A few years ago, I took a class on housing, with one of the former leaders of the public housing authority here in Richmond. It was a class I learned a lot from. But one of the things that really stuck with me, was the modernist shift in the 1960s, towards the idea of monolithic housing developments. The most notable champion of these ideas was an architect known as Le Corbusier.
The idea proposed by Le Corbusier, seemed to hinge on the idea that graphical, or architectural simplicity could bring about a better life for every person. He called these developments ‘Living Machines’. But when we look back on them, my eye is in horror to the fact that he basically was designing a ghetto: An area of homogenized economic income and social culture.
I believe that the enemy of the human being is environmental homogenization. For humans to flourish, they need to be encountering things contrary to their current beliefs. It is in this interaction that the human learns tolerance for what may be disagreed with. It is in this that we learn patience, and as we apply that patience, we learn tolerance. And it is in this exposure to otherly things that we really learn who we are as people. And the modernist idea of the monolithic development prevents all of these from occurring.
And by monolithic, I mean in the context of both the planning of neighborhoods, and income criteria for the folks who will inhabit those buildings.
What I believe to be the right way to go about housing, be it public or private housing, is in the New Urbanist approach. To have people of different backgrounds, different incomes, living among one another, not in a way that homogenizes the price, but in a way that adapts the building to different pricing points. And accordingly, there is New Urbanist research that has shown these types of community plans as actually working.
With public housing projects, I learned that, as they are income limited developments, meaning you cannot make more than X to live there, the resident’s neighborhood becomes limited to interaction only with similar income people. And as we live in a society that varies pay much along class lines, this means that folks growing up in public housing may not get to experience, or interact with, people living lives and doing jobs outside of those class boundaries.
The problem with that, is that as humans, we define our own potentials and possibilities by the people we see and know around us. And there is a big difference between knowing doctors exist, and knowing a neighbor whom is a doctor. Knowing someone who is an artist. Or knowing someone who is a scientist. In our culture, those whom are successful at these trades are generally of higher income, and thus will never live near those whom are living in public housing. In turn, this means that despite personal ability, the housing project limits the aspirations and thus, future potentials of those whom live in it.
Of course, if we viewed public housing as a place to just temporarily stick poor people, this wouldn’t be a problem. But when you consider how such class limitations effect children who grow up in such class-isolated environments, we can begin to see that the environment may not only be limiting perceptions of personal possibilities, but also socializing kids to live in such environments.
And like I mentioned earlier, this monolithic design isn’t just limited to public housing. This phenomenon, of the environment essentially socializing a person to the environment they live in, will exist in any environment, and that trait isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s bad when the environment consists of people with only a specific subset of characteristics. It becomes then, whether a neighborhood of $1 million dollar homes, or a housing project, homogenized, or, as we tend to call it in the west, a ghetto. And this effect seems to have very negative traits on it’s residents in terms of being able to feel to be a useful part of the larger population. It can make them feel superior, in the case of those whom only live among the wealth, or inferior, in the case of those whom only live among the poor.
But I also believe, this segregation also creates an anxiety among all people. For fear that if, they make too little money, they will have to move to a community that they have nothing in common with.
In the New Urbanist model, houses are built to different sizes, of roughly the same materials, and dispersed among each other. In a New Urbanist development, a pay increase means you get to move next door, a pay decrease means the same. You still have the same neighbors, you still see the same people, you still live in the same community. And that creates a continuity to life, and experience that will most likely not change too much, as one’s opportunities, health, and life, increase or decrease. Compare that with the current situation, where if the wealthy take a pay cut, they must abandon a neighborhood and a way of life, and conversely, if the housing project resident gets a good job, they must also abandon their neighborhood and way of life.
The American neighborhood is very much set up into small homogeneous zones. And accordingly, many people struggle with class anxiety when it comes to thinking about the future. And they also suffer from class dogma, about the possibilities of their lives, futures, and paths to take. As a result of this isolation, they also tend to lack empathy about people outside their economically homogeneous developments. The resulting problem being a very polarized democracy that lacks empathy, and understanding, and results in dehumanization, when it comes time to vote on issues that effect those outside their economically-based neighborhoods.
To me, it’s sad to see design, and architecture, play out such a role on the possibilities human beings perceive for themselves. And it’s even sadder to see the resulting dehumanization, through scapegoating, mistaking the products of such design issues as an attribute of a person’s race or ethnicity, rather than a devastating consequence of bad city planning.
Additionally, these income diverse New Urbanist ideas also eliminate the possibility of future gentrification, as the model being diverse will not change with residents of different incomes moving in our out, as that is how the neighborhood was designed to be in the first place.
Of course, this is a huge issue that cannot be solved overnight. But it can be solved in future planning, by encouraging developments that encourage mixed income. And as citizens who can go to the planning meetings that occur in the places we live, we have a voice in the future of the planning for our communities.