Archive for September, 2007|Monthly archive page

A Thought on Corporations

Inspired by the documentary The Corporation (2003).

With the fall of totalitarian communism at the end of the 20th century, the world of 1984 now seems ominous but outdated. a fear whose potency we cannot fully recover.  The truth is that the world of corporate totalitarianism (see Jennifer Government) is not a threat but already a reality.  And we’ve already branded ourselves.


On the Highway and the City


The title from this post is taken from a book of essays by Lewis Mumford, The Highway and the City (1963).

Rambling observations of Rotterdam and Frank Lloyd Wright aside, I very much enjoyed what Mumford had to say, particularly since from the very beginning he wanted to make clear that the highway was, in fact, killing the city as we know it:

“When these essays first appeared, many forces that were at once regimenting and disintegrating the city had not yet been challenged. The high-rise slab was looked upon as the very paragon of modern architectural form; the class curtain wall was still a pat symbol of modernity, and the words ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ were still used as an unqualified term of praise and edification. So, too, the preposterous plans of the highway engineers for gouging out the living cores of great cities with expressways, interchanges, and parking lots, whilst draining off the working population into scattered nondescript suburban housing, were widely regarded as the last word in urban progress.

“. . . .[these ideas] are as bankrupt as our nuclear policy of ‘survival’ by competitive mass extermination.” (Preface)

This last sentence in particular dates the work, of course, and one would like to think that some of the “high-rise slabs” built in the mid-century have again been looked on as more ugly than modern. His observations, however, are no less significant today: the mess of driving in Los Angeles and other American cities, the large-scale replacement of the pedestrian by the driver, lengthening commutes which require more time to travel the same distance, the utter waste of land and resources on highways cutting right through urban spaces. “In short, the American has sacrificed his life as a whole to the motorcar” (235).

To Mumford’s ideas I can offer much support but little innovation – and the unfortunate observation that, although his observations were made almost fifty years ago, they have become only more true; and although he spends more time talking about Europe and Philadelphia than Chicago, the worst of his predictions can readily be seen here. CTA is in big trouble, structurally and financially; construction and “normal delays” do little to curb residents’ reliance on cars; gas prices are, on average, the highest in the country, and probably gas consumption the highest as well; the deceptive allure of saving money by long-distance commute rather than living and working in the same area – driving across the city, in from the suburbs, out to the suburbs, even from the neighboring states. In the brief time I commuted from the south of the city to the west, I spent 2.5-3 hours in the car each day, driving a total of 30 miles one way. I only put up with it because I knew it would be over soon, but then some people consider this a reasonable commute. So many cars on the roads wastes not only time, but space. Where to put all these cars when one isn’t driving from one place to another? Anyone who has tried to find parking in the city (free or paid) knows how much time and money it can cost. Certainly they’re a convenient and efficient way of getting from A to B, but they aren’t much use sitting at A or B, as more often than not they do. As Mumford himself pointed out – how many more pedestrians than cars can you fit along one city block, and how quickly can they get from one corner to the next?

And then, of course, there are the less measurable consequences of spending so much time in the car. Invocations of the modern alienation of man in society aside, we do in fact spend less time in the proximity of other people, even if in our respective cars we happen to share the same stretch of road. We walk less. We spend less time in open air. We spend more time breathing in substances that surely aren’t conducive to our respiratory health. We go out of our way to distract ourselves and to multi-task, trying (usually in vain) to really make use of the time we’re wasting shuttling ourselves around. And perhaps worst of all, city driving simply makes people angry – angry, impatient, prone to fits of recklessness and selfishness in our driving. Which, of course, does little for the collective mood (and safety) of the population on the road.

Highways alone are not the only problem that Chicago and other cities face, but they are certainly a major one. And of course, in making these criticisms I may seem a hypocrite, adding as I do to the general mess of city traffic by relying on my car to drive to and from work every day (and the fact that I drive out of, rather than into, the city is little better). I do not, and neither did Mumford, advocate completely abolishing cars (although if a better means of transportation came forward which could serve the same functions, all the better!) from America. But perhaps we should consider taking more steps toward abolishing them from our major cities. Mass transit, buses and trains, though woefully inadequate in Chicago, can serve many of the same shuttle-functions as cars going to and from their morning commute. Re-zoning some of the vast tracts of purely residential or purely commercial areas, particularly those surrounded by acres of parking lot, in favor of integrating the two might encourage residents to walk (or bike) to their destinations, leaving no great piece of machinery standing idly by. Controlling development of real estate and roads (another of Mumford’s insightful suggestions) may curb the “big box” shopping centers and “cookie-cutter” housing developments which give middle America its particularly deadened, homogeneous look. And perhaps most difficult of all, changing people’s attitudes about their city and their lifestyles. There is the stigma, in some areas at least, of “riding the bus” as a sign of one being a have-not, and the luxury of shutting oneself off in an SUV as the pinnacle of having “arrived.” The absurdity and waste of this idea is perhaps simply one manifestation of the general need to sort out society into categories of relative worth, but it would be a wonderful thing indeed if someday the reverse might be true. Or if more people would entertain, as a serious possibility, walking the half-mile to the pharmacy to pick up one bottle of pills, on a sunny 65-degree day.

As a better conclusion escapes me, I can only restate that although Mumford has said it much better, I put forward that even if we (particularly city planners) should have long ago given more thought to his arguments, they are no less significant even as the new system which he described in 1960 have become the poor system in which we operate today. Better trains and fewer cars would take time, of course, but we already waste so much of our time on the road, perhaps we can spend a few minutes of our daily commute thinking about how to make it not only shorter, but better.

On Time Management

Okay August was the busiest month ever, so in lieu of actually writing anything here I’ll just post a picture of a hummingbird.  Find it.