Tone Wheeler talks (and muses via podcast) about Jane Jacobs and her activism to preserve quality of life in New York; Rachel Carson who connected the disappearance of birds to the use of DDT; Barbara Ward, the economist and her Spaceship Earth theory; and Donella Meadows, an ecologist who co-authored the book The Limits to Growth.
What’s really interesting is that the 1960s was an era of reaction against post war modernism. So after the Second World War you had a rise of modernist town planning, modernist building, modernist agriculture – it was a whole series of things that moved into the modern industrial era. It didn’t take long before people could see that things were going wrong and by people I mean, mostly women. That period – the 1950s – as epitomised in things like say, the Mad Men show on TV – was a male-dominated world; so it was in architecture as it was in urban design. But I like to think that there were four or five women in the 1960s who reacted against that and established what you might call ‘environmentalism’ – you know the response to the degradation of the environment, which inevitably leads on to what we now regard as sustainability.
The first of those was Jane Jacobs who lived in New York and could see that the city was going to be under siege from a whole series of freeways. The pattern for New York in the 1960s was the epitome of say, Greenwich Village. It had been that way in Manhattan for so long that when it was suddenly challenged and they were going to put a perimeter of freeways and cut through it, it was seen to be potentially destroying the whole of New York but the reaction to it was mostly led by local activist groups – sort of resident action committees – and Jane Jacobs formed one of those committees for her village within Manhattan.
In doing so, she was drawing together a whole series of threads about the quality of life, the quality of the air and the quality of the resultant transportation. Because she had a journalistic and scientific mind, she was able to condense these things into understandable bits of information, which you could see that far from improving it or being the golden solution, it was actually going to make life a lot worse. She measured it by what you might call the urban quality of life. Not just the normal factors in terms of health and happiness, welfare and income and so on, but also how the city sustained its people by having a life of its own – the streets were the arteries and there were various parts of the city where people would gather and they were parts of the lifeblood of the city. Particularly in New York where people didn’t need a car – not then, not now; why would you want to bring the cars in and then circulate them all the way around and destroy the street life?
Jane Jacobs wrote a couple of books on this, which become seminal texts for urban design and particularly the urban geography of cities in the economy of cities. The first is called ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and expands beyond her neighbourhood in New York, beyond Manhattan to the whole of the pattern of development of the great American cities – Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco, and she looks at how those cities are all different but they all have a life in them that is an organic growth out of, particularly the 18th and 19th centuries or the 20th century; you are the inheritor of an urban fabric – closely dense living conditions in the inner city, the idea of being able to get anything that you need within walking distance of where you live. There was a complex relationship between people living on the street – you were safe because people knew you and would recognise you so that if you weren’t there, they will come looking for you.
There’s another book that runs parallel to this by Bernard Rudofsky, Streets for People in which he makes a very clear distinction that Jane Jacobs had done – that streets are for people, roads are for cars. These two words in English have a very different meaning.
The book The Death and Life of Great American Cities really changes the way people see cities from being almost a singular economic base to something which has a much more complex (what we would now call) triple bottom line that has a social fabric and an environmental fabric.
The second book she wrote after that was called The Economy of Cities; she started to look at the way in which the economic exchanges within a city can help to find the complexities of it and the richness that it has – richness in this particular case meaning rich in economy, in money, and richness in terms of quality, the richness which we now think of as diversity – the qualitative rather than quantitative things, not just the quantity of money you’ve got but the quality of what you’ve done with it.
So that’s 1961 when the book comes out and here it is 60 years later and I think it’s still one of the best books that you can read about what’s happening in urban life. One year later comes a book that looks at the rural life as it is feeding into the cities. This is a book called Silent Spring by a scientist, Rachel Carson and she starts to look at the disappearance of birds in the agrarian belts of the United States. It’s what we would now identify as ‘species loss’.
She delves into it and she has one culprit – DDT – this one particular pesticide that’s being used to control the crops.
This leads to the idea that there is a silence in the surroundings; that there is a loss of biodiversity. It challenges the whole notion of big agribusiness; the notion that you had of a local family farm, say in the early 20th century. It might have a diversity of crops, it might have both cropping and animals, it might have a richness in the sense of inputs to one that is actually a monoculture of farming. Again you can fast forward some of that into work that’s been done on how you can make a very sustainable organic farm – how to make a very small patch of ground support far more food production than you would get out of giant agribusiness.
The agribusiness was the target in her book. Still to this day it’s one of the best pieces of writing about scientific subjects – the proof that there is a linkage between DDT and the loss of biodiversity. Of course, it continues on today with some pesticides being accused of causing cancer and there have been massive settlements in the United States in particular for the use of glycosides.
So here are these two women who are challenging the orthodoxy that comes out after the Second World War, the massive growth happening in what later became the OECD countries. There was a background to what both of them brought to the study, which I think is really interesting when you consider an English economist who started to look at not just the city or the countryside, but the whole of the country or indeed, the whole of an ecosystem.
It was a woman called Barbara Ward who was not nearly as well-known as Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs, perhaps because she was English rather than American and she was from the wealthy upper class, but she had trained as an economist. So she starts to look at the issue of what ecosystems can be analysed in terms of economic systems. She comes to a very interesting conclusion in a book that she writes and publishes in 1964 called Spaceship Earth, which is based on this idea of Earth as a closed system which in turn influences such things as The Whole Earth Catalog, a book published out of Menlo Park, San Francisco by Stewart Brand, Lloyd Kahn and others.
It’s called Access to Tools and it’s basically internet before the internet but what’s interesting is they use a picture of the Earth shot from space, the first time that NASA releases an image shot from space of the whole Earth is on the front cover of the second edition. The Whole Earth Catalog is the catalogue – it has a double meaning; it is for the whole of the Earth but it’s also about the fact that we need to preserve this one Spaceship Earth.
It’s mostly down to that very fact that it grows but sustainability for the population was ahead of the actual population numbers until the 1960s. That’s the point I’m making – this is the tipping point in the 1960s when we start to see that the quality of life that you could have is going to be constrained by the amount of resources that you’re consuming.
The First World was relatively small at that stage but now that large parts of the Third World – South America, Africa in particular, and most of Asia – are now rapidly catching up or overtaking some of what was considered to be the First World, the pressure on resources has become even more demonstrable.
Donella Meadows the ecologist completes the circle of the four biggies from the beginning of the 60s to the end of the 60s and early 70s. Meadows is putting it into some sort of context where the key is in the title of the book The Limits to Growth – can we have endless growth? No.
We’re on one singular planet, there’s a limit to resources, there’s an economic limit to that being established by the economics view of it, there is a biological limit to it, and there’s actually a social limit to it.
Jane Jacobs’ book is really talking about what’s the quality of life in the city; is it worth living in a city if you don’t get the qualities that the urban fabric brings to you? Nearby resources, nearby services, interactions with a large number of people, the qualities that you have in the city, so if you start to lose each of those things because you get endless growth, then it just becomes a system sustaining itself or a system that becomes unsustainable.
Each one of those particular stories from that 10-year period now plays out. I think it repeats itself again and again but it pays to go back to those original four books that established the reasons why. Some of it is a bit arcane, some of it is passé, but if you read it then you realise that the vast amount of material that we’re doing is refining the arguments that have been laid out in that 1960s explosion.
It is also an explanation of what happened prior to the internet but with the distribution of books on a massive scale, you’ve got the dissemination of this information into the populace, into that sort of popular culture.
They were people who weren’t urban designers, agriculturalists or world economists but they were reading these books because they actually touched on the quality of life. This resulted in a large number of people wanting to move to communes; the 1973 Aquarius festival is based on the idea of ‘back to earth, back to nature’, the 1976 Down to Earth festival and so on. They were all channelling the things that were in those books. I believe too much of it is being made of the ecological studies, but not quite enough attention is paid to Jane Jacobs’ very first book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
The city is an ecosystem and if we understand that, we can understand a lot more about the inputs and outputs of cities. But we are rapidly heading towards the point where the world will have 50 percent of people living in cities – what will be the quality of life in those cities? It used to be that it was the rare urban flaneur – the person who lived in Paris, or in Budapest or London or New York who could walk the streets and take in the culture of hundreds of years around them. There were the restaurants, the cafés, the barber shops, and the variety of clothing shops that made that urban life rich.
I think we need to go back to that study of the cities so my first book for your reading list is The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.
Many American cities have this hollowing out of the centre; in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to a certain extent, the centre of the city no longer has a lot of residential population with people having moved to the suburbs.
Detroit is interesting because there was a physical fabric of a city there that could sustain two million people. When it drops, there aren’t a number of people there to take care of all the buildings and things fall into disrepair. But other opportunities arise – with some buildings demolished people have actually established community gardens and they are growing food.
So one of the outgrowths of Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs’ work is that perhaps we don’t need big agribusiness, perhaps we don’t need to grow fields of wheat, perhaps what you’re doing is growing vegetables or fruit, and you’re growing it locally. Also, because you can tend it at a much higher rate, you don’t need the pesticides. That leads to a different movement.
There was a café that opened up in New York that said, ‘We only use local food’. This was ten years ago and the beginning of the movement. No food in this café comes from more than 100 miles away.
Those same cafés then started to have a fight between them as to how narrow they could make it – I think the narrowest one is now down to 300 yards because you can grow food on the roofs. One of the things happening in New York now is that abandoned warehouse buildings are being used to grow food. Not least of which is of course the knowledge that comes from growing under those conditions, under the lights and the use of water borne irrigation and fertilising through hydroponics. This means there is a possibility to reduce transportation and refrigeration.
One of the things with the spreading of the cities in the post Second World War and post-1960 period, you had these huge industrial zoning areas where enormous warehouses and buildings were built. They covered hectares of space and were maintained at about minus four degrees or at four degrees. They are essentially giant refrigerators designed to store the food that goes to the supermarkets.
This has such an energy demand in it – if you look at the fertilisers and pesticides, the fossil fuel inputs from the use of machinery on the farm and then the transportation, the storage in these vast cold stores, the delivery to supermarkets and the refrigeration, it adds up to a lot of energy; as much energy is used in food as it is in the operations of those buildings.
That’s why some people have started talking about vegetarianism and veganism, and less meat, and local being a solution that attacks those issues.
When I was teaching very young architecture students – first and second year students – and asking them to design a building without much guidance, we had a program called ‘opus musivum’, which usually means piecing the city – every student would have to design a building and then you put all the different pieces together and made a city.
So if you just let somebody design it, a huge number of the students would fall into one of two categories: the building will be designed from the outside, often symmetrical, which is carried over into classical architecture – the columns across the front, the tympanum, the triangular piece on top of the pediments and so on.
Men – always it was the men – they made it big like a temple, didn’t matter what it was, it was big like a temple and it was symmetrical and quite often, it had no sides and back to it.
And then you’d find a building that would be just a bunch of bits from the outside and invariably women trying to solve the problem of how you negotiate getting around the building. The well-known Lever House in New York, designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill – said to be the work of Gordon Bunshaft, the main architect – has really striking interiors designed by a woman called Natalie De Blois.
Is that the case then that women do the interiors and men do the exteriors? Is it chicken-and-egg because if you go to an interior design school now, predominantly it is women; if you go to the product days that are oriented towards materials and interiors, vast numbers of the readers will be women.
In his book The Triple Bottom Line, John Elkington asks whether a cannibal eating with forks makes it any more socially acceptable. Anyway he possessed this idea that the economy should be divided in three ways: one is to do with money, one is to do with the environment and one is to do with society and people; often it’s called people, planet and profit, or the economy, equity and the environment.
Why I think it’s interesting is that it’s very hard to penetrate that stuff into this social negotiation. If you’re a man skilled in the things about money, the brief to do a building or the brief to do a city or the brief to do an automobile or whatever it is, is a fundamentally economic matter.
If you’re involved in childrearing or childbirth, and your connection to the health system is through childbirth, rearing children, looking after them, looking after their health, looking after their psychological development and wellbeing and so on, and that’s predominantly women’s work even if much of it is stereotypical, then you have a view of society, you don’t have a view as an economy and I think that’s one of the things that has been a talisman for how people view the city. Do you view it as an economic element? Is it an organism designed around exchange that can be measured in the economy or is it also about the social life that is in it and is also about the quality, of the special quality, which I would say is an environmental quality?
My experience is that most of the reading that I do in that social and environmental space is from women – from Naomi Klein whose body of work is really impressive, to social commentary like Joan Didion, to the way in which the economy is being represented on TV screens in many respects, the enquiry being made about social issues, it’s always women doing those discussions.
And it’s the broader view that comes from very seasoned commentators like Geraldine Brooks; my argument is that it is because of the emotional engagement that you have to have with the city around you – I think it’s higher with women than it is with men.