Greater expectations

This same article in print in the latest issue of ARCADE.

Early in the pandemic, we saw a brief, rapid clearing of the air. We also learned firsthand when and for whom face-to-face interaction mattered. Young schoolchildren struggled, but older kids and desk workers, including architects, quickly adjusted. Some employers are trying to reverse the tide. Wednesdays appear to be the one workday when many people go in to the office. Tuesday or Thursday is the popular choice for a second in-office workday. This is hybrid work, which predates the pandemic.

People want to interact with others, but on their own terms. Things that rode high in relative lockdown, like streaming and food delivery, are wobbling, eclipsed by a pent-up demand for real cinema, live performance, and indoor dining. Is the office workplace worth the commuting slog? Are the eyewatering costs of metropolitan life worth paying? Many, including architects, openly question the work and living options on offer. Their expectations are high and their post-pandemic patience is wearing thin.

The push to unionize architecture firms, still mostly a conversation, is alive among younger architects who resist the late-capitalist “normal” their firms are pitching. Firm leaders, who often did well from it, are loyal to the idea that the marketplace will deliver employee diversity and socio-economic equality. Their younger employees are doubtful. They see the marketplace delivering private goods, not the public goods like affordable childcare, higher education, and housing that they (and many others) need.

In the run-up to the 2020 elections, some of the Democratic Socialists put the Green New Deal forward as a manifesto for a different normal. When he came into office, Joe Biden tried to enact a considerable part of it. Among other much-needed public goods, the Green New Deal presciently called for renovating roughly one million existing public housing units. This addresses two big issues: the lack of below-market housing in the absence of adequate public funding; and the growing awareness that the teardown-and-replace nature of redevelopment, even if it achieves net-zero operationally, contributes directly to global warming. The implications for the building industry are clear — yet still resisted.

At the macro level, anyone who considers herself an environmental designer, to use Catherine Bauer’s term, should be solidly behind this and other aspects of the Green New Deal, which aim for resilience.

The very real shortages in below-market housing can only be solved if the public sector steps up its funding, with a tax regime to match. Without it, we’re left with the market’s off-the-shelf “products” reflecting inflated land prices, glacial entitlements, and local governments friendly to big developers. Cities that want an urbane and resilient future need to rethink, top to bottom, how they might get there. It’s time for the life that Christopher Alexander called their (and our) overriding necessity.

The pandemic revived the demotic nature of people and their cities, a creative symbiosis that led to parklets in front of cafés and restaurants, streets reclaimed for pedestrians and bikes, hotels taken over for the homeless. We gained a renewed appreciation for the urbanity that results from myriad small, place-specific acts. To quote Bucky Fuller, we relearned how to “think globally and act locally.” Things like beauty and resilience come along when a city-dweller’s connection to it starts at her front door.

We’re all citizens of a cosmos whose warning lights are flashing. Many of us are working locally for the kinds of basic socio-political changes the Green New Deal suggests, a new context to which we can add the vernacular richness — the demotic layer that’s been missing in too much recent redevelopment — that cities need to add urbanity and resilience, and avoid the generic, the fake net-zero, and the lowest-common-denominator and yet still unaffordable blight that’s too long afflicted our urban condition.

The pandemic woke us from our slumber. Global warming’s 1.5 degrees centigrade marker is five years out if we don’t lose our gas-and-oil-burning habits. That’s the state of the cosmos. The public realm is still frayed. That top-down macro is one urban context. Yet we’re much more aware of the difference bottom-up micro makes to life in Alexander’s sense. Once again, Bucky’s maxim is proving true.

So, which is it: back to sleep or, fully awake, ready to work for the cities we and the cosmos need? That’s the choice the 2022 midterms pose. Elections must be fought and won, Tony Blair, ex-Prime Minister of the UK, observed. If a revived Green New Deal can galvanize a renewed coalition to give Biden and Harris a working majority to break through Republican passive-aggression, we should get behind it. Our expectations for the future are far greater and infinitely more responsible than the status quo ante.

(Note: this is a slightly edited version of an article I wrote for the current issue of ARCADE, 40:1, not yet available online. Also, my sister wrote that she thinks Patrick Geddes said “Think global, act local” before Fuller did. Not sure, but the phrase is closely identified with Fuller.)

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Writer and editor, based in Berkeley, CA.

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