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Breakdown In The Open Road City

Reading the environment

Henry Ford is reputed to have said that he had to ‘invent’ the motor car in order to escape the crushing boredom of a mid-Western farm. Since then, the freedom of the open road has become emblematic of 20th-century America’s size and its population’s desire, and need, for mobility. In this book, Lars Lerup seeks to assess this cultural and spatial phenomenon through the prism of a single city, Houston, which is described here as the ‘most unexamined of big American cities’. Houston, he says, is ‘neither city nor metropolis, but an urban condition of a third kind’.

The frequent use of a first-person narrative-style and Lerup’s naïve drawings may not be to everyone’s taste, but the book is an attempt to address a significant issue that is being widely ignored on both sides of the Atlantic: retrofit masterplanning. In other words, cities like Houston exist in changing economic, cultural and political circumstances and as a result of these social dynamics they should be constantly reappraised. The physical infrastructure alone should be developed or reinvented to accommodate real changes over the years. This book explores the societal mechanisms by which this might be done.

Robert Bruegmann’s far-superior book Sprawl: A Compact History starts with the lines: ‘Sprawl has been evident in Europe as in America and can now be said to be the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live.’ For Bruegmann, real people, driven by financial opportunity, make conscious decisions that direct their lives. For Lerup, people are merely dehumanised flows.

Even though he talks admiringly of self-organisation, Lerup does not seem to be praising real human subjectivity. Rather, this is Wisdom of Crowds stuff: the ‘collective’ community as a group of dehumanised followers of patterns. The ‘desire for mobility may very well be the most succinct way to describe the American experience’, he says, while suggesting that distance is hard-wired into the American psyche. Indeed, while Lerup says that conscious choice is important, his tendency to cite evolutionary psychological examples suggests otherwise.

Once you subscribe to the argument that we are shaped by forces outside our control, then it becomes very difficult philosophically to resolve the conundrum about how we can re-instill human agency. We are not in control but we need to be in control. How do we shake up the patterns into which we are currently wedded? He suggests, hopefully, that certain naturally occurring turbulences within society may result in unintended consequences.

Lerup is unable to consider that humans can create a better future because ‘they’ (as he condescendingly puts it) are too complacent. To save us from ourselves, he concludes that the fear of collective danger will shake us from our torpor. As such, he seeks out catastrophe to provide meaning and coherence. Hurricanes, floods, devastation it seems will bring us together to create a better world. What a tragic state of affairs − seeking out environmental catastrophe in order to bring out the Dunkirk Spirit.

Houston may not be the first place that you might think of when considering overt community spiritedness; unless, like Lerup, you take comfort from the BP oil-spill providing a way of bringing people together. In fact, Lerup suggests, counter-intuitively, that the Lone Star State’s rugged individualism is the spark for community reconstruction. Mirroring Joel Kotkin’s libertarian writings, Lerup’s ‘oil-thinking’ is a euphemism for capitalist dynamics, which he poses as a springboard to urban renewal. Reinventing the energy supply chain to stress ‘connectivity rather than the traditional petroleum monopoly’ is the means of self-organisation that filters through the pragmatic market mechanisms of which he speaks.

Far be it from me to assume Lerup’s political affiliations, but this book fits into a contemporary conservative agenda that is desperate to reclaim the moral high-ground of environmentalism (that many like the British journalist James Delingpole perceive as a leftist paradigm). At least Lerup recognises, unlike illiberal greens, there is a real need for development, risk-taking and growth. But aside from these rare positive glimpses, essentially Lerup is just another blissfully angst-ridden citizen reflecting on the modern condition. From the Big Society to localism, from pollution to consumerism, from ‘an absurd reliance on technology’ to ‘the struggle for survival’, it is all here masquerading as an urban critique. In Lerup’s own words, it’s a ‘bastard urban redux’.

One Million Acres & No Zoning

Author: Lars Lerup

Publisher: Architectural Association, 2011

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