manic monday – modern architecture and society

I (used to) live in what could be argued as a modern urban environment. I shop locally, I eat locally, I even ride my bike to work.  Everything I could possibly want to do (eat, drink, play, work, etc) in this city I can find within a 5 or 10 mile radius. So, one would think that having so much in close proximity and being forced to interact with my fellow citizens at such an intimate level my city would be very close knit. But in all of the constant interactions I have with my fellow citizens, I constantly wonder:

Are modern urban planning and architecture killing our society?

There seems to be a pervasive apathy, a closing off and a shutting out that, to me, is more than a little upsetting. Let’s walk through a typical day in the life of me and I think you’ll see where I’m taking my meaning.

I live in a small historic neighborhood west of the urban core. Monday thru Friday I bicycle to work (when it’s not raining). On a typical morning ride I get, at the very least, lots of dirty looks from people in their cars because, obviously, I’m in theie way and should move. I’ve been honked at, yelled at, nearly run over several times, but the most worrisome reactions I get are from other pedestrians and even a fair number of fellow cyclists. And this is where the rubber meets the road.

My commute, one way, is about 4.5 miles. In that stretch I will pass on average between 30 and 50 people, both pedestrian and cyclist. Out of those that I pass maybe 1 in 5 will look up and acknowledge my presence. Even fewer will return a smile or nod of the head in greeting. Here’s where the architecture part comes in.

Our modern cities, our architecture, seems to be focusing more on flashy design than on good design. And by good design, I mean design that invites, encourages and enriches community involvement. When new retail spaces go up more attention is spent in maximizing the interior square footage than how to engage the public walking by. Storefronts come right to the limits of the sidewalk, doors open out into the flow of traffic interrupting natural pedestrian movement, creating points of tension and conflict rather than comfort and peace. I’m reminded of Meet the Robinsons when Louis reveals his memory scanner and Lucille says “Ooh, SHINY!” This is the same attitude that we have towards architecture and our urban environments and it’s dangerous.

Forsyth looking East – narrow sidewalks and no pedestrian presence.

Architecture should be interactive, not simply a display. This is where a lot of our urban environments fall short. We have become obsessed with the “shiny”, the “glitzy” and the “glamorous” rather than simple, functional, GOOD architecture. When will we learn that cities, like people, need to be allowed some freedom and can not just be a pretty package?

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