(revised from yesterday's essay)
By John Taylor; 2010 May 27, Azamat 09, 167 BE
This section of People Without Borders deals with the physical infrastructure of the cosmopolitan condition. We have described the hillside blocks, wherein individuals orbit households, households orbit blocks, and blocks orbit neighbourhood government. Many invisible, mental factors and agreements among many groups, rather than any pre-existing plan, will decide where people and buildings are placed in relation to one another. Since the specific position of any building or institution at any given time is determined wholly by consultation, let us use the term "consultative housing" to describe the whole, shifting system. Consultative housing by definition is both an outcome of and is wholly integrated with the social, religious and political factors that we will deal with later.
Mixed Use Zoning, the Core of Consultative Housing
Consultative housing starts with an old idea that city planning specialists call "mixed use zoning," which simply means that homes are always built as close as possible to where people spend most of their time, both working and playing. Mixed use zoning is Occam's Razor applied to daily living and travel. Why have a long commute when you can live close by? If there is a choice between making your own entertainment in the home and travelling for it, the former is preferable.
A city that allows homes and other human support facilities to mix freely with the workplace allows urbanites to move where it is most convenient and efficient. This permits the economies of scale from high-density construction while encouraging the sense of community and civic responsibility most often associated with village life. A product of long evolution, mixed use zoning was the default in the most successful neighbourhoods of great cities until the Twentieth Century.
With industrialization, noisy machines and smoky factories made it ever more unpleasant to live or walk anywhere near the workplace. Gradually, mixed-use zoning was abandoned. As factories were built as far as possible from residential districts. As a result, they became effectively invisible. The most active and influential people were far removed from smog, dirt and smokestacks. The poor had no choice or say in matters. Restraints on industry were released and they became even more noisy and polluting.
Technical advances, especially in transportation, combined with lobbying by special interests, persuaded planners to make room for trucks and automobiles. Mixed zoning seemed obsolete. Cheap oil meant that total dependence on cars for the most common daily errands did not seem to be a problem. Power politics became dominated by petroleum. A monopoly on energy and transportation concentrated wealth into ever fewer hands.
The original rationale for specialized neighbourhoods was purely technical. For a long time, the technology of travel seemed to be accelerating without limit. It was evident from the beginning that the invention of fast, mechanized transport, air, rail and road, was bound to separate homes from factories. For example, a recent article assessing H.G. Wells predictions made over a century before for the year 2000 in his 1902 book, "Anticipations," notes that,
"The increasing speed and availability of travel, together with greater use of mail services and the telephone, will -- Wells says in the second chapter -- lead to a great expansion in the size of cities, along with a decrease in average density; in a word, suburbs. City centers will increasingly serve as shopping and entertainment areas rather than housing dense populations. One of the locations of the giant city-suburb complexes he foresees by the year 2000 is now the site of the Boston-Washington megalopolis. There will be a tendency toward thematic housing districts and home architecture ... He also forecasts suburban home offices, the segregation of neighborhoods based on wealth and race..." ("Anticipations: the remarkable forecasts of H.G. Wells," The Futurist, 01-SEP-07, <http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-6872370/Anticipations-the-remarkable-forecasts-of.html>)
That Wells did not disapprove of this anticipated lowering of urban density, which we now call urban sprawl, is evidenced in his 1923 utopian fantasy "Men Like Gods." Here an alternate earth retains a population of less than a billion people. In an avid search to maximize elbow room, they have spread out to cover all habitable territory with as few people as possible.
Today, separatism of neighbourhood functions has been taken to the ultimate extreme. The heavy manufacturing district has been shunted off to China and a handful of other Far East nations. Nonetheless, the trend away from mixed use zoning has not abated.
Yet even with heavy industry removed from the picture, specialized commercial districts, dedicated shopping malls and separate suburbs for residential construction continue to be built entirely separated from one another, connected only by roads. Trucks and automobiles crowd the highways, billions of worker hours are wasted in rush hour traffic jams, and every trip drains money from people's pockets into the petroleum monopoly. Meanwhile, our very bodies seem obsolete. Forced to drive everywhere, obesity has become epidemic among the poor as well as the rich.
The overall result is a grossly inefficient economy and infrastructure. We routinely waste food, energy, water, materials and resources, while houses, buildings and transport churn out prodigious quantities of soot and gases. The sea journey that manufactured goods take from source of extraction to China and then to destinations around the world makes waste and pollution even worse. The cheapest, dirtiest oil is used by transport vessels, since there are no residents to complain about the cloud of smoke that obscures sea lanes. The entire economy would all collapse under its own weight were it not for artificial subsidies. Without such props it would be prohibitively expensive to live, work and travel.
There is no evidence that any of this was inevitable; it could have been planned for. With a determined will, the new technology could just as easily have decentralized the economy, accelerated the growth of handicrafts and cottage industries and encouraged active, healthy lifestyles. Instead, it was most convenient to drift, to rely on habit, to feed the centralizing inclinations of a wealthy and powerful elite.
No matter how advanced technology seems to progress, the laws of the universe, especially of the moral universe, do not change. Under actual economic conditions it is always more economical to live near the workplace and to walk our commutes, rather than ride, drive or take a public conveyance. Even if cost were not a factor, walking will always be among the best exercises. For the very young and very old, it is often the only form of exercise. Walking should be integrated into all practical activities of daily life.
Mixed-use, high density construction is designed to do that. Unlike the spacious, homogenized utopia described in Wells' "Men Like Gods," we need to introduce as much variety and diversity as possible. Hillside housing, by standardizing the essentials, will allow residents to maximize this principle of conscious variance in non-essentials.
For example, hillside receptacles for ROO's will provide adequate, standard shelter for all. The sunny side of hillside blocks will grow sufficient food to cover some staples, and especially herbs, nuts, fruits and leafy vegetables, for the diet of local residents. Local workshops will run a cottage industry using traditional tools and the latest innovations, such as three-dimensional printers, will produce every kind of manufactured need, including clothing. Thus local facilities and craftspersons will provide the essential without any need to transport goods out of the neighbourhood.
While the infrastructure covers essential survival, non-essentials can be left to the creativity of local workers. They will take risks and labour to establish exports and attract visitors, both of which require a degree of specialization. However unlike "cash crops" in agriculture or "export commodities" in industry, there will never be complete dependence upon the outside market.
As with unity in diversity in the human condition, so it will be with the natural environment. We have already described how this search for variety would affect the plants, animals and the landscape in and around hillside developments.
Terra-forming operations can quickly create hilly ground in order to increase solar exposure and promote biodiversity. However, unity in diversity requires that hilly land alternate with flat lands, and that agricultural land alternate with semi-cultivated land, and that into virgin forests and other natural areas. Seen from the window of a train moving along a hillside housing complex, cultivated and uncultivated spaces would switch back and forth in quick order.
Beyond this, I think it would be impossible to say what hillside developments would look like, or what specific design principles will come out of the construction of the World Belt. The World Belt will span the continents and criss-cross the deserts providing a tremendous amount of practical experience living in mixed zoning and consultative housing. Many experiments will examine the many mixes and arrangements possible within such a neighbourhood. In an evolutionary progression, those arrangements that best maximize human potential will tend to be selected over others. Eventually, the experience moving modular units around in the high density, low-environmental-impact setting of consultative housing will be applied to all urban areas.