20 September 2007

Be the best, not in, but for the world

Disclaimer: Normally this blog is not very political. This week's post is. If you don't like my views, read someone else's blog or, better yet, write me a comment and say your peace. Democracy isn't about agreeing with one another, but it is about conversation. . .

The title of today's post comes from a presentation I attended recently. A brand new non-profit organization in my community called enVISIONing Annapolis sponsored the talk. This is an organization dedicated to generating an inclusive dialogue to help our growing community plan for the long-term future. I volunteered to help out at the lecture because I think it's about time my little city begin a dialogue on its growth problems and social problems, and put an end to all of the useless bickering. I hear too many people around me who love to complain and only a few, very dedicated souls who do anything to address our problems. Sadly some of the do-nothings are in our local government; others are businesses. We need a change. We need someone to come in and shake us up and to make us think.

The quote in my title was made by a visionary urban consultant, Charles Landry, who used it to bolster his notion that for a city to survive and be vital, it needs to be creative and to have a creative class of citizens who think altruistically. I had heard of Landry's work before in the media. I love it that his title while he consulted with the city of Perth, Australia was "Thinker-in-Residence." That's simply lovely. Every city should have (and take seriously) a person called a thinker-in-residence. If we cannot afford to keep a thinker-in-residence, than it may be enough to bring one here for a weekend and ask him to tell us what he sees and to show us ways we might re-think our sense of direction.

Landry's approach to urban development is familiar to me. Not because I know a great about him and his work, but because he reminds me of another visionary, who I hold as one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth-century: R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, or "Bucky" as he was known around my house when I was growing up, was my father's design professor in Carbondale, IL back in the early 1960s. My parents knew Bucky and his wife. He came to their parties. What I learned from Bucky Fuller comes from everything my parents taught me about comprehensive design and about solving problems using your creativity. There's a well-known Bucky quote that sums up his creative process:

"When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."– R. Buckminster Fuller (1895 - 1983), US architect, engineer, and comprehensive thinker
Bucky Fuller was someone who you could truly call a visionary, that is, someone who sees the future just on the horizon and who works toward making that future a brighter, more positive one for the human population as a whole. No problem was too big for Bucky. He thought all of the time about how technology could be utilized for the good of humankind and even predicted the hunger storage many developing countries are experiencing now, in the 21st century. He believed that:

“For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. Only ten years ago the ‘more with less’ technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option to become enduringly successful.”– R. Buckminster Fuller, 1980

He said that in 1980, three years before he left us and this planet for good. I don't think Bucky ever stopped believing that technology was the answer to creatively solving humanities problems.

Me, I'm not so sure that technology is the answer, but I know that creativity is. Perhaps this short post is my personal creativity manifesto. If, like Mr. Landry said, my little city of Annapolis decides to "be the best, not in, but for the world," what would "the best for the world" look like? Would Annapolis become a leader in Green Living? Probably not, but I would like to see green space (lots more than we have) in the city center. I would like us to tear up parking lots and put in parks. I want to see recycling containers along major pedestrian areas just like they are doing in Nova Scotia [See my post from July 20, 2007]. I want to see energy-efficient uses of wind and solar power. More sailboats and less motorboats, for the energy crisis that is upon us already. I'd like to see more historic homes have rain gardens around them, not just the few historic sites. Maybe a few "green roofs" would be a good idea, too.

Charles Landry suggested that Annapolis, as you approach it from the water -- the best way to approach our city, by the way -- has a dock area completely abandoned to the automobile. Why do we Americans so worship our cars? Often our entire environment is built around the ease of car travel and not foot/bike travel. I say we should get rid of cars downtown altogether. Yes, that means we'd need parking lots somewhere else, and public transport between these lots and the downtown. However, at least there then might be a downtown where children and adults could safely walk, perform music or pantomime, converse and celebrate. Wouldn't that be a better Annapolis for all?

Annapolis may be laid out in a plan that mirrors European cities, but it is decidedly not a European city in character. European cities have pedestrian-only shopping districts and better public transit. Europeans expect to walk or to ride bikes downtown. Why not think even more creatively than Washington, D.C. or Baltimore about public transit? If Annapolis and its region has so much coastline, then why not build water transit that everyone can afford to use. Let's abandon our cars for environmentally-efficient boats! Wouldn't people from out of town pay to ride in the world's first water-taxi-only downtown corridor? Couldn't we make it easier for tech workers to kayak or canoe to work? The waters are rising folks. Chesapeake Bay Foundation's research on climate change suggests that the sea rise will be as much as 3 or 4 feet by the end of this century.

Well, perhaps I am too naive. I still think our community is much in need of a wake-up call and I'm glad Landry made some of the controversial observations about our city that he did. I would love to see more young artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs living and working downtown. But young people are priced out of the housing market in our downtown. My husband and I are very middle class professionals and yet buying a house in downtown Annapolis (or even a condo) is not possible. We are looking at homes in burbs and rural communities to the south and to the west to lay down permanent roots, as I've almost given up on this city as a place I can truly call a "hometown." It's a sad commentary when we cannot afford to live here, it means there are many more workers in Annapolis with vital skills: school teachers, police officers, restaurant workers, and medical care-givers, who can only dream about living in Annapolis.

I want this city to be a beautiful, living place where there is diversity and harmony. How can that be when so many people feel abandoned and closed-out of the dialogue. I've offered to give my time at future enVISIONing Annapolis lectures in the hopes our efforts might indeed generate some dialogue and the dialogue, some serious action.

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