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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Looking at Landscapes of Work

Twenty years ago, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time by J. B. Jackson was published. I didn't read the book for the first time until a few years later, but it has become a text that I always enjoy returning to reread. It still feels relevant in a way few books do after a couple decades have passed.

The year Jackson's book came out, I was living in France. I was raised as the son of a Steelworker in a small, industrial city in Oregon; spending a year of high school as a foreign exchange student was a rare opportunity for exposure to European culture and urban life. Like so many other Americans who have stayed in Europe, I felt the allure of dense urban neighborhoods. Like many others, most of my experience was also focused on historic city cores, middle-class neighborhoods, and scenic countrysides. I had such down-to-earth experiences as shopping at Carrefour, and I had some working-class friends at the school I attended. But I was not living in an HLM and I saw relatively little of the cit├ęs industrielles. Certainly what impressed itself most heavily on me was the contrast between the walkable, transit-rich, middle-class places I encountered and the sprawling, largely industrial, working-class landscape where I had grown up.


The idea of emulating European urban neighborhoods certainly merged with the American ideal of social mobility. My parents worked hard to provide me with opportunities; I was supposed to work hard to achieve a higher standard of living than they had. So as a planner, that naturally seemed to translate into improving neighborhoods along the lines of the desirable European middle-class models I had seen. Of course, aspiring to remake American cities more like European precedents has been a prevalent trend in urban planning since long before I was inspired to become a planner. It remains a strong strain to this day, particularly when it comes to the growing push for better streets, with Copenhagen serving as such a strong model for bicycle infrastructure that "Copenhagenize" has become a term. 


Jackson provides a different perspective. Rather than looking to Europe for a model of what American cities could become, he looks at our domestic landscape to understand how it actually works. He concerns himself with the places where workers earn their livings. It is a poignant reminder of the diverse needs of complex economies and the inherent dignity of work.

For most planners, myself included, Jackson can be a challenging read when he begins an essay by saying:
I am very pro-automobile, pro-car and pro-truck, and I can't imagine what existence would be without them. But I have learned to be discreet in my enthusiasm: disapproval from environmentalists and other right-thinking elements in the population is something I could not possibly survive. (p. 167, "Looking into Automobiles") 

For anybody who has worked to provide communities with more options for walking, cycling, and transit, the words immediately sting like a slap in the face. It can be tempting to immediately react with the response that it takes very little imagination to picture what life would be like without a car. I am sure some people would veer off to talk about the past (as reimagined), when cities did not have cars. Others would find examples of car-free or car-light households. The annoying little overachiever, braggart voice in the back of my head, for example, gets me thinking about how I haven't owned a car in years and only rarely take out a Zipcar. I suspect Jackson wanted to surface these reactions; he forces his readers to confront their own preconceptions as he delves into the discussion.

When our reading does not challenge us, we have little opportunity to grow. The work of Jane Jacobs was revolutionary because it was a credible challenge to ingrained assumptions (and as her work became "The Bible for Planners" it lost much of its real value). 
I am frequently concerned we all spend too much time inside the echo chamber. The arguments surrounding us are weak; there is too much retweeting of short quotes that reinforce existing opinions, citing secondary sources instead of tracking down the original research. Increasingly, it seems people are choosing to set up home in communities where people hold similar views.

This is why I enjoy reading Jackson, and routinely recommend his writing to the interns who come to work for me each year. Two decades later, each essay still invites the readers to look more carefully at the landscapes around them. There are no easy solutions. He did not offer any ten-step programs to make your community attractive to people who share your lifestyle preferences. He didn't give you the answers; he inspired ways to see and think about places. 

Jackson's approval of cars was not some naive enthusiasm for fancy machines. He thought more seriously about the evolution of roads and what they have meant than anyone else I have read. He coined the term "odology," the study of roads, from the Greek hodos (road, street). The term has never really taken hold, perhaps in large part because so little study has actually been done. Jackson did not merely consider the history of roads as the evolution of a physical right of way, but rather as a complete cultural construct. Consider his observations about the changing status of people on foot:
The prosperous element in European society - the merchants, the officials, the nobility, and the well-to-do landowners - had become accustomed to travel either on horseback or in coaches and carriages. The traditional rural path was often roughly and inefficiently enlarged and transformed into a primitive road for vehicles, and those traveling on foot were increasingly viewed as members of the lower class: they were footmen, footboys, footpads, foot soldiers; persons belong at the foot of the social order; in critical writing, pedestrian came to mean labored, commonplace, and without style. (p. 204, "Roads Belong in the Landscape") 
He was deeply familiar with scenic European neighborhoods and countrysides, his appreciation of the American vernacular came from a combination of understanding historical context and exploring how the world around him worked. His explorations took him to the most ordinary of places, which turns out to be quite unordinary for academics and most others who work to shape our landscapes. In one instance, Jackson took a course in auto repair, which he describes in "Looking into Automobiles":
...I too had learned something which I have tried not to forget: if you love and respect your automobile the way these young men did, and if you depend on it for your livelihood, the automobile will reciprocate, as it were, and teach you many useful things: it can teach you to be accurate, teach you to use the right tools, teach you to make decisions. It cannot teach you the difference between good and evil, but within a somewhat restricted realm it can teach you the difference between right and wrong: between correctness and sloppy, dishonest work. In a word, learning to be a good auto mechanic is learning to be civilized. (p. 169)
The future of working landscapes in America is unclear. Following decades of globalization's exploitation of cheap transportation and pursuit of low-wage labor, most of our manufacturing has long ago migrated off-shore. There are factors that could encourage a resumption of some domestic manufacturing: increases in energy costs that make transportation more expensive, a gradual leveling out of wages on an international labor market, a greater demand for customized just-in-time products.  In addition to the uncertainty about future production is the role of the people who would do the production work. Enthusiasm for the "creative class" has exacerbated the distances between the more affluent and those who still work with their hands; designers have been elevated to a heroic status while the people working the assembly line to produce what they design continue to see their quality of life deteriorate. Instances where the designers craft their own products may align well with a mystique of the "creative class," but it seems unrealistic to believe there won't be lower skilled manual labor involved in producing our goods anytime in the foreseeable future.

These issues are hardly unique to manufacturing. Retail and many service workers often struggle even more with low wages. They comprise a large part of our economy and occupy much of our shared landscape, yet too often they are little more than an afterthought for planners and policy makers who focus on attracting the "creative class." Urbanists frequently mock the places they live, without taking the time to understand the choices available to them or the attributes they find attractive about their homes. At best, it seems, we hear about "affordable housing" that is intended for these workers, which is framed as a matter of what they might be able to afford without any real consideration of how they would actually inhabit it as a place connected to other places in their daily lives.

It is hard to say how much manufacturing we will perform in our communities in the decades ahead. The role of retail and service jobs is in flux as well. In any event, there will surely be lower skilled workers making lower wages who seek dignified places to live, work, and play. Less time obsessing about the amenities preferred by young, "creative workers" and more time observing the way working families lead complete lives in their ordinary neighborhoods would serve us all much better. Jackson provided a useful example for observing and seeking to understand these places, and I hope others are inspired to follow his example.

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