Published on Monday, December 22, 2003 by the Seattle Times
For Creative Communities, Think Outside the Big Box
by Neal Peirce
AS unlikely as the birth of the Prince of Peace in an obscure village on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire, the future of the places we Americans inhabit — our chances of living surrounded by beauty and a vibrant human community — hinge on whether we're up to a dramatic breakaway. Are we, in short, willing to foster a new creativity that's a world apart from our society's ruling model of lowest-cost, mass-marketed sameness?
I am capturing part of this question and challenge from Vernon Swaback, an Arizona-based builder, one-time apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, creator of many fine communities including the one that surrounds the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. His award-winning book is "The Creative Community: Designing for Life."
Swaback focuses on the perils of haphazard physical development. Our problem, he recently wrote in The Arizona Republic, is that we can't discern the difference between decentralization and sprawl. Decentralization is the unrelenting trend of civilized life, from trade routes to railroads and freeways and new settlements across the face of continents.
Sprawl, by contrast, is the unhappy product of sameness, the uniformity of monotonously repeated design types, look-alike malls, big-box retail, subdivisions and office parks, each on a separate "pod." Why that formula? Because it's cheaper to design, finance, build and then sell standardized "product." (Note: "product," not "community.")
Even the developers who are willing to go an extra mile for quality, who care enough to create carefully designed, people-pleasing mixed-use places, are easily thwarted by the competitive economics of sameness. Standard Wall Street financing packages, for example, don't accommodate much more than cookie-cutter, single-use projects.
Can we get out of this box? We'll have to, says Swaback, because development at the urban fringe is increasingly restricted by moratoriums, urban-growth boundaries and public land purchases that block proposed projects.
Our moral imperative, Swaback seems to suggest, is to bite the bullet, risk careers and capital on fine designs and higher quality. And celebrate creativity and design by building real human communities with what he terms "urgent joy."
Easier said than done, all of us skeptics mumble. Americans are happy enough with the isolation delivered by their home-entertainment centers, their tinted-window SUVs, their air-conditioned places.
Who cares, for example, if we live in depersonalized, "look-alike" places? It may sound nice to talk about deepened community, daring to create truly beautiful places, even exciting new public places. But except for dissidents, starting with market rebels who prefer Main Street shops and likely won't even shop at Wal-Mart, we're sure it isn't realistic.
Twenty centuries ago, it was the same story: People valued the many gods of paganism, scoffed at the early Christians who worshipped an upstart who'd been crucified. But an idea beyond money and power took root and changed the world.
The paleontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, Swaback recalls, once said God made the world round so that one day we would have to confront each other. Now, in the 21st century, with the population of the globe spiraling, we're seeing a virtual eruption of confrontations — in religion, commerce, the environment, technology, terrorism, and conflicts like those in the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Sudan.
And the temptation, in each case, will be to go for the quick, opportunistic decisions. We'll pick high-volume sprawl in place of building comprehensive communities. We'll borrow trillions of dollars that our grandchildren must repay rather than taxing ourselves for today's government spending. We'll threaten armed conflict at the expense of learning others' cultures and building broad international coalitions.
Confrontation, Swaback argues, is the opposite of community. And community, local or global, emerges only, as the late John Gardner put it, by moving "beyond the ancient arts of governing and diplomacy" to collaboration — a movement toward shared benefit so revolutionary that it "may be Copernican."
But collaboration is tough. How can it be applied to globalization with its simultaneous breakthroughs and negative side effects? To addressing irreconcilable religious-cultural differences? Or dealing with terrorism? Or global warming?
Still, it's interesting to see Swaback, with something one might call a fool's confidence, assert: "Future power and fortunes will come to those who can demonstrate relationships between privacy and community, between cities and towns, between nations, and ultimately, between humanity and the Earth."
My thought is that if a capitalist architect-planner is willing to crawl out on that branch, the rest of us might at least reconsider our routine approaches — whether easy profit-taking, deadening look-alike developments, or the usual dog-eat-dog tactics in politics are the only way to go. Or whether, in the spirit of this season, there isn't a radically higher possibility of who we might be and what we might accomplish with our lives.
Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company