For years I’ve taken students on trips abroad and there has been one recurring problem, long before the advent of the smartphone, which frustrated me: they would be so worried about recording their trip that often they weren’t truly experiencing where they were. With the smartphone we see it even at everyday events and in everyday life: parties, at the dinner table, at work, at school. It’s a preoccupation, in some ways, about the next person, the next event, the next social circumstance and the prioritization of those ephemeral future circumstances over the here and now.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at these priorities when where we place our emphasis as a society in our infrastructure is in the movement from place to place and not in making those places particularly precious. Andrés Duany says that if you want to see why so many of the schools, libraries, and courthouses we’ve built in the last 75 years are such garbage just look at the effort, energy, and expense we’ve placed in our horizontal infrastructure. Add to that what we spend on the vehicles to propel us through that never ending web of asphalt and concrete and there isn’t much left for granite, marble, bas reliefs, quoins, and porticos.
I was looking at my street, Maple Street, in Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s not a very long street. It has four major intersections. As streets in America go it would easily fall in the top 1% in terms of the man-made architectural legacy it offers regardless of era. (With the literally millions of miles of road in the United States, that would include thousands of miles) That being the case, has the street received any special treatment from the city regarding its aesthetics? Of course not. The primary function of Maple Street, as with most streets, is to act as a traffic sewer; not to BE a place to be, but rather to exist as a place to pass through as quickly and with as little friction as possible.
Now if such streets as mine generally receive this treatment imagine how much thought is given to beauty on most other, less well endowed streets.
Conversely, imagine if when the time came to renew Maple Street, the city, within whatever contemporary budget constraints, prioritized beauty over traffic flow. If without ignoring the need for the street to act as a conduit, that took second place to making it a wonderful place to be. Yes, there would be disagreements about whose aesthetic to follow, but there are ways to come to consensus on such things, but I do not think that the result would be this:
It might be this:
Now imagine an entire city, an entire state, even an entire nation of streets re-engineered over time to be pleasing to the people who actually live on them. It might well be a nation of places which take a good deal more time to pass through, but then again passing through might be an experience in that case which people won’t mind prolonging.