spaces; and the maintenance, reconfiguration, and defence of those spaces in the course of their service to institutions, communities and individuals.
Each of the three has a characteristic tilt, an organic vectored flow that defines each domain with regard to purposes that can be aspirational or prescriptive.
Individual development grows toward deepening the meaning and satisfaction derived from an individual’s efforts; and toward drawing those efforts into increasing alignment with the efforts and goals of a group, in the service of enriching and increasing the production of social meanings.
Institution-building grows toward the codification of patterns and the accumulation of resources, most essentially the resources of attention, channeled (through patterning) toward enunciated causes, and of the resources of reputation, held in reserve to collateralize risky efforts and legitimize difficult change.

Placemaking grows toward: engendering a unique sense of identity, a genus loci verging on personhood; deepening a quality of immersion, the gesamtkunstwerk that lets habitat merge with self-image; and increasing the performative, social catalytic effectiveness of place, its capacity to metabolize social energies and to channel and conventionalize the production of social meanings.
For more on the practice of urbanism: An Overview of Urbanism

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Against Prestige

This essay addresses one of the dimensions of the landscape of inequality: the structures of prestige, reputation and empowerment through which a society grants positions of singular influence to individual leaders.
What is needed are conscious actions to counteract the reinforcing hierarchical effects of these habits of prestige-building. An individual may be worthy or deserving of a position of responsibility in an organization; our objective here is to identify a tipping point at which meritocratic promotion becomes kingmaking, leading to the loss of opportunity for others: for individuals and organizations, but more significantly in the broader societal paradigm that an excess of kingmaking reinforces.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Natures and the Culture of Resilience

In early indigenous cultures, nature was the source of material and of technique, and culture was the work of forming something from them. Even at that beginning point, a cultural work had a linguistic dimension, a referential dimension, that is, a self-referential dimension. The manner of its construction was also a speech act, speaking the instructions for its replication by the next generations, and more importantly, speaking its myth, the reasons and motivations for its replication.
This can be briefly illustrated with the case of animal ‘constructions’. A bird or beast may weave a nest, or build a bower. They will use materials and techniques from nature, and perhaps they even build instructions into the work for future generations to repeat. But they do so in their own language, and if there is a mythic dimension, surely we cannot read it. Humans may even reuse a bird’s nest or a lion’s bower, but we don’t share a language with them. When we make something for ourselves, it participates, deeply, in the distinctive forms of our shared self-awareness, and that awareness is linguistic.
Such cultural production forms a “second nature”, a complete world of things made by the hand of man.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Resource Exploitation

The words are paired in meaning. A material resource is simply part of the natural world, or part of an indigenous economy, until it is organized and expatriated for exploitation. Human labor, or indeed any of the intangibles that comprise "human resources", are simply part of our lived reality and personhood until they are organized and externalized for exploitation. Resources must be alienated before they can be exploited. Alienation, and its resistance, must perforce involve forms of violence. The inherent value of a resource is fundamental, but it is hidden and unmeasurable; the use-value can be measured, but only in and by the process of exploitation. The foregoing suffices to illustrate that it is relatively easy to think about resources, and to aspire to rescue them from the grips of the word pair: to "humanize" them, and to "take their side". It is Marxism 101.

Now we turn to exploitation, and find it is much harder to think about. No one wants to take the side of the exploiter, or even worse, admit that one is already the exploiter or complicit with the exploiter. But we find that we need to understand and redeem the concept. Rather than content ourselves with the comforting idea that exploitation “ought not” happen, we must confront it and transform it; it is lodged too deeply in human nature, and arguably in nature itself, to simply wither away. Post-colonial thinkers decry the violence of exploitation, but then struggle to define the proper exercise of power in a self-governing state. Deep ecologists castigate industrial resource extraction, but openly admire the raw and straightforward manner in which natural systems (and idealized indigenous cultures) make use of all available inputs.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Seeking Alternatives to the Tourism Model of Historic Preservation in China

I. Preservation paradigms

Framing the issues
This essay consists of personal observations about the preservation of China’s heritage resources at the urban scale. While many of the issues raised also directly impact the protection of individual structures, my concern is for ensembles of structures, and for the cultural attitudes and economic strategies that determine their fate in the face of rapid urbanization.
While preservation efforts serve objectives within the domain of the conservation of cultural patrimony, they also contribute to broader city-building and culture-building objectives and thus finally to the “common good”. The western model of ‘preservation for its own sake’, cannot adequately protect ensembles of buildings at the urban scale, and it cannot make critical contributions to the common good. China’s prevailing preservation strategy -- the “Tourism Model” referenced in the title -- has its own limitations, limiting its effectiveness at both scales: delivering preservation outcomes, and contributing to broader community objectives.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Social Power and the ‘State’ of Community Development

This essay explores the role of social capital in community development, and the current situation of the altruistic instinct. Altruism has recently seen the rise of some unexpected champions, and a great many people seem more eager than ever to make “places for people” in our cities. But our efforts fail to keep pace with the quiet desperation that recent decades have brought to working people around the world. Mobility and inequality have hollowed out the idea of community, often leaving behind little more than an aging ethnological conceit. The real tactical capability of ‘community’ seems to fall as its lip service rises. We find community development -- and altruism -- in an uncomfortably constrained position, embedded in an outdated positivist paradigm of social change, caught between the conflicting and conspiring directives of corporate capitalism and state power.
I want to start making a little room for other perspectives in a field -- community development -- that is usually dominated by utopian positivists, whether singing kumbaya or squawking in righteous indignation. Either mode betrays an accommodation, usually entirely unconscious, to a state-supportive bias in the professional consensus reality of our specialities -- planning, economics, political science, geography, sociology et al. Academia offers critiques of this bias from several points of view; the anarchist critique is of particular value, but seems not to have weathered post-structuralism in the way that related perspectives --feminist and post-colonial critiques --  have. A ‘statist bias’, if it can be found and generally agreed to, may not be, in fact, the most dire of the obstacles besetting community development, but I think that trying to root it out with the use of anarchist critiques could at least open some refreshing perspectives for practitioners.

Friday, December 20, 2013

An Overview of Urbanism

The City Observed
The city is an organism, or a species, with its own evolutionary history, its own destiny. We must acknowledge that we are arriving in medias res, in the middle of a long story of shaping and living in cities. Even ‘new’ cities are no exception; they are composed of patterns from other cities, and populated by people from other cities.
As city builders we must acknowledge that designs, plans, and policies don’t animate the city; they can only slightly guide the energies of countless other people who are already a part of the city’s evolution. These energies take several forms: I name culture, motivation, and habit, but there are many more. You may choose to spend time observing the city, or you may focus on design and planning, but we should all start with the awareness that the city has its own life, and that we must understand it, and work with it. Even though the role of design and planning is to impose order on the city, we can’t take the attitude that it is waiting lifelessly for our instructions. And we can’t take the attitude that the city will just simply follow any instruction we give it.
The Idea of the City
As designers, we must approach the work of improving cities from a much higher level than just solving problems. Problems and their solutions are a continuous part of the fabric of the city, the slow evolution that reveals the city’s life force. It is a given that designers and planners are engaged with problem solving, but we are also called upon to provide some deeper vision, and engage with the deeper purposes of the city.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On the Status of the Architectural Surface

Architecture is concerned with the enclosure or division of space. Space is confined by curves or lines. A study of surfaces, their arrangement and intersection, is, therefore, of the essence of architecture. This fundamental fact is obscured by the difficulties obstructing the physical embodiment of our ideas.
Ove Arup
‘Shell construction’, Architectural Design, 17 (11), 1947; reprinted in Arup Journal, 20 (1), Spring 1985.

Architects often debate whether form should follow function or perhaps should be free to follow some other determinant. In either case, form, the writing and reading of intelligible geometric masses, is presumed to be the highest modality of architectural expression, and thus the ultimate purpose of architecture. An unspoken premise in the debate is that surface is subservient to mass -- that the architectural surface must be controlled to assist the mass in doing the “work” of architectural expression.
Our understanding of the architectural surface has been subordinated to a utopic, and idolatrous, paradigm of pure form. In fact, there is no pure form, in the physical world; nor in the constructed world, and most critically, not in the construed world, i.e., the realm of perception and cultural pattern in which ordinary people attach meaning to elements of their environment. Pure form is a figment of the architectural profession and the establishment powers it serves.
The status of the architectural surface must be reexamined in each of three interrelated contexts. The natural world of course is a determinant of available construction methods, and as the matrix of our evolutionary process, nature has also determined much of our perceptual apparatus and the cultural language of social meaning. The processes of construction mediate our place in, and our level of intimacy with, the natural world. And of course they are a significant determinant of cultural patterns, deeply embedded, after several millennia, in language, metaphor and ritual. Our perceptual apparatus, consisting both of deep elements, formed in the evolutionary time scale, and cultural elements, determines how we allow ourselves to engage with the natural frame and the constructed realm.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Urbanism in a community development context

Urbanism means "making cities better". Design is just one of the issues in building stronger cities:

Social Capital: Supporting emergent leaders. We need to understand how leadership emerges from communities, learn how to support it, and how to make room in the decision making process for emergent leaders.

Culture: Building a culture of inclusion.  Cities consist of many overlapping cultures, which left to themselves tend toward separation and conservation. Healthy change requires an active common culture that engages the social ethos of each group to support the rights and needs of all.

Local Economy: Creating livelihoods. We need to reach deeper into the buy local movement to create new manufacturing and value-added enterprises, and support infrastructure like distribution and marketing. Many of these will be social entrepreneurships with triple-bottom-line charters.

Local Politics: Decentralizing the decision-making process.  We need to give local councils more meaningful roles in local government, especially in planning and public works.

Human Capital: Increasing personal capacity. Most workforce programs are overly focused on job skills training.  We need to recognize the immense productive potential of individuals, and support personal development and household stability much more broadly.

Built Environment: Restoring the public realm. Smart growth principles have become mainstream, but most of our cities' neighborhood centers are still neglected and dominated by automobiles. We need to raise residents' expectations for these places, and make a significant commitment of public resources.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Social Catalyst for St.Michael’s Drive

Just few years ago, a conventional approach to redeveloping St. Michael’s drive was still feasible. The collapse of the real estate bubble, and with it, the collapse of many other elements of the growth economy, gives us the opportunity to engage in a different kind of redevelopment. Communities around the world are using another model of economic development, based on the capacities of local residents -- ‘development from within’ -- that is suited to St. Michael’s Drive and to the current state of our economy.

But first, let’s review the conventional model for contrast. A typical redevelopment project of the past few decades brings resources, customers, residents, and cultural patterns from outside of the area. Often, local residents welcome the changes, benefiting from increased job opportunities, housing choice, property values, safety, and urban amenities. But just as often, there are serious unintended consequences of gentrification, that leave locals priced out of housing, under-qualified for new jobs, and excluded from new cultural activities.

How can we get started with the ‘development from within’ model in the St. Michael’s area?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Building a Local Living Economy

Published in Green Fire Times, November, 2010.

When people my age were growing up, progressives had this mindset that everything important had to happen in the margins, not the mainstream. Whether you were thinking about artistic pursuits, politics, or what sorts of professions were offered – people just made that assumption, because so much of the industrial system was still in place. We need to get over that mindset, because so much of it is not marginal anymore. We are the workforce now, and there are plenty of chances to earn a living while doing the things you believe in. A local living economy organizes all of that. It’s a thoughtful people-centered economy that is rapidly becoming our mainstream economy. And there’s no other alternative out there once you realize that we can’t keep shoring up the industrial model.

Localization is not a crusade; it’s a significant evolution of our culture. It’s happening because people are working hard at it. I really think the Santa Fe Alliance is part of a movement that, looking back, won’t be seen as a movement. It will be seen as some huge inevitable turn in the course of our economy. The economy that’s out there isn’t something that inherently can be fair, it’s just not the economy we want, and it’s already falling apart. It’s just never going to make a stable economy for our region. I think the local living economy movement is one place where social justice concerns and environmentalism can come together. The local economy movement is bringing social considerations back into economic decisions.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Santa Fe Alliance President’s Message 2010: The Human Currency

Dear Friends

The last decade has been a sobering one for traditional investing, with the stock market barely keeping pace with inflation. While it has been catastrophic for many individuals, the economic crisis presents us, as a community, with the opportunity to reshape how we think about money in a fundamental way.

What is investing? What is money for, actually? What does prosperity consist of? Our old paradigm is coming up short of answers to these questions. A new paradigm is forming around localization, socially responsible investing, fair trade, and sustainability. At the Alliance, we call it the local living economies movement, and we are proud to be a part of it.

The entry point to the new paradigm is to see our community’s economy for what it really is -- a network of people caring for, and providing for, each other. We need to see through the dollars that our economy is denominated in, to our everyday personal acts of responsibility, acts measured in the true human currency, the currency of caring.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is Santa Fe Complex a Social Enterprise? If Yes, Please Explain.

Yes! A social enterprise, or social entrepreneurship, is an organization whose activities result in both revenues to the organization and benefits to society. A social enterprise can benefit society through direct services to the community, or by reallocating some of its profits to public purposes. The fullest measure of a social enterprise, beyond services and philanthropy, is an organization that benefits society through the manner of its operations, for example a business that employs the handicapped, or makes an otherwise polluting waste stream into a useful product.

Social enterprises range from very mainstream businesses with exemplary employee and environmental policies, to activist organizations with an explicit world-changing mandate. A for-profit company can become a social enterprise by making commitments to social equity and environmental sustainability in its corporate charter. Currently, the B Corporation process is the most carefully structured and widely accepted certification for social enterprises, or “triple-bottom-line” businesses, but there are many other ways to make your commitments public.

Friday, July 2, 2010

President's Message, Summer 2009

Dear Friends:

If we could redesign our local economy, what would it look like?  How can business support our community in the pursuit of happiness, security and justice? And what systematic changes are needed to help local businesses play this vital role?

Santa Fe Alliance is an advocacy organization founded in 2003 to address these issues, and to pursue real solutions for our community. We envision an economy based on principles of self determination, social justice and inclusion, entrepreneurial opportunity, and long-term stability. A sustainable community economy balances the productive strength of financial capital with human and natural capital, making full use of all our community assets. As the voice of the local economy, Santa Fe Alliance helps to ensure that the needs of citizens, small business owners and future generations are all considered.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Green Jobs Redux

Alex Steffen has a provocative piece on the fate of green jobs over at I'll let you read it yourself, but it led me to review where the green jobs concept has gone in New Mexico.

I would be reluctant to lose the name or concept of 'green jobs' even though the vagueness of the phrase played significantly in the collapse of momentum his post chronicles.

In Santa Fe, we managed to create a few youth training programs while the concept was hot, and they've mostly survived. Green jobs are actually not all that glamorous when the dust settles -- most are old-fashioned skilled manual labor jobs like your grandfather had and they can't really support the kind of sustained publicity that was demanded of them in building a national movement.

'Green Jobs' carried a double meaning, and the idea broke down here on both counts: When "green" meant sustainability, the conversation bottomed out in debate locally as to what is or is not a green job -- would an accountant for a solar company be green? And the jobs themselves just simply slowed with the fate of the construction industry. When "green" meant, in a highly coded fashion, that under-privileged youth, or populations generally, i.e. minorities, would be the focus of the programs, the conversation broke down in more complex ways.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Culture of Difference


I hope this finds you in good health and good cheer. I've been thinking about my work, and the work we all do, and want to share some thoughts with you. It seems that now is a good time for us to come together a bit, to focus our work and lives -- our efforts -- on our common enterprise, furthering the art of living well together.

Don't worry, this isn't a pitch for anything. I'm talking about building a common culture, and I am convinced that we are all already working on it, each in our own way. I'm really writing today to affirm that effort and to offer you a bit of time to contemplate how it all fits together.
As people of good will, we are doing our work in ways that sustain the people around us, within the constraints and opportunities life presents us with. I want to lift up and encourage that work, to pause and see it as a common effort, and also to counterbalance feelings of divisiveness and strain. We, people of good will, are the vast majority, and our work, though often hidden or seemingly fragmented, is the basis of the relative prosperity and happiness our communities enjoy.

One of the things that can dishearten us is the false conception that a common culture and cultural diversity are incompatible ideas.