Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Jane Jacobs passed away this morning in a Toronto hospital. She was 89.

In 1961, when Modernism's vendetta against urban civilization was in full swing (when Winnipeg's long-lost Market Square, City Hall and dozens of other treasures, were slated for demolition), Jane Jacob's book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was released. This book turned conventional "clutter-removing" urban planning on it's head, and provided generations of people with the language to say what they had always sensed deep down, but could never express: Why some streets, neighborhoods and cities are wonderful places, and why some are not.

In addition to having an immeasurable effect on the world of urban planning since the 1960's, Jacobs --an uncredentialed stay-at-home mom-- saved the neighborhoods of downtown Manhattan and Toronto by leading the successful oppositions to the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and later on, the Spadina Expressway.

As someone who spends perhaps a little too much time obsessing over urban theory, I find that the conditions for success always comes back to the four principles of a healthy city that Jacobs outlined 45 years ago:
1) The need for primary mixed uses
2) The need for small blocks
3) The need for aged buildings
4) The need for concentration

Thank you, Mrs. Jacobs, for working so hard to successfully save the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan and downtown Toronto, so that decades later, young people like myself can visit and enjoy them. Thank you, too, for inspiring us to fight for our own neighborhoods, in whichever cities they may be.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

It was interesting to see the short leash the Institute of Urban Studies (who hosted the lecture and preceding conference) seemed to keepon JH Kunstler last night. While Kunstler seemed quite apt to take questions --and to answer them at length-- the IUS guys wanted things wrapped up chop-chop. Before and after the lecture, they hung over him like mother hens as he spoke with members of the public (especially when it was with Free Press columnist Dallas Hansen). Did their faces turn red when Kunstler suggested that suburban developments will not continue just because people want them? (Choice, of course, is the reason why IUS director Jino Distasio fully, yet discreetly, supports Waverly West.) One has to wonder if they were worried their keynote speaker may have gotten wise to the UIS and the rest of the planning cabal of Winnipeg, and their support of a housing project-esque downtown, suburb-oriented transit plans such as "Bus Rapid Transit", and suburban sprawl (with a few 'green' bells and whistles thrown) on to continue as usual.

I also wonder how many members of the audience left disliking Kunstler because of some very cut-and-dry comments made about wars and the inevitability of them. From the crowd, made up mostly of members of the progressive thinking classes of our society, I'm sure there were many people bothered by that notion. Kunslter however, did do a good deal of making fun of the present American economy, government, and culture. In the end, this must have won the crowd, since not being America is a cherished Canadian value, and hearing an American bash America gives us a temporary fix from our nationality insecurity, and makes us feel a rush of patriotism.

Of course, everything wrong with the America of today is wrong with the Canada of today; while we aren't bombarded with as many easy Canadian targets for jokes and disgust on TV, the way we are American ones, we are still sleep-walking into the future, still entering a cultural and social dark age, and still facing the same prospects for energy shortage and disaster.

One thing I was reminded of during Kunstler's talk, was how short and experimental in the grand scheme of human history, the car-oriented living arrangements, the housing-based economy, and Wal-Mart-style shopping are. Just because things have stayed the same for 60 years, it doesn't mean they will remain the same for the next 60, or indefinately. That could be a very hard thing for a person mine, or even my parent's age, to understand. All we have known in our life and time is cheap and abundant energy, relative peace and prosperity on our side of the world, and the ever-increasing gigantism of buildings, towns, agriculture and technology. These are things we've all enjoyed, and became quickly accustomed to after World War II ended in 1945. Any North American who is old enough to remember what life was like during a different set of circumstances-- such as the 16 years of war and depression that ended in 1945-- is now over 70 years old.

Living in this unique era of peace, prosperity and individual freedom has allowed us to become the society that has forsaken faith and religion for technology and self-worship. Local social and economic networks that held our cities, neighborhoods and towns together were replaced by television sets. We are preoccupied. For some, it is by American Idol, Dr. Phil, gambling casinos, and WWE. For others, it is by hybrid 4-Runners, Oprah, Wi-Fi networks, and issues like same-sex marriage, national day care, and animal rights. As the Pink Floyd song that has played on the stereos in suburban basement bedrooms for 30 years says, we have become comfortably numb.

Of course no one can correctly say what the future will look like, but evidence taken from the pages of history, and a look at present circumstances, suggest that it won't stay the same, and we will not be able to distract ourselves anymore. "Necessity" will replace "choice" as our main reason for planning, building, transporting, shopping and living the way we do.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Author James Howard Kunstler will be in town tomorrow, giving a free lecture at the Muriel Richardson Auditorium at the WAG (300 Memorial), from 7:00-8:30pm. The lecture is titled The Long Emergancy: Surving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century.

For a good indication of what Kunstler will have to say, see his website at http://www.kunstler.com/

EDIT: This lecture comes on a week that light sweet crude was trading for a hair under $70 a barrell, and on a day that unleaded gasoline is selling at most Winnipeg gas stations for $1.09. Obviously, Winnipeggers are not "feeling the pinch at the pumps" anywhere near as bad as the media and their soundbytes from the general public say: Trucks, SUV's and cars are still used (in greater numbers than ever) to get people (often a single passenger) to work, the supermarket, the day-care, the soccer field, the shopping mall, and to one of the city's popular summertime pedestrian zones. People still drive and burn gas for no reason, too: Car-worshipping on Portage Avenue has apparently started up on the Lord's Day for another season. If Winnipeggers truely are "getting pinched", they sure are not showing it. Not yet, anyway.

Oil almost broke the $70 barrier earlier this week because of a shortage in Nigeria, and because of a story about Iran published in the New Yorker. If stories in the New Yorker (I just read it for the cartoons) jack oil prices up to record levels, imagine what a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or a war will do. Unleaded is selling for $1.09 in Winnipeg, but it's only April: May Long Weekend --the traditional start of Canadian summer driving season, when prices jump-- is still over a month away. I have a feeling that come August, we'll be looking back at $1.09 with fondness.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

An impromptu dump, first appearing last year, in the intersection of Maple Street and Point Douglas Avenue, April 7, 2006.

While the vast majority of Winnipeg citizens could not find this intersection on a map, it affects every one of them, no matter how inner, old, or poor their neighborhood may not yet be. It sets a dangerous precedent for this type of barbarism to occur on any given street. Sure, this illegal dump may be at an inconspicuous location, in a neighborhood that few people outside of it care about, but this mess still remains: a public health risk, an embarrassment to the city, and a clear sign that we are beginning to lose control.

I predict that the results of the dysfunctional handling of basic City services (such as four-foot-tall piles of trash) will continue to grow greater, until they reach emergency proportions some time in the next couple of years. The City will run out of fingers long before the dyke stops leaking, and the bad-money men and women at City Hall will no longer be able to occupy themselves by laying pipe and pouring asphalt in hay fields; hoping the infrastructure crisis disappears while their backs are turned.