Today, in thinking of how I’d start this post one case presented itself to me at the beginning of my day. I started my Saturday morning at Eastern Market. As my girlfriend and I often do, we were meandering through the crowds stopping at the many merchants who drew us in with their colorful array of fresh flowers, produce, jellies, nuts and spices. Many of which it was difficult to not have a short conversation with. One woman told us a few basic steps to keeping the hibiscus that my girlfriend couldn’t refuse to buy healthy all year-long. One man telling me the story behind a local company that prepares custom stir-fry vegetables and then vacuum seals them as to eliminate the need for preservatives. They too looked too good to pass up.
Finally, the unsuspected pinnacle of our trip occurred when someone literally chased me down about 30 feet away from his post and caught my attention with, "Excuse me sir… Excuse me sir".
When I realized it was me he was after, my girlfriend and I turned to address his attention. We saw an older man, slightly frailed by his age, rough-shaven, but otherwise gentle in his demeanor wearing a red apron marked with his farm’s logo. "I notice you have the word Copenhagen written on your shirt. I went to college in Denmark. What does your shirt mean?"
I explained to him that it was an AIA Committee on Design shirt advertising its annual conference(s) this year. One which took place in Detroit earlier this spring, and the second, which will go to Copenhagen at the end of the summer. After about five minutes or so we were on our way again but further culturally-enriched by learning first-hand about Scandinavian design from this gentle, gregarious, and incredibly knowledgeable stranger.
"You’d never expect that from just a random person." my girlfriend noted. I couldn’t agree with her more. And it kept me thinking for the rest of the day.
The truth is that was no freak occurrence. While this man was very interesting, what happened wasn’t necessarily extraordinary by any means. We should expect that from everyone. Everyone has a story, and everyone has something we can learn from which will enrich our lives in some way or another. It’s opportunities like that which present themselves everyday in walk-able urban environments. It’s how innovation occurs. Proximity, diversity and the exchange of dialogue is a driver for turning ideas into reality. Why do you think companies chose to locate where they do? The people. Why do creatives flock to urban centers? To work within a social density and diversity where ideas flow and grow steadily through daily discourse.
Unbeknownst to us, our current construct has been created deliberately to avoid any sort of such social interaction. Zoning regulations are in place to prevent diversity of uses. Our introverted subdivisions address the main streets at only one, two, maybe three access points. Sometimes they’re even gated. The trend nowadays is to completely eliminate sidewalks as to ensure that we minimize the walking we have to do again to mitigate social interaction. Who needs walking? We can drive!
Life is just getting easier. The best thing here is that in getting two and from work, we no longer have to worry about talking to anyone. In the morning, we simply back out of the our cul-de-sac-facing garage, drive to work and either arrive in a parking garage that’s connected to our office building via skywalk, or navigate our way through a vast sea of surface parking (never full to capacity) set back far from the main street and walk into our office buildings only to return home, straight into the garage, door closed. Social situations: averted! Whew.
It’s not all that far-fetched to think that pretty soon we’ll have moving sidewalks in our parking lots and skywalks. It’s like we’re cattle on the conveyer. How dehumanizing is that? Is this what it’s coming to? Ok, maybe it’s not that bad, but big picture here, it’s not sustainable.
How many opportunities do we have each day to stimulate our thought and overall cultural awareness through spontaneous or random conversation? In a world driven by the digital, we see that it’s now easier to meet someone online, at home in front of a computer rather than engage in actual in-person conversation. What will our social construct look like in 10 years? In continuing our current patterns, we’re perpetuating the fragmentation of our valuable and eroding social construct.
In a region blessed with so many creative people, a scattered wealth of innovative companies, so many different cultures and races, we’re unfortunately plagued by political, socio economic and racial polarization. We’re inadvertently maintaining that divide rather than proposing ways to rectify the situation. We design subdivisions and entire communities to "price-out" diversity. The generic commercial and retail strip malls that "support" our needs are zoned to be exclusive, and again with the "easy-in-easy-out" park your car mentality. This fragmentation is highly inefficient way to live and is short-sighted.
Our vehicles are a defense against the formidable attacks of casual and spontaneous conversations. Road rage is our only form of social communication that we experience in our daily commutes. To move farther away from the city is the best way to avoid the possibility of talking to or god-forbid living next to someone who’s different than us.
Generica: A pretty bleak reality don’t you think?