Archive for August, 2008

Freedom and Power

The paradox of freedom and power:
While freedom for everybody is a universally accepted goal — at least by lip service —  it is less often pointed out that freedom requires empowerment:  the power to exercise that freedom.  When this is discussed, it tends to be in terms of  the good, wholesome, creative activities in which free people aspire to engage — or so goes the implicit assumption.  It is curious that the encouragement  to such creative endeavors often comes with the battle cries of “breaking the rules”,  or “thinking outside the box”  or  “pushing the envelope” — in unspoken but — to the perceptive listener — quite obvious contrast to the pious admonition that freedom of course must be restrained at the point where it  infringes upon others’ freedoms. As if this  were not a rule, a box, an envelope. Do we not know from childhood on that it is precisely against such rules and boundaries that freedom will be tempted to test itself?  Indeed:  is it really freedom if it is constrained by such rules, however plausible and reasonable?  What power does empowerment  confer that is limited to such limits — that have been drummed into the child and the reasonable citizen by parents and authorities?  And  that all too often have been show to be not only “reasonable”, “respectful of others’ freedoms” but also indisputably to the advantage of those in power to impose such exhortations?

So, Abbé Boulah  suggests:  must  we not accept the truth that there is a paradox here? Freedom requires power. And power manifests itself most clearly, some would say only, in the power to break precisely those rules that reasonably would limit it, for the sake of others’ freedom. It is precisely this rule that makes breaking  it the most tempting of all the temptations of power. Power will be tempted to break even the rules of reason;  to break precisely, most definitely, the rules of reason.  This is the temptation that has beset all human institutions, that has driven powerful men and women to push the envelope of their power into madness.

Is it not enough to encourage freedom and power to direct itself to beneficial and wholesome activities?  Surely there are enough problems and shortcomings in the world that could occupy seekers of power to the end of their days in the pursuit and invention of remedies and solutions?

Sure, if it were not for the fact that implementation of such solutions, no matter how well-intentioned,  more often than not impede others in their freedom to implement their own solutions to the same problems. They thereby become each others’ restrictions of their power and freedom, and as such inevitably  will be perceived to be the very rules that must be broken, the boundaries that must be overcome.

Humanity has always known this, even when it was not openly acknowledged, and usually kept under careful wraps by established powers. Human institutions such as hierarchical organization (which allocate power to be exercised ‘downward’ while being constrained by the power of people higher up in the hierarchy in very controlled ways)  or the ‘checks and balances’ in governmental arrangements, all demonstrate this implicitly.

The problem becomes the more acute, the higher up in such hierarchies and government it occurs.  The ultimate problem is therefore this:  how to effectively constrain the power of the highest officials, the highest courts, the highest enforcer of the rules that supposedly bestow liberty on all?

Abbé Boulah suggests that just as the most effective parental manipulations of children’s willfulness are those employing what is called ‘reverse psychology’, so the most effective means for keeping the various branches of government focused on beneficial and rational and wholesome endeavors might be precisely the advancement of various weird and irrational proposals, which the other powers then must prevent from being implemented.  He sees no problem regarding the supply of such irrational ideas, they are in apparent abundance in all bureaucracies, though often sorely lacking in creativity, interest and style.  The problem, rather, becomes that of orchestrating the balancing activities of each of the three, say, branches of government in alternatingly producing wild and crazy ideas for the other two to contain, while simultaneously preventing the irrational proposals of the other two from being implemented.

This, so various followers of the good Abbé contend gleefully, would keep these governing bodies busy enough to let other folks pursue their own freedoms and projects without too much government interference. And thus become a major boon to humanity.  Other friends are, however, becoming increasingly worried that the very  power of this idea is driving its originator himself insane.

Gaines Street, Tallahassee

Good intentions lead to incomprehensible consequences.
This is about some strange developments concerning the efforts to redevelop and revitalize the Gaines Street corridor in Tallahassee.  Plenty of good intentions accompany the desire to improve this  currently  somewhat  derelict area, that serves as the entryway for almost everybody coming to Tallahassee from the airport:  Not only to get some more attractive buildings there, but  a pedestrian-friendly environment.  To achieve this, is is proposed to narrow the current four-lane Gaines street down to two lanes to slow traffic, introduce  on-street parking, wider sidewalks,  and  pleasant street furniture.  All in hopes that this will attract developments to replace the current industrial buildings with appealing commercial and residential  projects.

The efforts have had some result:  the Marriott Residence Hotel at the corner of Gaines and Railroad Ave.  But this cannot be seen as a real improvement:  the architecturally well-intentioned facade (small-grain, multi-colored, while not otherwise inspiring) does not offer any reason for any pedestrian (who is not a resident) to stroll along it — there’s nothing to see, nothing to buy, look at, hear, smell. The basic rule of attracting pedestrians: give them a good reason, even excuse, to go there, not only once a year or month, but every day — has not been understood.  Since owners of the  developments the city would like to attract — even ‘arti’ communities, such as the proposed  artist  studio/residence project — cannot be expected to honor this rule over the necessity to worry about getting a suitable ROI on every square foot  of their property, it would seem that it must be encouraged by the city.  Perhaps by an ordnance suggesting that sidewalk level floor are should  be used by activities that would attract a minimum visitor frequency. In return for incentives such as higher density or tax credits.  Which in turn suggests small-grain establishments. This is difficult ti achieve in new projects, but it can be done with such ideas as a ‘CartMart’ of mobile vendoirs selling daytime-specific wares for part of the day, then move away to make room  for other vendors.

In the absence of any decisive moves on the part of the city in this direction, there is reason to fear that future developments will do no any better than the Marriott place.

But it gets worse.  The traffic planners now rightly worry about the obvious question: where will the traffic go that the narrowing / slowing of Gaines will inevitably displace?  Ahh — it will require a new road — say, the extension  of  FAMU  Way across Railroad Avenue – Wahnish Way to eventually reconnect with Lake Bradford Road.  So they have laboriously prepared three variants of routing this new road,  each of which will cost considerable money.  Never mind whether this new road now will become the new entrance artery for traffic from the airport, and be the attractive entranceway that Gaines was supposed to be.  What: build a fancy entryway to the city but then divert traffic away from it ?  So we must keep the airport traffic on Gaines?  And hope that the aggravation resulting from the slowdown will be balanced with the view of fancy new buildings and wide (but empty) sidewalks? Or what will have to be done to make the new road the appealing entry to Tallahassee?

Here is a different suggestion.

Keep the traffic on Gaines, forget the new road.  Instead, use the money to build one or a few pedestrian bridges  — using the slope on both sides of the roads there — across Gaines and the railroad.  This will possibly make for an appealing  arched gate  on Gaines as the entrance to the city. Encourage the development of pedestrian zones perpendicularly across Gaines —  activating pathways from FSU, the Civic Center,  the All Saints neighborhood, to  FAMU, Railroad Square, the neighborhood to the South, and the planned Park east of Lake Bradford road. Doing so can help  kickstart the development of a second level of  pedestrian / commercial use — that will be  entered at the higher ground levels on both sides, to  safely cross the traffic below .

Any pedestrian areas on Gaines itself, connecting to those North-South  pedestrian corridors , should be done  as covered arcades on the  ground floor of the buildings, not as wide exposed sidewalks. Access to parking from Gaines should be done with appropriate slow-down lanes at a few entries to organized parking  between these pedestrian paths.

While I obviously have not done any calculations of costs  and revenue figures for this, I suggest that  the money saved by not building the new road  would be put to much more productive use with a solution such as this strategy.

Abbé Boulah’s Invitation

Abbé Boulah’s Invitation

This is the first post in what I hope to be a series of  interesting exchanges with people working or just wondering about the same issues. There are a number of such issues, that at first glance may seem to be all over the place, but I sense they are connected in some fundamental ways. The issues will touch upon design, the design process and discourse, the difficulties in that process (such as time management challendes), or the evaluation of the kinds of arguments we use all the time in design, planning, policy-making; the education for planning; urban revitalization, the paradox of freedom and power; the problem of ‘truth’  and how it relates to design and planning issues; and more.

The preoccupation with ‘design’ and planning may seem too professionally narrow. My view is that design and planning are everywhere:  we are all designers, all planners. And the look at many of the world’s problems from such a ‘design’ or ‘planning’ perspective may prove surprisingly fruitful;  at the very least, it is my hope that it will be discussed. This perspective will open up a set of questions that should be investigated, discussed, and any agreements arising out of them made more widely known.

To start things off, I will make a preposterous and perhaps pretentious claim:  Aristotle’s statement about humanity’s basic quest quest for true knowledge, true insight has, in my opinion led to a preoccupation with ‘truth’.  I see humanity argue  at least if not more about what we OUGHT to do, about design, plans, policies, decisions, than about the world IS like. But the preoccupation with truth about what IS has led logic, for example, to grievously neglect the examination of the kinds of arguments we use all the time in discussions about what OUGHT to be. From the point of view of formal, deductive logic, these arguments are not valid, their conclusions at best ‘inconclusive’. Therefore, no systematic method for evaluating these arguments has been developed.  There is never just one single argument about a planning decision that would have to be demonstrated to be valid and its conclusion true, to support a decision.

Politicians and decision-makers talk suavely about ‘carefully weighing the pros and cons’ — but nobody can point to a systematic and transparent process for just how to do that.  I have attempted to develop such a method, and while it certainly needs work, the main result is that the design and planning discourse must be re-thought and re-organized if this approach is to be integrated into the process.  This is one of the main tasks to be addressed, and I submit that it is significant far beyond the boundaries of the design and planning professions.