Many years ago I had a First Sergent whom I often find it difficult to describe today in a positive light. I often find it difficult to describe middle management in any organization in a positive manner, but this guy often took first place for failing to lead his troops in a good way.
However, there is one good thing I can say about him. On a number of military exercises and deployments I can recall him pursuing a policy of no tolerance for cigaret butts left on the ground. Trash too, but he was particularly offended by cigaret butts. During one particular exercise in the back woods of Fort Lewis I have vivid memories of this guy chasing down soldiers, officers and enlisted alike, and compelling them to pick up their butts and trash. Considering that this was occurring in a place that had been abused for several generations of military exercises it wasn’t a place most of us would ever want to return.
But despite this guys other failings, and despite the entrenched and institutionalized ugliness of the land upon which we practiced our trade, he tried to improve that place. At the time I was awed by his this tiny attempt to improve the quality of the place where we, during those exercises, lived. Today it makes me glad for him and for us; he passed some little bit of mindfulness that I still hold close.
I recently came across a TED video given by James H. Kunstler in which he contends that public spaces should be inspired centers of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, what we have in America is a nation of places not worth caring about.
The video, for me, is a compelling motivator to think about and make the kinds of quality places he talks about. To seek them out in any surround. But in addition to this I think he describes a condition of the humanity that is raised in places without this quality. I’ve quoted some of the speech below.
The immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America is entropy made visible. We can’t over estimate the amount of despair that we are generating with places like this. And mostly I want to persuade you that we have to do better if we’re going to continue the project of civilization in America.
I think its appropriate to call it the greatest mis-allocation of resources in the history of the world. Its a tremendous problem for it. The salient problem about this for us is that these are places that are not worth caring about.
A sense of place. Your ability to create places that are meaningful and places of quality and character depends entirely on your ability to define space with buildings. And to employ the vocabularies, grammars, syntaxes, rhythms
and patterns of architecture in order to inform us who we are.
The public realm in America has two roles. It is the dwelling place of our civilization and our civic life and it is the physical manifestation of the common good. And when you degrade the public realm you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life and character of all the enactments your public life and communal life that take place there.
This afternoon Aral and I departed by bike for locations undetermined. I’ve been looking for a Third Place, in addition to the coffee shop, to add to my list of places for Aral and I to visit. Gunnison is a small town so you’ve got to locate and cultivate these from time to time or risk falling into a rut.
We rode around for a while before I decided to visit the University campus. The University is a public space that has been designed to achieve a high quality of place. You can go sit on the grassy hill beneath Taylor Hall sheltered by old elms and pines that make a corridor of green. The grounds on the east side of the campus make an inviting, green plaza to spend time in. Even during the summer, when the summer student population is so small, there are still people moving around.
Campus is chocked full of quality spaces anyone can enjoy and this is fortuitous considering the amount of large diesel truck traffic which daily plows its way through many of our town’s other public spaces. Even better when you look at some of the more recent commercial development in town. We may have the world’s smallest Wal-Mart, but considering the exceptional slab of pavement sitting in front of the place there’s little redemption in the reduced scale of the store.
That said, I made a new observation today while Aral and I played out in front of the Student Union building. People who develop in a place that isn’t worth caring about may not care about any place (even when they’re in a quality place).
Aral was enjoying space in front of the recently renovated Student Union when he picked up one of these and said “Wha dis?” Lacking any real way to accurately express myself in this situation with my 18 month old child I replied “Yuck!” We spent a good half hour collection trash and cigaret butts from this place before we moved on.
Folks, environmentalism isn’t about saving the planet. Its about saving yourself from despair. Its your environment, that space immediately around your body. If you fill that space with trash, pollution, and the excrement of your existence its no wonder you feel so horrible and stressed. You can do better!