15 September 2005

cities and rebuilding

as we are currently experiencing a new city, one whose center was bombed to the ground during the second world war, and as others in our little blog-o-sphere discuss global warming, seeing into the future, and rebuilding New Orleans, I've been prompted to reflect on city building. and if we thought democracy was messy, cities are unbelievably messy. the good ones—the ones that work most of the time in most of their places, the ones that shift and change gradually and have the ability to adjust, the ones that seem to be seamless—are not the overly-planned ones. or I should say, not the newer ones. DC, Canberra, New Delhi, Chandigarh, even portions of every US city now set upon by mini fake urban expansions—these cities tend only to work in their less planned areas. And, thinking of DC here, many of them are not resilient—they can't bounce back from trauma in any real way. DC is still showing the scars of the 1968 riots, and based on my visit there a few weeks ago, they are not going away with "gentrification." on the contrary, the differences across the city are becoming almost more pronounced as the rich set up boutique fashion shops next to pawn shops, empty windows, and check cashing stores.

this post was spurred by Greg's post on NO and the future rebuilding efforts one hopes might actually occur. they didn't for DC, the nation's capital, but perhaps NO will face a brighter future than that. I was trying to think about tenets for (re)building a city; what you need in order to prepare the soil for some good organic growth. infrastructure for one, hopefully public transportation that encourages people out of their cars and into human interaction (sorry Corbusier). and easy access to food through smaller, local markets rather than the massive box stores on the edge of town. and places to walk. places to ease the city-ness of the city, like central park in Manhattan. should it be a garden city, like the town I was born in, designed from the ground up? or a cardo-and-decumanus grid city, on the grounds that hey, if it worked for the Greeks and Romans, it's good enough for us. or perhaps we should go back to local, vernacular forms of building, attempting in part to respect the landscape and its history. or take a page from Amsterdam's book and perhaps acknowledge that what we're doing by living in NO is ridiculous and hubristic but historically important and thus we must fund the effort to hold back the water and hold up the land.

all of this reminded me of a review of a book on cities that recently came across my e-mail in-box, about resilient cities. the reviewer has one major and interesting critique of the book, the kind of critique that can only arise out of a good book, mind you, so this isn't damning the book. Andrew Herscher, the author of the review points out that the book's focus is sudden, burst-like disasters that effect cities and their responses to them. he suggests that one of the problamatic things the book (and I think by extension our understanding of Katrina and other disasters in our future) assumes is that there is such a thing as a normal working of a city, a status quo, interrupted by disasters, and so the book's project is to see how resilient cities are to these interruptions.

but, as Herscher would no doubt point out, what we're seeing in NO is that in fact this city has been in perma-disaster, much like DC, much like Mumbai, for a very long time. disaster involving socio-economic inequality, racial inequality, infrastructural neglect, and all the rest. a city that's not resilient but in "terminal urban disaster." Much like many cities in the so-called third world, the lesson of NO is at least in part that we can't pretend things are working when they're not. we can't wait for a disaster to kill thousands of people and wipe out an entire city to begin to try to fix things. and frankly, we can't merely mount a critique of the president for his handling of this Katrina disaster. it should be more along the lines of the government's understanding of the socio-economic picture of the entire south—the US south and the global south. as Cornell West wrote a few days ago, we need a marshall plan for the south and we need it now.

1 comment:

pierre charles l'enfant said...

what do you mean, DC is a disaster? the avenues are very stately.