April 24, 2008

Wheel of Change

I have this professor. He teaches Planning Theory. From the first week of class to the fourteenth week, now, he has constantly asked the question: “Is any of this relevant in the 21st Century?” He always says it while leaning forward, speaking in an enthusiastic Indian accent, and trying to nail us all to our seats with a piercing stare. “How can we say something written as long ago as 1990 is even relevant today?” he asks.

“Well, why in the world wouldn’t it be?” I always tend to think.

It puts my hackles up, being told that the past is obsolete. I’m not even sure why, but it always has. I always think time is an artificial distinction. If whoever it was who invented the BC/AD calendar system all those years ago had pinpointed Christ’s birth just a few year differently, it might still be the 1990’s. There wouldn’t be all this to-do about the 20th and 21st Centuries. But then I suppose my professor’s question would be “Is anything written in the 1980’s relevant in 1998 when so much has changed?”

Yes, much has changed. Major changes have occurred and are continuing to occur which have a significant impact on the field of urban and regional planning. Transportation has been the most profound change of the 20th Century and now communications is touted as having the most impact on the 21st Century. Great social changes have also occurred – the creation and subsequent breakdown of the nuclear family – civil rights and desegregation – immigration and diversity – etc. etc. All of these things have great influence on patterns of settlement.

Yet, when it comes right down to it, I can’t help but think “We’re all just people. Have people really changed that much?” I am reminded of the Four Noble Truths. We all suffer. We all seek relief from suffering. That seeking unifies us. The means by which we go about seeking relief from suffering, seeking happiness for simplicity sake, may change over time.

Two hundred years ago people immigrated in great droves from Europe. They settled hodgepodge into great cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and later Chicago, New Orleans, and St. Louis. When they didn’t like what they found there, they headed west, to found homestead farms and ranches, mine the mountains, or head all the way to the far coast and try their luck there. Our modern towns form lines across the country, following first rivers and then railroads and finally interstates. The means of travel have changed, but they all still follow the same lines, more or less.

I can think of a dozen examples of how things have changed in the last twenty years by drawing on the way we lived a hundred years ago – changed for the better, at that. We are all still seeking happiness. My great-grandparent’s generation tried to find it with a little shop in the city with a cute apartment above. My grandparent’s generation looked for it in a white picket fence. My parents tried to find it in a two-income, two-car home. My generation is seeking it in the urban lofts of lively downtowns. Maybe we even get to live above a little shop like the one our great-grandparents might have had.

I see the wheel turning in all of this, cycles within cycles. “Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” they say. Well, if that’s the case, then what we thought in 1990 is certainly relevant to today if for no other reason than we know what to avoid. More than that, I think the past is always relevant. Looking at the past we can see what we have always been seeking and all the ways we have been seeking it. Only when we see the vast array of things we have already tried might we come to the conclusion that perhaps, just perhaps, the problem isn’t with what we have failed to find, but that we have been seeking in the first place.

When we stop seeking “new” solutions, when we stop chasing “progress,” and trying to “create” the future, then we start to realize that all of the problems we are now facing are in fact workable. It’s not as complicated as all that. After all, people are still people. People, either individually or as a society, change. But as my architecture theory professor would say, “so what?” So things have changed since 1990; so what? Change does not automatically lead to irrelevance. They are not synonyms. Change is actually what makes the past extremely relevant. When we look at the past we can see how change happened. We cannot see future change. We can only guess

But then, guessing, is what planners (and meteorologists) do best.

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