Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Problem of Models for Sustainability

Last Friday I attended a regional transportation summit for the bay area looking toward 2035.

The keynote speaker, over our catered lunch, was San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. In Newsom's clever and talented performance he spoke about how San Francisco and the bay area can become a great model of sustainability for cities around the world. This was how he ended his half-hour show. The speaker following Newsom expressed his excitement about the Chinese. He had just been in Beijing the week before to attend meetings about the nation's next five year plan, and to continue Newsom's thread, he said the Chinese took him and other bay area civic leaders aside and wanted to specifically learn from their achievements.

From my experience in participating in the campus sustainability movement at universities in California to my fairly-wide understanding of the contemporary, evolving sustainability movement as a whole, the wish to make one's city, campus, project, anything, a model for others to use, is commonly expressed.

But there is a problem with speaking of one's city to be a model.

To speak of making a city -- or anything for that matter -- great with the vision of it becoming a model in which others may use dilutes the value of one's city, and it bothers me greatly. (This problem resonates also with another idea I have seen in sustainability circles: that the best models work across every scale. This is a dangerous assumption.)

I understand many use the term with the desire others will learn from their city and achievements. I know models are very useful, especially within the process of creating something. But I am still bothered about the use of the term in this context, a context where "gathering best practices" can be lauded as innovative research. And while best practices can be learned from and are valuable, they tend to be sifted through like a bag of sweet candy jelly beans. One digs for the tasty flavor in the bag that makes the mouth water most.

To speak of making a city to be a model -- as the goal -- means one really desires others to copy from it. ...Picking and choosing, photographing and copying, digitally simulating, mass-producing a bag of city jelly beans.

To wish a city to be a model for others means that any purported greatness achieved will be many other cities with a likeness of one's own. Great cities have no cities of likeness. Great cities, of past, present and future, speak of their own identity, their own individuality. There is only one Kyoto, for example.

A great city can inspire, and it is a great process when it occurs. But inspiration, through the process of synthesis and abstraction, can produce the genesis anew and carry forth the building of greatness elsewhere that is imbued with its own distinct identity.

I am bothered by the desire to make something of our world simply in the end be a model -- it is a very post-modern thing to wish -- to wish many will copy you and become a likeness of you.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

man of city and sea

I wrote this poem in February 2007. I had gone to Santa Cruz to say goodbye to a friend and attend a fun going-away party. The next morning I went down to the promenade along West Cliff Drive and stood outside in the brisk, cold, wet, windy air. Breathing in the smell of the sea and gazing forever into the rolling swells toward the vast horizon of the water I love so much, I was swept up into memories of sailing and the greatness of what I saw before me. In love with the giant clouds of volume and blurred white grain and rushing in the air, I wrote this poem:

A man of the city and the sea,
It’s the land in-between that makes me.
I can be with you for eternity,
As a man of the city, with the sea.

Always we are alone, you and me – I and the beautiful sea.

The smells and my pearls,
My winds’ guiding grace,
My clouds’ breaking; great beauty, perfect pace.
You shall come spinning, dancing with the gulls above,
You and I, I will take you for eternity.

I will never rest but I will never leave,
Look into my eyes and we will dance endlessly
My hands will carry you, dear man of the city, now of the sea

Ah yes, I am a man of the city in love with the sea!
I am listening – your rain and great thunder:

From the clouds above -- light breaks upon you
I will grab it with my palms and roll it under
Where only my shadows will see it through
Come stay with me, says the sea, to me.

Come stay with me!
I will never leave you and I will never break – ah, maybe in the surface it’s true
But deep within I’m only calm,
Stretching from land to land – a bridge just for you.

Let me fall into your hands!
It will have been the journey that had made me!
As thus, I am a man of the city, now forever fallen with the sea.

the nature of a 'likeness'

The nature of a 'likeness' is such that when upon viewing a photograph or a painting or other faithfully provocative depiction of a human being (or for that matter scene of anything assumed to have a real counterpart), the person doing the seeing is caught up with the relationship between them and the person in the picture and notices, or is at least affected by, the identity of that person being a real, lived life somewhere else in the world and captured here so still. But then, when around the corner the actual living human depicted in the frame arrives in front of the gazer, this person greets them anew and is curious as to why the other looks at them with a hint of curiosity, the kind of curiosity reflecting a likeness of wonder about why the person in the picture now seen for real doesn't know of their own image, or think of it now, or the relationship already budding on the other end.
Global Warming is teaching us that Nature is not "just" natural nor determined, but that it too, like us humans, adapts -- its future something created and yet to be made!