I found Shannon May’s work when I did a search a China and Sustainable Development (or something like that) She is really doing interesting work that relates to a lot of my thoughts and ideas.
In one post on her blog she asks: Who will live in the countryside?. Of course, what she is talking about is this really skewed and biased notion that all that matters in the world is urban. Soleri, it does seem very echos this conventional notion of what it is to be civilized. Civilized people don’t live in the country, or at least truly embrace rural culture and lifestyles, we are subtly taught to believe as we become intellectuals. This arrogant assumption is deeply embedded in the psyche or some might psychosis of patriarchal civilization and its modern politically correct incarnation: modernity/modern civilization and technologically driven “development.” On this level, I can relate at least some what to those on the Right who question this assumption of the urban being superior to the rural. Yet I think they take the same us verse them thinking, but simply turn it on its head and make the rural look like a Utopian Christian society that has a monopoly on what it means to live the true and proper moral life.
So we are stuck in these flawed notions of what is developed and undeveloped and undeveloped, advanced and primitive, first, second, third and now forth worlds. So thus the flaw of the modernization process is exposed in the idea that we now must become sustainable. Therefore this is an opportunity for so called Emerging Societies/Economies to get smart and leapfrog over all this garbage thinking cloaked in sophisticated wording and word play that seems to be real job of many in the intellectual class. That is of course what Chomsky was referring to when he stated education and particularly the finest Ivy League educations were simply a system of imposed ignorance so as to prepare the smart people in the society for this very important role in maintaining the status quo. So it is one thing to say people are ignorant or primitive or undeveloped, but what if the people who say that are simply deluding themselves to say they are the educated ones.
What if the whole framework by which we measure progress, growth and development is fundamentally flawed?
Well that isn’t exactly what this idea of sustainable development is telling us? If we were so smart as we convince ourselves with our gold plated educational pedigrees, then why did we get ourselves into such a huge ecological and social mess so as to have to invent all these innovations of sustainability to save us from ourselves and our arrogant assumptions of reality?
So in relation to those rosy scenarios of mass urbanization that were sometimes referred to as the demographic transition, we see that a lot of assumptions are made about what is best for people living in these “emerging” societies (in fact all societies were primarily rural until just 100-300 years ago) that until recently were rural-based. Only the elites lived in the cities and their support infrastructure by which they ensure domination of the rest of society which lived in the rural areas because all pre-modern societies were linked to the solar economy (that is there were no energy sources other than the sun). Now we have Oil and figured out how to build a modern economy on the plentitude of it (another assumption) as well as natural resources in general. And the value of our economy is based not only on the continue supply of it but also that supply would be there as our consumption needs for those resources increased exponentially. So its understandable hopefully to all of us as to why we might we might question some of those rosy assumptions.
Shannon May talks further about the issue of what Sustainable Development is. From the start it has been vague and I think purpose so because beginning with the Bruntland Report: Our Common Future, we understood that discussing this idea of sustainability in a global economy that is addicted to growth is an masterful exercise in getting beyond the stifling political correctness that dominates our economy and society when it comes to challenges those deeply embedded notions about growth.
It is striking that there is no explicit subject in this definition of development, and that is where we must begin to work on a new ethical and technical framework. Development is not a technical solution or a natural process, but a human process, spurred on by relational dynamics between persons, places, property, and perspectives. The Brundtland definition not only eliminates the actor and acted upon, but also ignores both the comparative spatial and historical aspects of development, and only looks to future generations. But whose? Those whose needs are being met now by a given development project, or those on whom the development project is enacted? The Brundtland definition obfuscates the relationship between the subject and object of development at a time in which we know that they are rarely the same, and when it is the very differences between subject and object of development that propels the whole process into action.
The very things May describes in her work is exactly what you would need to build something as large scale as an Arcology – community, yet for many the idea of community at Arcosanti was almost a dirty word along with religion, spirit, suburbs and rural – what Soleri sees as driven by this notion of a Grand Delusion driven by animism (this horrendous idea that the essence of the lifeforce that created and sustains the universe is ever present in all things large and small, beautiful and ugly, even good and evil). These things are all part of our reality just as it is that we are faced with the reality (I would say this be included in the category of Grand Delusions) of an civilization that defines urban civilization as all that is meaningful in human history and experience.
Community is one topic I am considering as I contemplate life here in Taiwan. These are very urban societies developing in Asia with a long history of experiences as so called civilized societies. What’s interesting about Taiwan is how it has developed its economy very fast like the other four Asian Tigers which were admired for their remarkable successes in rapidly growing their economy. Was it that innate knowledge of how to design a successful civilized society which they honed over nearly 5000 years that gave them the edge over the Africans and people in other parts of the world? It is a controversial assumption because it implied that the Asians were somehow better. But in the end, I am saying that the idea of urban civilization being superior to rural societies that have a equally long history and heritage is something very questionable in my mind.
Yet we are faced with the paradox as modern people to embrace this idea that urban is superior to rural even though we have this intuitive design to commune and interact with nature which is of course only in the rural. So how do we address the paradox? We create suburbia.
Yet to me the idea of differentiating between super dense urban cores and medium density transitional suburbs is not the ultimate evil as it seems to be in Soleri’s mind, as I see it as natural desire to find the middle group or combine the best of rural and urban. I agree with Soleri that what results in most modern suburban development is a unmitigated disaster. However, in Taiwan I see signs of suburban ring cities around Taipei that actually a quite and intriguing in their design and development. Along the freeway on my to Yilan on Freeway 5, I was surprised that the in the middle of the mountains above Taipei and the freeway was a very significant cluster of large multistory building in a conglomeration that I had never in my travels around the US or Europe.
In Taiwan the idea of a gradual phased transition between medium-high density urban is almost non-existent. Yet the idea of suburb is very much present. Why? I am not sure I have a simple answer but I can’t say I really understand Asia or China that well yet. 5000 years of history and culture is quite a lot to absorb. What is remarkable about Chinese Civilization is its continued relevance and persistence. So is there something to be learned about success in maintaining complex modern societies from those years of embedded wisdom that are expressed in everyday Chinese life and design?
What I do know is that this kind of urban environment is challenging my assumptions of what is a city or an ideal urban planning design because I ultimately agree with Soleri that the compression of the urban space is a necessity if we are going to get serious about building truly sustainable civilizations.
What is unique about Taiwan’s economy is how it has found a balance between large corporate conglomerates like BenQ, Acer, FoxComm, Asus and others and the SMEs/Small to Medium enterprises which dominate the economy in Taiwan.
The major industries in Taiwan are designed to facilitate SMEs so that an ecosystem of collaboration is created: http://www.taiwan.com.au/Polieco/Industry/Major/report01.html
From this springs a sustainable social structure to enable the rapid evolution of the urban space from a holistic perspective. It appears there was some understanding that a vitalistic, thriving urban space required a diversity of community based interactions. And that this was connected to the design of that environment from the cultural, to the economics, to the political (which is of course Taiwan’s weak point) and the social.
So why are there night markets all over Taipei and the other cities in Taiwan? Why do you see hoards of people hanging in parks and streets? Why do you get a sense that people take pride in what they do whether it is collecting the trash cooking the food or teaching the students?
So my core issue is that if you are going to consider some larger scale development in which a single building or complex of buildings houses people in an high density environment you have to in my view look at what actually makes a successful and thriving city, not simply from a philosophical, or even an economic or planning perspective but rather look at the practical stories of the people living in that city, what makes their lives matter to them and worth living? What motivates them to wake up in the morning and give the city its energy to not just survive and thrive and know that their small contribution somehow matters in the keeping of their city alive?