Same as it ever was

Nice history of trains in LA

In the new issue of Vanity Fair you’ll find what I think is a pretty chilling essay by one of my journalism heroes, Kurt Andersen. I’ve been lucky enough to see him present previews of this essay twice, both at the AIGA conference in Phoenix, and as part of my USC Annenberg/Getty fellowship. Each time I heard his argument, I got more and more frightened for the future of our country. And now, reading the final essay, I’m more worried than ever.

Here’s what Kurt argues:

Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there’s the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.

He makes a great case for our “devolution” as it’s called, winding through examples in fashion, movies, music, design. The reason this scares me is because I see it as physical evidence that our country is no longer actively inventing and manufacturing new ideas. We’re creatively stagnant. But the first thing I thought about when I heard Kurt speak on this topic was the urban environment. I’d say the state of our cities is not only stuck in the 90s, it’s actually going backwards.

As Kurt says, think about it. Streetcars. Bicycles. Community gardens. Neo-Victorian new urbanist developments. All the “innovations” in urbanism feel like we’re really just reverting back to the way our ancestors lived a century ago.

Look what we’re doing in Los Angeles. Yes, we have an ambitious new transportation plan. But we’re simply replacing the trains and trolleys that we first installed a century ago. I know, these are likely safer and smarter modes of transit than their hundred-year-old counterparts. But what does it say about our culture—and I mean American culture—that we can’t invent some incredible new way of efficiently navigating the city, one that looks, acts and performs significantly better than what we came up with in 1901?

Across the country it’s the same story. We’re installing roundabouts instead of stoplights, painting bike lanes on our streets, creating car-free urban plazas. These are all great things. But they’re ideas from another era. Meanwhile, the infrastructure we do have is in major need of an upgrade. Bridges are still collapsing, roads are still riddled in potholes, and our buildings—even with every LEED-certified intention—are still largely the same stucco-clad, resource-sucking abominations we were erecting 20, 40, 60 years ago. Frank Gehry is still designing the same building he designed in 1997.

I’m not saying we should level our cities and start over. But we have to do something, fast. A recent windstorm in LA left half the city dark because we’re using the same type of above-ground power lines that were erected when electricity was first invented.

Please, tell me. Where are the brilliant new solutions for our cities?

Like Kurt’s argument, I will say there’s a caveat for technology used by cities, those improvements that we experience, say, on our iPhones. There’s definitely awesome stuff being produced by places like Code for America, See Click Fix, and Stamen that will certainly enable our cities to run better. One of the greatest recent innovations in transportation, I’d argue, is Getaround, a peer-to-peer car sharing service that lets you rent your vehicle to a neighbor. This could really change the way we use cars. But it’s not a solution. Isn’t the real challenge to replace the car completely with something better? Say what you will about a Segway. But I see that as one of the few steps (gyroscopic rolls?) forward in the last 20 years. Where’s my jet pack, dammit?

With the TED Prize (puzzlingly) going to “The City 2.0” instead of a person this year, I’d argue that Kurt’s essay makes a great blueprint for how to think about what that “2.0” (a rather tired term in itself) actually means. What improvements can we make to the urban environment that don’t look/feel/act like they were made 20 years ago?

It’s a scary proposition that Kurt makes, but the issue is most pressing for our cities. Because if we need another 20 years to catch up there, we’ll be out of time.

Top image: Pavers at the new Expo Line stations (opening in 2012) give a history of the trains that used to run on the exact same right-of-way

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  • Toothbrushuser

    Nice article!
    “We continue to use old tools to solve new problems” Marshall MacLuhan, 1965

  • Gary Kavanagh

    I’m going to have to disagree with you a bit on this one, insofar as discussing looking backward for inspiration in urban form. What I find truly much more scary is how many good, timeless ideas of city and town planning were chucked into the garbage can of history during the modern era, to borrow a phrase from JH Kunstler. It’s for our own good, our very survival in fact, that we are looking at our historical precedent to inspire some of our future direction.

    Almost everything we built in the past 40-50 years in America is garbage that was never designed to live through the ages or be in tune with basic long term financial sustainability in multiple lifecycles. Not to mention the ecological devastation of sprawl and bumping into limits of the natural resources that we are so dependent upon.

    I believe we are moving into an age of dimishing returns on technology, and that as the oil supply and demand balance tightens further, our society will regret how long it took for us start building our towns, cities and transportation systems on principles that predated automobile and oil dependance.

    As the Bicycle Transportation Alliance of Oregon put it, the jetpack has arrived, and it is a bicycle.