2019


If You Had The Mic, What Would You Say?

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All photos in this post are from the 2012 May Day rally in London’s Trafalgar Square not because there’s any connection between that rally and the one happening there today or elsewhere around the world, but because a colleague from London asked the question that is the title of this post and these are the only rally photos I have from there. Paul, these shots are for you and your daughter.
Here’s my response:


   I have some really bad news. Did you come here today to demand that those in power make massive changes so that we can all keep living our hugely wasteful current lifestyles? If so, that has no real chance of working. There are three main things against us:

   First, the biggest carbon-producing and carbon-consuming nations will never all agree to meaningful change and stick to those goals for the decades it’ll take to make a real difference. Remember when the UK committed to making every building carbon neutral by 2016? Everyone felt great about it for a few years until the construction industry lobbied government and that goal quietly went away. It’s not what happens today that matters; it’s the patterns of behavior that extend for decades. Today, you’ll hear a lot of politicians say “kids, we heard you. We’re making changes. And they might… for now. But their track record of sticking with those decisions for decades is abysmal.

   Second, the earth is at 7 billion people on the way to 9 billion in just a few decades. How do we consume less with a couple billion more people? And also with billions of people in developing countries demanding the same high-consumption lifestyles the developed countries have?
   And third, consumption per person is still climbing in the biggest-consuming nations. So if you came here today to demand that someone else fix our problems, it’s likely not going to happen. If that’s all we do, we’re all screwed.


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   But that’s not all we can do. What we can do to make things better dwarfs what they could do… if it's even possible to force them to, and to keep it going for all those decades until you’re my age. But we humans have proven time and again that we can make big changes. So if you really want to do real, lasting good beginning today, start making these changes yourselves, and demand these things from your parents, teachers, and neighbors because these are people who will actually listen to each of you as individuals.


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1. Make a living where you’re living. Your parents may say “that’s impossible,” but the idea of living far from where you work is a new one, and humans for almost all of human history did this. Your parents, teachers, and neighbors might say “but we can make our transit more efficient.” More efficient transit is good. Not needing transit is far better. Millennials have figured this out: they find a cool place in a cool city and get a job nearby, unlike their Baby Boomer parents, who too often insist on living wherever they like, even if it means work is far away.


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2. Live where you can walk to the grocery store, and to the pharmacy because wherever you find a grocery or a pharmacy, you’ll likely find most of your other daily needs as well. Here in the UK, that’s easy in most places. In the US where I’m from, it’s impossible in most places… for now. So we have a lot of work to do to convert our suburban sprawl to places where you can live, learn, work, and play.


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3. Consume less stuff. Far less stuff. For almost all of human history, things were valued by how far they were handed down. Now, they’re valued by how quickly they’re used up. This only started about a century ago, when corporations realized they could get us to buy more of their stuff if it wore out faster, increasing their bottom lines. And along the way, they discovered many other ways to get us to consume more… including consuming more food. Did you know there’s no place on earth where obesity has peaked yet? And that your kids may be the first generation on earth where the majority have diabetes? Our over-consumption literally is killing us, and killing our planet. And some things, like plastic water bottles, plastic straws, and plastic grocery bags should never again be consumed at all. Take the pledge with me that we’ll never use these things again. Say NO to the big corporations and start using things that last again, like all our ancestors did. Recycling is good, but reuse is far better. Look at what the Minimalists are doing… unburdening yourself from all the things you’ve been sold by the big corporations is a huge step toward freedom, and spending more time with the things that matter most.


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4. Make small possible. The big corporations which have driven so much consumption don’t like competition, especially from many small people, some of whom will have really disruptive ideas. Working from home should be a basic human right… work with your community to overturn laws that prevent it. Also overturn laws against really small businesses outside the home, like single-crew workplaces. Make it as easy as possible for someone with a great idea and passion, but little else, to get started. Microbusinesses are far more likely to do business locally and make the local economy more resilient instead of shipping stuff halfway around the world like the big multinational corporations do. Someday soon (or maybe even today) you’ll be the ones with great ideas to get out there… work with your communities to make sure the big boys don’t stand in your way.


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5. Make stuff yourself. The freshest food is the food you grow yourself. But even if you don’t have a green thumb, make sure there’s a farmer’s market in your neighborhood to support local agriculture. Local food does so many good things for us, our communities, and the earth that I could go on for hours about it… but I won’t. Grow or support local food and you’ll see. But it isn’t just food… make sure there’s a maker space in your community where people can learn how to make things again. Support local craft. Anything you need to buy that’s made locally with materials for the region has a far better effect on the environment than things shipped in from abroad.


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Do these five things in your community and you’ll be making an impact you can count on, that you can see, and that you don’t have to wait on. And yes, insist on others making changes as well. We really do need more renewable energy sources, which is something none of us can do individually, but the best thing is to need less energy… and that’s something each of us can do. Yes, more efficient shipping is good, but it’s far better not to need to ship as much stuff in. So don’t quit demanding that governments and corporations change, as you’re doing today, but realize that the biggest changes, by far, that can be made to benefit the earth and our future in it are the changes we make ourselves, and in our communities. It isn’t even close.


   ~Steve Mouzon


A New Proposal for Preservation

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Grand Central Station - the one that got away (unlike Penn Station)


Origins

   The core problem that led to the modern preservation movement had been building since early in the Great Decline (1925-1945) and boiled over midway through the Dark Ages of Architecture (1945-1980) with the destruction of Penn Station. That problem was the fact that a new building replacing an older building increasingly became a downward trade as the twin abilities to build lovably and durably faded from both design and construction. There were several reasons for this that could be the topic of another post, but the fact that the severity of the downward trades increased in these years is incontrovertible.

   It was not always so. For most of human history, the new building was reliably better than the one it replaced, mirroring the rise of urbanism from shantytowns to great cities over time. There are paintings of Washington DC in its early years, with shacks lining dirt streets and pigs wallowing in mud puddles. So the downward trade was largely a new phenomenon, and people didn’t handle it very well until after the loss of Penn Station.

   Esteemed architectural historian Vincent Scully once said in his lament for Penn Station “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.” Today, there is a movement afoot to demolish the wretched Madison Square Garden and rebuild Penn Station. This proposal highlights two issues fundamental to the nature of the preservation movement: the problem of time, and the problem of quality.

The Problem of Time

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scuttling into New York like a rat at the abomination commonly known as Madison Square Garden


   Madison Square Garden is now 51 years old. But does it deserve protection just because it’s over 50 years old? There is a bit of truth to the 50 year threshold in that most people naturally tend to dislike what was built by their parents’ generation; it’s arguably part of the general rebellion of youth that’s likely nature’s way of making sure we let them go when it’s time to leave the nest. It’s the grandchildren who are the first generation to give their predecessors’ work a fair shake. But that should only make a building a candidate for protection; it should by no means be a guarantee. And that leads to the closely-intertwined second problem:

The Problem of Quality

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Boston City Hall - a building only an architect could love


   How do we judge what deserves protection and what does not? By evaluating those twin attributes of lovability and durability. If a building can’t be loved, it won’t last. If it can, it needs to be durable enough to carry that lovability long into an uncertain future. A building should be strong on both attributes to be a candidate. For example, protecting a building that is highly lovable but built only to last for a few years would represent an unfair burden on the building owners to maintain the unmaintainable. A building broadly regarded to have an unusually strong blend of these two should be a candidate even before the 50-year threshold.

   It is very important that architects not be allowed to dominate the evaluation process. Sadly, architecture schools have indoctrinated their students for nearly a century to both design and appreciate the unlovable. Boston City Hall, for example, is still high-regarded by architects, even while Bostonians other than architects have reviled it since the beginning. It is crucial that the evaluation process generally represents the will of the people above the will of the architects.

Cool Factor

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quickest eye test for cool factor: it’s where the people are


   In the US, the predominant character of the place tends to be low, with only a few areas having a fabric of buildings that rise to the level of strong lovability and durability. These tend to be the places with the greatest “cool factor.” One good way to test for cool factor is to ask “where do the tourists go when they come to town to enjoy the town instead of a special event?” There are a few places where the general fabric of the city has strong cool factor, such as Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans in the South. Places with widespread cool factor tend to be national and even international destinations.

Evaluation System

   The binary on/off switch of contributing/not contributing is far too blunt an instrument to properly evaluate the buildings of “cool factor districts,” or “historic districts,” if you prefer. I prefer “cool factor district” because the real core question isn’t “how old is it,” but “how good is it?” Until we can say “this is better than that,” we have no tools to end the downward trades. In the interest of this, I’d propose this more fine-grained evaluation system:

Historically Contributing

This classification is essentially identical to the current definition. The loss of these buildings would negatively affect the historic character of the block.

Architecturally Contributing

   These buildings are architecturally important to the block with character defining mass and scale but undetermined historical importance. These structures are important building blocks of the whole and should be preserved as appropriate after careful consideration from the local authority.

Urbanistically Contributing

   These buildings fit into their environment and meet the street in such a way as to contribute to the overall composition of the block, but their architecture is mediocre at best. They could be re-skinned or the rear of the buildings could be rebuilt.

Urban Fabric

   Buildings that make up the urban fabric are the most numerous (hence “fabric”) in a district or neighborhood. Technically, in outstanding historic districts, much or all of the fabric buildings (relatively speaking) also contribute to the character of the district and should therefore be preserved because the tradition that once lived and begat these buildings produced a fabric of buildings that were at least urbanistically and usually architecturally contributing as well. But in places built during and after the Great Decline, the living traditions died and the industrial development system that took over left a fabric of buildings that were not even urbanistically contributing. So in these places, fabric buildings do not fall to the level of Regrettable, but should not be protected so that someday, they may give way to an upward trade to a building that is both urbanistically and architecturally contributing.

Regrettable

   These buildings detract from the whole and could be demolished and rebuilt within the character of the cool factor district so long as they are replaced with buildings that are a significant upward trade both urbanistically and architecturally. An equal trade is not worth undertaking.

Someday...

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Cabbagetown


   In the end, the most important question should always be “is this an upward trade?” If not, the exchange should not take place. Recovering places like Cabbagetown built mostly before the modern industrial construction system fully took over after World War II have an urban fabric that is both urbanistically and architecturally contributing to the place, so upward trades there focus more on fixing up what the neighborhood already has, which should be a core upward trade in every recovering place: trading dilapidation for refreshing.

   The hope for every place is that if the cool factor districts, even if very small at the present time, can be made to thrive and even flourish, they may even influence other parts of the town or city so that someday, much of the fabric of the place can build strong cool factor, transforming the place from one people want to leave into one where people want to come and visit for awhile. With many upward trades, this can happen. In fact, it’s the only way it ever happens in most places. So trade up. 


   ~Steve Mouzon


PS: Build strong Walk Appeal on your streets and it will encourage more upward trades in the buildings lining the streets.

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© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018