Sunday, August 22, 2010

Towards a Universal Building Code


Feet in the Stoa, Eyes on the Street

(A re-written early chapter in the Infrastructure Section of Citizens Without Borders)
By John Taylor; 2010 Aug 22, Asma 02, 167 BE

Our street scape is owned by vehicles. They isolate and reduce people to mindless sims, pounded by noise into sullen silence, divorced from nature and the larger bonds that give life meaning. Dehumanizing as it is, this model is spreading around the world. And yet the basic principles of neighbourhood design are well known, though rarely practiced.

In the Twentieth Century, activists like Jane Jacobs stood up in opposition to centrally planned structures built by architects of the school of Le Corbusier. These tyrannical design geniuses assumed that humans in buildings and developments are automatons, incapable of planning their own lives or observing what goes on around them. Jacobs pointed out that criminals immediately take over the gaping, empty spaces between such towering, isolated buildings. Anyone walking into these empty public squares immediately senses danger, and the feeling is usually justified. Yet around the world, surveys and estates continue to be built where people are banished, shunted away by zoning regulations into separate residential areas.

Instead, Jane Jacobs suggested the motto, "eyes on the street." In a well designed district businesses, shops and manufacturing districts are always mixed in with residential, often in the same building. Permanent residents live in connected, high density communities where they meet often enough to build a sense of reciprocity among themselves. They feel a natural concern for whatever happens in their neighbourhood and see that it is kept clean, safe and orderly. This proprietary social feeling becomes the first line of defence against injustice.

In such healthy, mixed neighbourhoods, locals spontaneously work out their own built-in security system, without need for security cameras or an occupying army of police. Homes and apartments are placed so that many eyes are always on the street. Any wrongdoing or suspicious activity is in full view of many people, each feeling a long term stake in the health of their neighbours. Thus many crimes are prevented by amateurs before professional law enforcement needs to be called in.

In a recent column, George Monbiot summed up the latest wave of research confirming what Jane Jacobs advocated for so many decades. He points out that the best designed "estates," or housing developments, turn their back on the street with buildings surrounding a large "village green." Here, liberated from traffic, both children and adults feel free to run around and spontaneously define their own spaces. Even in a camping ground, a safe, green area in the middle is so attractive that it draws otherwise sedentary, home-bound residents outside their tents, where each exercises with their peers in their own way.

"There is a clear association between the absence of greenery and both property crime and violent crime ... Build loose suburbs carved up by busy roads and without green spaces and you help to create a population of fat, lonely people plagued by criminals. Build dense, leafy settlements with mixed uses, protected from traffic, and you help to create safe, fit and friendly communities." ("Turning Estates into Villages; How good planning can make us slimmer, fitter, safer and less lonely," by George Monbiot, The Guardian, 9th August 2010,

Monbiot, in his usual scrappy way, opposes conservative social critics who place blame for wrongdoing on rowdy youths and negligent parents. Instead, we are victims largely of poor city and regional planning, infested by fractured building design.

"We are, to a surprising extent, what the built environment makes us. Academic papers show that many of the problems we blame on individual behaviour are caused in part by the places in which we live. People are more likely to help their neighbours in quiet areas, for example, than in noisy ones. A long series of studies across several countries, beginning in San Francisco in 1969, shows unequivocally that communities become weaker as the volume of traffic on their streets increases."

As Monbiot points out, neighbourhoods that do follow such elementary design are rapidly gentrified, leaving poor designed places to poor people.

When a world government forms, for the first time we can be certain that good design will become universal, for rich and poor. In fact, every effort will be made not only to eliminate extremes of wealth and poverty, but to build neighbourhoods that mix the elite, the middle classes and the poor together. This desegregation will in itself tend to reduce economic inequity, since it is harder to neglect an indigent neighbour than some statistic isolated in a far off slum or favela.

The world authority will hasten to devise a standard building code to regulate architecture and regional planning so that the essential features we have been discussing will to be part of every new building, street and neighbourhood, everywhere. As we have seen, this code would re-introduce the stoa or porch, allowing smooth transition zones among spaces, be they private, working, recreational, sacred or public. Stoa-surrounded classical buildings will alternate with greenery, parks and even wild nature reserves. These stoa will permit genial conversation to take place there, while pedestrians and bicycles thread their way nearby. The street would be unoccupied by motorized vehicles, which are banished underground or overhead, out of the way, out of sight and hearing.


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