Unreal Nature

May 23, 2015

The Street

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… how it dominates its immediate environment, how complex it is in design, how many functions it now serves … [T]he street has taken over the role of making landscapes …

This is from the essay ‘The Accessible Landscape’ found in Landscape in Sight: Looking at America by John Brinckerhoff Jackson; edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (1997):

… A common spectacle across the country are the cars, three abreast and ten deep, waiting at an intersection and watching the intricate choreography of the traffic lights overhead — then surging away to travel miles across open country between billboards and auto junkyards, to some satellite industrial suburb.

… There is clearly such a thing as a middle- or upper-class American way of perceiving and creating a landscape. It comprises those spaces and structures and relationships which people of those classes are familiar with and find pleasant as a setting for their way of life. It is a spacious rural (or semirural) landscape of woods and green fields (plowed fields are suspect, hinting at mechanization or, worse yet, commercialized farming). It is a landscape of private territories, admission to which is by invitation only.

… [In the city,] urban streets … were like turbulent streams flooding their banks and drowning what was left of the old boundaries, the old privacy and autonomy. In the end the driver’s perspective saw all those changes and adaptations, all that destruction and leveling as elements in a battlefield. Two concepts of how to organize and use space were meeting head-on: privacy and security and permanence as symbolized by those established territories or domains versus a vernacular impulse toward accessibility and freedom of movement.

The traveler who, like myself, rarely gets out of his car is more likely to be more aware of the roadway ahead of him than of the spaces and buildings on either margin. But if you have had, as I have had, the experience of driving fifty or more years ago, you cannot fail to be struck by how the street in the average American town or city has been transformed, how it dominates its immediate environment, how complex it is in design, how many functions it now serves, and how it constantly creates new ancillary spaces and structures: parking garages, underground parking, parking lots, drive-in facilities and skyways and overpasses and interchanges and strange little slices and islands of greenery.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] In its most inclusive sense, the street has taken over the role of making landscapes, changing them and destroying them. In the old days, roads were cautiously planned and built solely to reach a specific destination. Now we build highways hundreds of miles in length to open a whole region to development, and even a new street cut across a vacant suburban area promptly produces house after house along its margin, the way the branch of a tree produces leaves in spring. In the hands of a skilled planner or traffic engineer, a street becomes a versatile tool: outlawed parking, limited speed, one-way traffic, and a succession of traffic lights can either ruin the social and economic life of a neighborhood or cause it to flourish.

Sometimes, it is true, the scale and complexity of this highway environment can make a driver break out in a cold sweat. In town after town I have found myself enmeshed in a tangle of interchanges and overpasses and ramps, and have been reduced to total helplessness, timidly seeking to follow signs and numbers and arrows, and to obey the commands and warnings painted on the surface of the road in front of me.

Still, it is easy to exaggerate how sensitive we are to the modern highway environment. Without our always admitting it, we are at home, we know what to expect, when we drive for block after block between a succession of drive-ins, parking lots, used-car lots, garages, and gas stations. We are not simply in a commonplace, often unsightly part of town; we are in a new organization of urban space, one designed for work, for accessibility, and for the satisfaction of short-term essential needs — all based on the presence of the automobile.

… I am very much aware of the excesses of accessibility, of the confusion and squalor of the environment often created by the rejection of the traditional private organization and use of space. I wish there were fewer cars. I wish distances were not so great. I wish the pursuit of accessibility, the constant striving for the attention and good will of the mobile consumer did not often mean lack of dignity and individuality. And I have dark moments when I foresee that the American city will in the future come to resemble those immense and formless cities of the third world.

That may be what happens. In the meantime, we should perhaps remind ourselves that behind this new way of building and planning and incessantly moving about is a basic universal urge: not to withdraw into a private domain of our own but to participate in the world and to share it with others. Ours is a society where vernacular values are taken seriously. However extravagant and unsightly much of the contemporary urban scene may be, it is essentially vernacular in that it offers the public, and particularly the working public, an easy and presumably attractive way of satisfying the needs of everyday existence.

My most recent previous post from Jackson’s book is here.

-Julie

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