Friday, December 18, 2009

nature abhors a monoculture



Photo: Approaching LAX, by me.

Every time I travel abroad, I get a huge kick from taking snapshots of the plethora of vehicles there: microtrucks, cargo tricycles, motorbikes of every size + shape, electric microcars. "Why don't we get to have these sweet-ass ramen-delivery scooters?" asks the American, and the answer is simple: variety begets variety, and we don't have it yet.

Flying back into LAX always reminds me of that simple rule of nature, whose abhorrence of vacuums implies that nothing is indeed ever simple or elegant, no matter what our cerebral, anal-retentive design minds might ideally wish for--our world is a mess of myriad, incredibly complex systems pushing + pulling against one another. Even the barest desert contains a robust ecosystem. Whenever one species dominates enough to form the beginnings of a monoculture, other forces slowly ooze in to counteract.

LA epitomizes monoculture, and while there's a growing movement to introduce much-needed diversity into its infrastructure "ecosystem" it always helps to remind ourselves why + how we got here in the first place. Monocultures, like Monsanto's monolithic corn fields, are built for singular purposes + ends. In LA, our too-wide streets were built around:
  • commerce,
  • parking, and
  • not much else, really.

Activities that fail to fit in those categories (eg. taking a stroll, making out in a park) take a serious back seat. LA, Manifest Destiny's terminus, grew through a wide-scale, unplanned scramble for land; already-claimed plots caused businessmen to fan further out to stake their own claims, unintentionally creating the first rough outlines of today's sprawl. LA, that tabula rasa, freed businessmen from the restrictions of East Coast legacy infrastructures. It gave them room to drive + park supply trucks, build giant factories, and create showrooms doubling as storage facilities (CostCo et. al.). They were too immersed in the chaos + passion of business-building to spare time for urban design, which is understandable--but disastrous when coupled with a government that was also too singularly focused on commerce.

The government's urban planning neglect has left us with a dearth of activities to choose from in our daily lives. Instead of walking to the store (and enjoying its inherent encounters along the way) or just loafing about, we drive. LA has famously grown into not just a city of unconnected destinations but also of highly formalized, task-based behavior enforced top-down by infrastructure. For instance, my wife + I went to see a movie (we didn't go to the mall simply to hang out). But when I say "went to see a movie," I mean we:
  1. Got into the car.
  2. Waited for our building's autogate to open.
  3. Drove 2.3 miles to Century City, a massive block of shops permeated by only four (or so) entrances.
  4. Queued for parking, received our ticket, waited for the autogate.
  5. Remembered to take our ticket with us before travelling up the escalator.
  6. Memorized where we emerged.
  7. Remembered to validate our ticket before leaving the theater.
  8. Navigated back the correct escalator.
  9. Realized we'd failed to memorize our car location, thus launching a 15 minute search, using our keyfobs as divining rods.
  10. Found car, inserted ticket, autogate, drove home, autogate.

Hardly spontaneous, isn't it? It'd be one thing if this robotic lifestyle weren't physically (as well as psychologically) harmful, but it is, and LA consistently ranks among cities with the most dangerous streets in the country. Everyone here has seen a crash, or (worse? better?) a struck pedestrian, giving them war stories to retell to co-workers with macabre relish. But as awful as road violence is, I don't want to uphold the holy-infant Safety as our paragon to define urban planning standards. I want to uphold concerns for joy. Enforce spontaneity. Crack down on dullness. Incentivize the meanderers.

Inspiration:
SF Gate article on misplaced urban planning priorities
Infrastructurist: Frank Gehry admits to abandoning urban planning in favor of client cash
Transportation for America's "Dangerous by Design" statistics

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Los Angeles, CA, United States
Writer, designer, and urban planning geek.

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