Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Point, The Line, and The Plane in Subsistence Urbanity

Exercise 3 (a group collaboration)

Urban Survival Kit – The File
Working individually, and in a team, gather and edit and organize dependable research material on one of the factors of CHART III: The Point, The Line and The Plane in a Subsistence Urbanity and relate that factor to two others on the list, in order to begin to develop an architect’s version of an Urban Survival Kit.

This obsessive classification makes an assumption [Something taken for granted or accepted as true without proof], and, in a world where the urban populations of the developing world are doubling, it is a naive assumption. The assumption: Civilization (the culture of cities) will gravitate to larger, more coordinated urban orders, requiring greater scale in each part, even as the coordinating grid that underlies it becomes substantially finer in grain and ever-more dependant on ever-greater degrees of precision. In a world where we depend for our day-to-day life on telecommunications satellites, coordinated by private corporations and governments powerful enough to launch them, we tend to take the underlying network for granted, because – even if we hold its evidence in our hands – we do not see it.

It would be a mistake to assume that urbanism has to become thicker and more hierarchic, more systematic (as we understand systems – as physical infrastructures) over time, in order for it to mature. We understand that cities that rival New York in size now exist, cities where there has been no effective power grid, water supply, or waste management system for a half-decade or more, and we see those cities continue to grow. That is, the network of lines has degenerated significantly, yet life goes on. What we begin to see is a city, not of points in a network of regulating lines over a plane of unregulated existence kept deep in the background, but rather a city of points on a plane, a plane ordered, if at all, by nothing more than the rotting vestiges of a net, a net that no longer serves to mediate the plane. Across vast scales, local knowledge rules.

Water, waste, trade, communications, training... all these go on in an entirely different milieu. These are subsistence settlements on a vast scale, almost unanticipated, and likely to house one in six of the world’s people within thirty years, IF energy shortages and drought do not force much of the population out of the equatorial countries. Add that possibility into the equation, and the numbers will be much higher. Urbanism, for these people, becomes a matter of subsistence, of survival, and not a matter of the coordination of vast technical systems.

What distinguishes these emerging cities from slums of the past is this: they may never have the central infrastructure we expect of cities, and they may be able, over time, to do without it. This may be possible, and it might be successful, because, in place of a physical infrastructure, they can reach a super-infrastructure, a communications infrastructure that could organize the settlement, the community, more fluidly.

We already know of those places in the world where cellular telephone systems have been providing telephone service where no wired service existed, or where it was a failure. We know of semi-rural communities in developing countries that have been able to pick their best market days because the village has a cell telephone and receives text messages of the market prices for their produce; in those places, it becomes possible to bid up the supply, and organize growers. We also know now about microcredit banking systems that have been changing economies in urban, semi-rural, and rural societies (which are becoming, in practice, a continuum, rather than distinct zones of density.)

Over a century ago, most of America was rural, and after the land began to play out, much of rural life was a life of indentured servitude, hardship, misery, and hunger. In the southern US, where there were only two crops of note – tobacco, and cotton – a farmer was likely to sell his crop to the only merchant within reach, who traded it up the distribution network. That single merchant was also usually the only source for goods – seeds, boots, garments, fabrics, processed foods – and he could sell goods of any quality for any price. Goods were usually of terrible quality, and priced as high as the market would bear. The Railways and the Post Office changed that. With that infrastructure in place, distant merchants could buy the best-valued goods that could be made at the time in large numbers, and distribute them via the post offices. The buyers were guided by the mail-order catalogues, and the mail-order houses – located at the hub-point in the distribution network, Chicago – grew large enough and powerful enough to break the grip of the local merchants, deliver better good for better prices, and in so doing, free the farmers from a subsistence way of life.

That was one kind of infrastructure. Now we have another, and this one may be more like the catalogue and less like the railroad.

There is some evidence the emerging slums of the world are a new urbanism, one that is, at first consideration, both frightening and dismaying. Only with some study over time can we begin to see how these places – worlds away from ours, housing a vast number of the world’s population (the census is, by its nature, almost impossible) – may show us other ways of organizing cities, ways that are effective in entirely different measure from our own ambitions for the city.

The Term’s exercises are all about beginning to come to terms with a shift. The subject is Architecture, but the issue is survival in a subsistence world.

D.M. (formatted and posted by s)

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