a subsidy scheme


Twenty years ago I read an op ed in the Globe and Mail that asked the question: what is the biggest public money grab in North America? The answer, the suburb. The suburb is a massive welfare program?

In the intervening period I have read precious little on the topic – ie. specifically tying suburban life to public debt – no doubt because the idea cuts too close to the heart of the truth of how we live. I’m now reading Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities which kicks off with the bold face assertion that how we live is subsidized.

I sometimes like to think about a solution. If there’s a problem, why not? Clearly the solution here is to delink public money from very expensive lifestyle choices: ie. no more oil and gas subsidies, no more massively expensive infrastructure projects and utility grids that serve less than x people per acre, no more big box market subsidies and incentives, raise the level of investment in efficient means of transport (public) and lower that of the much less efficient means (private cars), etc.  I know, I know, I’m dreaming. But this dream has to do with that hard nosed topic, money, so maybe …

Here is Chakrabarti:

The suburbs, therefore, are not a mere reflection of the way people want to live, or even a reflection of true market forces, but a synthetic consequence of history. The suburbs are largely a creation of ‘big government,’ and explicit policy-driven, subsidized scheme that has guided how we live, work and play. Over the last century, this has created the most consumption-based economy the planet has known – that is until the music stopped: the twenty-first century debuted in America with an epic collapse of the housing market (particularly the single-family housing market), the rapid acceleration of climate change, and the largest division between rich and poor in the postwar era.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, A Country of Cities, p 33.


difficulty in dying
May 8, 2020, 8:14 pm
Filed under: chronotopes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Looking back at 'La Peste' by Albert Camus - The Hindu

How very lonely dying must be. How much more lonely today as we isolate to keep the virus from spreading.

In normal circumstances, confined to bed whether at home or in hospital, with media – a book and a TV perhaps – the nurse, the occasional visitor for company, but mostly we’re left with our memories of people we miss and of friendships. Our thoughts form around muffled sounds of talking in the hall, pets in the courtyard, household work, local construction. The curtain, window and door are important thresholds that let in the outside to enliven our minds. The images are pleasurable as each reminds and promises us of our deep connection to the world.

In the time of cholera and covid, the isolation is even worse without visitors, and wary nurses suited in layers of protective equipment, gloves and masks.

Our towns play roles in our relative isolation when sick. At the start of his novel La Peste, excerpted below, Albert Camus’ narrator tells us – before the rats start to die, before the concierge catches the deadly plague – how lonely death can be, and how the conditions of death can vary widely depending on the conditions of the place you inhabit. The town he describes, Oran in North Africa, is a scrappy place, uninspiring, with hardscrabble business affairs, hot and dry with climate extremes and dark nights. All are features that conspire to attenuate the discomfort of an invalid – he hears the despair of the city and and is unsettled.

There is a hint in the passage that an environment can help us to die better. A place that is “inspiring” and affords “small attentions,” and “something to rely on,” render comfort to the sick. These aren’t physical attributes, they’re intangibles. A pandemic by definition circles the globe and the conditions for the sick vary widely from luxurious to squalor. But thankfully, inspiration, support and attention are intangibles that can be built into any place on the planet. This is how we support the sick and dying in the time of covid.

What is more exceptional in our town is the difficulty one may experience there in dying. “Difficulty,” perhaps, is not the right word, ‘discomfort” would come nearer. Being ill’s never agreeable but there are towns that stand by you, so to speak, when you are sick; in which you can, after a fashion, let yourself go. An invalid needs small attentions, he likes to have something to rely on, and that’s natural enough. But at Oran the violent extremes of temperature, the exigencies of business, the uninspiring surroundings, the sudden nightfalls, and the very nature of its pleasures call for good health. An invalid feels out of it there. Think what it must be for a dying man, trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat, while the whole population, sitting in cafes or hanging on the telephone, is discussing shipments, bills of lading, discounts! It will then be obvious what discomfort attends death, even modern death, when it waylays you under such conditions in a dry place.

La Peste, Albert Camus

the dogmatism of the untraveled
July 29, 2013, 10:42 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , , ,

We tend to associate liberalism with big government and big society etc. and not with business.  Except of course for the idea of free markets and more broadly market liberalism, liberal is the word reserved for bleeding hearts.

Unless you believe in the invisible hand of the market, but that’s more magical than liberal.

Liberalism like any complex idea changes meaning over time, but also by how close or how far you are from it.  Here is a far away view which reverses some of our here and now ideas about liberalism.

At its best, market liberalism manifests forms of pluralism that throw together very different kinds of people, and burnish away the rough edges of intractability that would otherwise keep them apart – or at each others’ throats. From Bertrand Russell:

What may be called, in a broad sense, the Liberal theory of politics is a recurrent product of commerce.  The first known example of it was in the Ionian cities of Asia Minor, which lived by trading with Egypt and Lydia.  When Athens, in the time of Pericles, became commercial, the Athenians became Liberal.  After a long eclipse, Liberal ideas revived in the Lombard cities of the middle ages, and prevailed in Italy until they were extinguished by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century.  But the Spaniards failed to reconquer Holland or to subdue England, and it was these countries that were the champions of Liberalism and the leaders in commerce in the seventeenth century.  In our day the leadership has passed to the United States.

The reasons for the connection of commerce with Liberalism are obvious.  Trade brings men into contact with tribal customs different from their own, and in so doing destroys the dogmatism of the untraveled.  The relation of buyer and seller is one of negotiation between two parties who are both free; it is most profitable when the buyer or seller is able to understand the point of view of the other party.

Bertrand Russell

the unschematized existence

bank of london buenos aires clorindo testaTimely, predictable, exact, intellectual, modern, money:  the qualities and modes by which we live in the modern city; which squash the irrational, instinctive, sovereign world of contemplation and inner awareness.  Great artists have taken issue with the life of the city for this reason.  Urban life, which I love, becomes a tension between the two; one must not let the schematized overwhelm.

By Georg Simmel:

“Punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan existence are not only most intimately connected with its money economy and intellectual character. These traits must also color the contents of life and favor the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign traits and impulses which aim at determining the mode of life from within, instead of receiving the general and precisely schematized form of life from without. Even those sovereign types of personality, characterized by irrational impulses, are by no means impossible in the city, they are, nevertheless, opposed to typical city life. The passionate hatred of men like Ruskin and Nietzsche for the metropolis is understandable in these terms. Their natures discovered the value of life alone in the unschematized existence which cannot be defined with precision for all alike. From the same source of this hatred of the metropolis surged their hatred of money economy and the intellectualism of modern existence.”

-Georg Simmel “Metropolis and Mental Life”

notes from dystopia

preserve of geniuses

I’ve been watching some British TV shows – detectives, lawyers and doctors in small towns and villages – and marveling at how addicting they are.  They are well written – the ones I’m hooked on – the acting is strong and the filming / editing lush.  And the combination makes a show that is technically rich with a human vulnerability built in that draws you to the story and characters.  Layers of broad brush and detail finely cut and a steady parade of exceptional actors:  technique and humanity in a fine balance.  Their great appeal is in the quiet strength and nuance of their craft.

To talk about craft in the electronic age is clearly a throwback.  Our houses are not of clay and wattle made; often they’re factory built by speculators.  In America consumer goods are made in enormous factories and now even more in industrial towns in China.  Everyone works in finance, IT, Google.  So is there a place for a conversation about craft among the ones and zeros?

Continue reading

in the countryside and down the hole
December 19, 2010, 8:01 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,

In architecture school in the mid 90s, a hip faculty faction spoke of virtual space, by which they meant the burgeoning world we were just falling into, through the computer screen looking glass, out into new places of media, commerce, friends, fantasy.  Most of us clung to old world sticks and bricks, finding how paper models and renderings and drawings could support our earnest visions of social and urban enhancement and change.

About 10 years ago, a colleague who hailed from Ireland related going back to the old country for a visit.  He said the difference between the 80s and 90s was stark because of cable, not internet:  evenings once spent on rotations between friends houses for drinks and banter were finished as people kept their doors shut to watch their favorite shows.

In this essay, Lewis Lapham, in proper critical form, shows us how the virtual world has been sold us as a viable substitute for real civic space.  For him, the virtual world is a logical end game in the American pursuit of space and distance from one another.  He describes how American power and cultural elites have always occupied exurban environments, and even distrusted the ‘foreign’ elements that come to the country through urban ports of call.  And how our developing virtual world is the logical next step.

The big screen Steve Jobs Apple roll out show is the unchallenged sign of the times, brilliantly seared into the collective consciousness.  Is it the only thing we do and think about any more – our shiny phones, our social networks, thumbs up, thumbs down, streaming and faster downloads?  No doubt, incredibly seductive.  And clearly we think about other things.  But we don’t like thinking about the things we did back in architecture school:  making our cities better, improving infrastructure, education, medicine etc.  So we naturally turn back to the bright shiny objects and the virtual world.  Into the rabbit hole.  Curiouser and curiouser!


What suburban opinion deplores as abomination (traffic, crime, noise, confiscatory taxes, extortionate rents), the urban disposition regards as the price of escape from the tyranny of the small-town majority, as the cost of the blank canvas (i.e., the gifts of loneliness and privacy) on which to discover the portrait of oneself.


During the 1980s the synonym for America’s wealth and power moved south to Washington, DC, which, like Los Angeles, possesses both the character and sensibility of an expensive suburb. As was true of their Puritan forbears in the New England wilderness, the nation’s ruling and explaining classes regard the urban temperament as the port of entry for all things foreign and obnoxious. Over the last thirty years the government bureaucracies have come to employ more people than lived in seventeenth-century England, planting the bulk of their intelligence operations in the Virginia countryside with the fruit trees and the birds; our larger corporations retreat to pastoral compounds bearing a postmodern resemblance to the manors in medieval France; artists and writers of note drift away to villages in Connecticut. The projectors of the urban future meanwhile define the Internet as the civilizing agent that replaces the need for the New York Stock Exchange and the Broadway theater, and the great, good American place, under the protection of the Department of Homeland Security and safe behind a gated perimeter, comes to be imagined, as was John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, as a refuge from the storm and wonder of the world rather than as the progenitor of its energy and the locus of its desire.

-Lewis Lapham, City Light, Lapham’s Quarterly

arrested at utopia
July 17, 2010, 2:17 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , ,

Our cities and towns – their politics and form – are a direct consequence of the policies of our leaders and the ideas we hold dear.  Jefferson was suspicious of the city because he saw it as the seat of the totalizing power of money and capital.  Generations later we still don’t really know how to build a proper city, it seems.

The following passage talks about an ambiguity in the American mind: that our cities are developed democratically but that the cities we have made are wrong, somehow.  It implies that democracy is foundational to development, that the market should be allowed to fulfill its project and that to impose a utopian vision on the development of our built environment is, well, utopian.

Continue reading

don’t get paved over
July 11, 2010, 8:03 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

More evidence of the prevalence of the analytic:  we don’t plan, we merely do, or react or whatever.  This attitude is dominant in the offices I have worked in on the east coast.  I call it ‘how bout this?’  In designing a new product, the chief offers some low level input at the beginning and at critical phases.  The worker bees busily develop the idea.  BZZZ.  BZZZ.  Hundreds of solutions are developed when four or five, with meaning, would do.  They are shown to the client: how ’bout this?  how ’bout this?  The toss out rate is extremely high and hundreds more are developed to replace the ones being binned.  And all because there is no big picture, no one willing, or capable, or something, of making goals, developing a vision.

Here is a quotation from Bob Yaro, a planner in New England:

“When you’ve done some planning in England and you come back over to this country, you realize how futile it is, because no one’s really looking at the big picture.  I admit that what we’re doing here is looking as some individual pieces of property and trying to make sure they don’t  get paved over.  But where is the big picture?  It doesn’t exist.”

Bob Yaro, since departed for his new job with the NYRPA, offered this final assessment in a phone interview:  “When they come to chronicle the decline of this civilization,” he said, “they’re going to wonder why we were debating flag burning, abortion, and broccoli eating instead of the fundamental issues of how we live and use the environment.

–Bob Yaro, quoted by JH Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere

the juxtaposition of two holes
June 16, 2010, 4:52 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: ,

In the following paragraph, there are two visions of how we live and occupy our environments publicly.  The first is a ‘left over’ vision that has us milling about in streets, vestigial, undesigned, shopping, getting here and there.  The second is the iconic monumental space that has become more an empty symbol than a real place of public engagement.

The European architect characteristically wants a way out of the limitations and stifling hierarchies imposed on him by his built environment.  And the North American planner longs for a public realm that will allow him escape from his private life which has more or less overtaken him.  Their visions quite accurately describe how we live today:  in North America, we live our public lives in places that are designed for something else – commerce, transport; and in Europe we live in places that were once, a long time ago, designed for collective engagement but have long since lost their vital, proper meaning.

Interestingly, and to provide some context, Roberto Unger, the author and a professor of law, is scolding a panel of luminary design professionals who he moderated in a discussion about public space at Harvard University.  Half way through the discussion, he decided his panel was smart but shockingly passive.  The professionals, to a person, saw their roles in society as merely meeting the briefs of their clients.  Money talks.  No vision.

Continue reading

find yourself a city to live in
May 10, 2010, 12:45 am
Filed under: brave new world, departure lounge, the sweet life | Tags: , ,

Cities reflect all our ambitions and failures made plain for the world to see, says musician, artist, cyclist David Byrne.  I just picked up his book Bicycle Diaries and then listened to his song Cities – find yourself a city to live in, he sings.  So primal, and maybe essential, if you have the inclination and opportunity, to make your way around the world and find yourself a city to live in.  I haven’t found one yet.  Have you?

Right now I live, temporarily, in a city that’s not easy to get around in, unless you have a car.  It’s hard to get my shopping done and to go to town to meet friends, it’s long waits for the bus, and, added up, hours of walking.  It feels like a village, even though it is over 300 years old.  Weekends are dead.  People here live and die by their rowhouses; larger buildings and other ways of living are viewed with suspicion and maybe even a little hostility.  This city is building manor houses and even some suburban houses with vinyl siding and lawns in the downtown, if you can believe it!

I think David Byrne is right, the city reflects deep belief.  So what can I conclude about the city I am staying in now?  What can we make of the fact that we like town living rather than city living, with individual houses instead of apartment buildings?  And that we would rather drive our cars than share space in subways and buses, and need gas stations and a lot of street and garage parking?  Perhaps that we are antisocial and want to keep as far from our neighbors as possible?  That I’m not an American unless I own my little piece of grass and and a front door, an address that gives me identity and face?  That the suburb is still the place to aspire to, with its verdancy and illusion of convenience?

I had lunch with a friend last month who for personal reasons deflected the opportunity for  intimate conversation nudged our talk back to a passing comment I had made that I want to live in a liberal democracy.  -What do you mean by that? she wanted to know.  Street life, public life and discourse, good economy, basic freedoms.  Enjoyment.  I haven’t found a city yet that looks like this.  Have you?

Here is David Byrne:

Cities, it occurred to me, are physical manifestation of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are.  A cognitive scientist need only look at what we have made – the hives we have created – to know what we think and what we believe to be important, as well as how we structure those thoughts and beliefs.  It’s all there, in plain view, right out in the open; you don’t need CAT scans and cultural anthropologists to show you what’s going on inside the human mind; its inner workings are manifested in three dimensions, all around us.  Our values and hopes are sometimes awfully embarrassingly easy to read.  They’re right there – in the storefronts, museums, temples, shops, and office buildings and in how these structures interrelate, or sometimes don’t.  They say, in their unique visual language, “This is what we think matters, this is how we live and how we play.”  Riding a bike through all  this is like navigating the collective naural pathways of some vast global mind.  It really is a trip inside the collective psyche of a compacted group of people.  A Fantastic Voyage, but without the cheesy special effects.  One can sense the collective brain – happy, cruel, deceitful, and generous – at work and at play.  Endless variations on familiar themes repeat and recur:  triumphant or melancholic, hopeful or resigned, the permutations keep unfolding and multiplying.

-David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries, p2.


author:  David Byrne

book: Bicycle Diaries