What follows is the fifth in a series of opinion pieces in which Vishaan Chakrabarti casts key current events as rallying cries in his evolving argument for urban density, for a Country of Cities. More than simply complaining about America’s attitude to growth, these posts call attention to how our wasteful land use patterns relate to many of the contemporary crises that challenge our economy, ecology, energy and security. What do you think? Is growing up instead of growing out the answer? Leave a comment in the comments field below or email an op-ed to us here. –C.S.
As oil spills into the Gulf, blood spills in the streets of Greece, and cash spills from terrorist wallets into the hands of willing airline agents, one wonders who can clean up this mess. We tell our children to clean up after themselves, but can we? Disciplining a child is a perilous affair, but in the end self-discipline is the challenge. Self-discipline requires introspection, but how much of it can we muster in a world careening towards 9 billion people?
Do we, for instance, have the introspection to understand that drilling for oil, mining for coal, and supporting the oppression of petroleum regimes should all go the way of the Dodo? Do we understand that extraction is tantamount to extinction?
Conversely, do we have the introspection to understand that when a liberal juggernaut like the Kennedy family fights a wind farm in their own view shed, it’s an invitation for Sarah Palin to invoke us to “drill, baby, drill?”
And when we drill, do we have the introspection to understand that we fuel all the craven instincts most Americans are tempted to hold dear, like driving a minivan to get a quart of milk, or tearing down a 2000sf house to build a 6000sf monstrosity? A friend recently sent me floorplans of his sprawling home that he now plans to expand by building a third garage spot for his new electric car. Given that New Delhi, not New York, has converted its entire bus, taxi and rickshaw fleet to compressed natural gas, is a Honda Insight in a huge suburban garage really that insightful?
As goes our land use, so goes our economy. As our bodies grow horizontally with our cities, we spend more money per capita on healthcare then any nation on earth. And as we feed our cravings by pouring money into roads instead of rails, care instead of prevention, and oil wars instead of renewable resources, we finally arrive at the gaping sprawl of our deficit.
Introspection demands that we ask ourselves – as our children who pay our debts shall – are we a BRIC or are we PIIGS? The BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are projected to have a larger combined GDP than that of the G7 by 2050. By contrast, the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain), could plunge the world into deep economic chaos due to their profligate social spending. There is speculation that politically deadlocked Britain may falter next.
The future of the West is resolved for some. Mike Geoghegan, chief executive of HSBC, recently announced the relocation of Britain’s largest bank to Hong Kong. His rationale for their move was unambiguous: “I believe the 2010s will bring about the close of the Western-centric mindset,” he said. “We have now reached a point of no return. In a few years time, who’ll remember the G7? We’ll remember the E7 – China, India, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey. These are the ones which will matter.”
Yet the West does matter to those who chant “kill, baby, kill.” We matter to those who would blow up a gas-guzzling Pathfinder in Times Square, those whose days are spent devising explosive underwear, those who are financed by the spoils of our SUVs and our regional air travel. The GOP’s response is to drill domestically even though our economy, if we tried to fuel it solely with our domestic oil capacity, would grind to a halt in a scant four years. The Democrats’ response is continually to privilege entitlements over investments, relegating hard tasks like taxing carbon and stripping highway subsidies to the President Gore that alas shall never be.
But the ultimate question is “Do we matter to ourselves?” Do we have the introspection to protect our coastlines, our cities, and our citizens? Do we have the strength to reject the threat that is oil, both foreign and domestic? Do we have the vision to recognize that we have seen the enemy, and it is the suburban house? Do we have the will to embrace high-density living as the only solution, the only land use that limits our energy use, our healthcare costs, our vulnerability to petro-dictators, and our free fall into a sprawling national deficit?
Let us cry over some spilled oil, but let us then find some introspection in the tragedy. Let us rebuild this nation by being the America that built Grand Central Station and Park Avenue, by being the America that built the inter-continental railroad, by being the America that once welcomed striving immigrants to the shores of her cities, by being the America that invented the internet and alternative energy. Let us build a new America that desires density and shuns suburbs.
Let us not be babies who drill, spill or kill. Let us build a Country of Cities.
Images (top to bottom):
Oil Spill day 9: NASA Goddard photo and video
Delhi Transport Corporation Bus: Flickr user antwelm
Oil Spill day 15: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL
Oil Rig: Flickr user alwright1
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.