Thursday, November 06, 2008

Defining a voice...

Tonight I had the opportunity to sneak out of work a little early (well I also got into work early as well, which is quite abysmal for a non-morning person as myself, yes I do swim in the mornings but that's because that's a task where if you quit mid-way, well you drown -- but I digress) to hear street planning expert Michael Ronkin speak about Complete Streets initiative. Complete Streets is about requiring new street construction and retrofits to serve all constituents that are likely to use a street given the condition and location, what they refer to as context sensitivity. This means that if there is reasonable density, that roads are built to provide facilities for bicyclists, transit and pedestrians. They also need to support children, the elderly and those needing physical assistance. If you build these into our roads people will come. It creates safety, it creates life in many of our places where things were sterile. It is a "build it and they will come" scenario that actually happens.

One of the more interesting statistics is that people's commutes have stayed relatively constant over the years, about 23 minutes, but what has changed is the speed and hence the distance that people travel. Another interesting statistic is that the vast majority of freeway trips are two exits, meaning that they are short trips. By building streets that are amenable to alternatives to the automobile, they will be used. The legal scholar Lawrence Lessig who specializes in internet law is fond of saying that "Code is law" which refers to the architecture of the internet impacts our legal concepts. The same can be said by our real world architecture, if we create meaningful street architectures our lives follow.

As compelling as what Ronkin was saying, I was struck by the distinctive style that his presentation had as well. In an age of mass market consumerism, of mass market fashion, of mass market ideas we've lost a distinctive voice for each individual. My sense of the talk was that Ronkin was not looking for us to be converted to his point of view, since in fact the precepts he advocated required one to make judgments not follow recipes. We've entered an age of twelve step programs, five ways to get rich, 100 ways to save the world. However the real interesting question is not the 100th way to save the world, but observing the world and saying that there's a 101st that's better than the 100 we know. It's the creation of what writers call voice, what fashion calls a sensibility and art calls a style.

Our election is done, and what we is going to be asked of us is not to follow certain steps, but a need for us to ask what really matters in a deep and honest way. Our guidelines like the Complete Streets is going to be a model of engagement across multiple modes, not just one. So the irony is that we need to create modalities for all, while speaking as one, each and everyone one a different one.


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