Saturday, December 3, 2011

Elements in Tension

My six year old daughter surprised me today by proclaiming that she had figured out why the earth spins. At some length, she explained that if the earth did not spin, it would be bad for “the people” because some would live only in the light while some would be continually in the darkness. When I agreed with those consequences of a static globe, I asked how, then, that reality would yield a spinning earth. It took a while for us drill down through the layers of her reasoning to get to a fundamental question: was there something out there, other than people, that cared about the well being of humanity? After a few minutes sitting with this question, she said “Oh, Dad, I’ve got an idea... maybe a god or something is involved.” We then had a first in-depth conversation about the idea of God, or gods, and how they provide answers to difficult questions. Ultimately, we came around to an assessment that humans really like to things to resolve cleanly, regardless of the violence to reason committed in achieving resolution. 

That brings me back to the subject of this blog (thanks for your patience) - small to midsize urbanism and my case study regarding Caracas. As we near the end of the fall quarter in BE 551, students have presented case studies on Abuja, Astana, Belgrade, Brasilia, Caracas, Dubai, and Incheon. My investigation of Caracas has been placed into very illuminating context among the other studies. I have enjoyed the class, and I find the discussions stimulating. But they have not been comfortable. I walk away from each week’s discussion with a sense of unease... and I think I am beginning to understand why. Similarities and differences abound between the case study cities, but one aspect seems enmeshed in the character of each place: elements are held in tension, without resolution.

In small to medium sized cities, innumerable elements of life are held in tension between divergent forces. As a city grows from ex-town to pre-megalopolis, it makes sense that divisive forces come into play. In fact, it stands to reason that this characteristic tension may be more prevalent in S&M cities than in urbanism at other scales. Smaller towns may not have the sheer force of population to draw differences in values/lifestyles/resources into palpable tension, and such towns are contained enough that most residents may still share a common urban ethos. On the other end of the spectrum, megacities may be diverse and far-flung enough that tension may dissipate as subareas and subpopulations are relegated particular territory (physical or ideological), and any prevailing sense of shared urban character may be abandoned. But in small to midsize cities, the forces of large population numbers behind differences play out within geographic and social bounds confined enough that disparities are evident, and incongruences fly in the face of any wishing to maintain what is a fading sense of shared identity. Under such conditions, tension is certainly manifest.

In holding matters in tension, there is unease- and as I mentioned above, we humans do like things to resolve. For that reason, I suppose we could hypothesize that small to midsize cities are transitional or maybe even temporary. They probably cannot stay perpetually in their current state of tension. They could grow and relieve pressure via geographic or social allocation, or they could shrink until divergent forces are no longer manifest with strength sufficient to create tension. Such a view of the small to midsize city as transitional, an ephemeral city, may indeed be reasonable. However, for the purposes of this study, I want to maintain focus on what of significance is manifest now in S&M cities- under tension - before resolution.

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