Life in the city is unbearably ugly. That is the uncomfortable truth in the daily urbanite’s subconscious unable to be expressed, a pent up expression of the soul that cannot seem to be spouted. Waking up to the sound of traffic just to rush into a car to join the unholy hymn of polluting engines, driving into traffic flanked by drab buildings that seeks conformity in yet another struggling lines of lifeless stores and buildings along the way. Uninspired, soulless, and alone, that is the daily urbanite shaped by the city that surrounds it like air, inescapable yet necessary.
It is clear to me that the groans and pains of our urban life seems to pronounce judgement over the choices of the collective of these modern men. Our emphasis on the ability for economic activity to flourish has brought upon the city council a predicament in which it must act in the best interest of the people and the needs of the economy, which brought about neither, often times bringing about more dead zones in the city that drags the soul to hate, and the capitalist to escape.
Adding towards the complexity of analyzing present day challenges related to urban planning is to understand the different frustrations and needs of the people that the city planner aims to include. To a certain extent, I believe this to be a reasonable approach that has substantiate in truly beneficial ways, reducing the risks and increasing the livability of a city compared to ancient times. However, the purely utilitarian approach towards problem solving in the modern era can no longer encapsulate the needs of the 21st century. Whereas the post-war man focused on the utility and reconstruction of economies of town destroyed, the modern man should seek to reconstruct the cultures and social construct of a city deemphasized and utterly destroyed in the last century.
I must stress that I am not an expert of any kind of in the art or science of urban planning though I have my own two cents towards my living in certain cities over the years of my life. It is pertinent to understand then that this essay is not reflective of a science that has seen a huge uptick in its studies but to see urban planning through the lens of an insignificant townsperson, an urbanite who seeks to put the ugliness of the city into words, an ugliness that relates to that of which the division of class, deemphasis of human activities, and fundamental change of the construct of people's psychological health; going beyond the statistics and science that is not my strong suit but the design, the zoning, the ‘aesthetics’ that breeds these contempt one may have towards living in the city.
Ultimately, these ideas below or whatever I may write is my personal opinion maybe not substantiated by science or may be contrary to the current sciences but reflect my personal experience, a micro-perspective on the disdain of city life.
The Philosophy of Humane design
p.s. "d" in the 'design' lowercased to showcase the maxim ever true by Louis Sullivan "Form ever follows function" where it is unfortunate form often takes precedence over function, in that in an urban context to serve and to love human, an expression I want designers to know that design is nothing if not the human to know, appreciate, and love it.
A civilization not humane towards its citizens will not stand but crumble to the ground in spectacular fashion. A people not taken care of will become discontent and disillusioned by whatever magnificence the leadership bring. Brutality towards humanity is always met with resistance and a conflict which would burst forth from the scene of authority and power.
Today, where great strides are made in terms of human well-being in the different areas of needs as prescribed in the lower rung of the Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the human man should require and should aspire the improvement of not just aspects of our life pertinent to human survival but aspects where the mind craves for fulfilment, a concept I believe many would agree is the soul of human existence and the goal of which one wants to fulfill for this world of ours.
These are abstract ideas I want to bring to light before we delve into the description of what a humane design constitute as if the needs are not highlighted, a principle of design cannot survive and will not have its meaning but serve only as a facade but not an aesthetic that can survive its criticisms. A great example is that of minimalism advocating for the idea of the retainment of value creation in design and the removal of items unnecessary to our life, not the appearance of cleanliness and ownership of a minimal amount of items. Yet, people are disillusioned because they do not see the problem minimalism as a movement intends to resolve.
Now, three paragraphs in, what exactly encapsulates humane design? It is the idea that design is sympathetic to human needs, not the ability for an object to function for human needs. It is the idea that design must see in its ability to improve human ability, what pains a human encounter when it must interact with such an infrastructure buildup. Is it the distance? Is it the texture? Is it the noise? Is it the crowding? Is it the ease of access? Is the path potentially confusing? The question in planning out a city should not be focused on how does a city attract more investment and businesses but the people who makes those possible.
Of course, I do not advocate for the complete destruction of utility where necessary and pertinent for people to take advantage of the modern miracle of technology but that is is necessary for people to realize that form follows function as always. If the ability for us to get anywhere we want with greater efficiency, it doesn't necessarily means that we have to design everything around that one infrastructure for creating the problem it is trying to solve.
An example of how I, a lowly urbanite, a nobody, an unlearned man wants to see in a city is the control of sprawl. Urban sprawl as I have to come to observe it takes shape not only in single use district zoning but also in the forms of developmental zoning of suburbs which is done in anticipation of demand for homes and other real estate product. I put it here that I am unsure of the rapid growth seen in years past can still be sustained, a form of explosive economic prosperity that is expected to trend upwards despite the past never claiming to be an indicator for a future, and if anything, a lesson that one should draw upon. This is because
I believe that all authorities in charge of urban planning have incredibly hard jobs and deserve ample amount of respect that I do have whenever I venture into reading relevant topic areas that they are experts in but the fact remains that the 21st century is one that the zeitgeist should not so much be for the post-war construction era that we still see, be in for survival, but also fulfilment. I would like to contrast this perspective of design that sees what we have in the world as an urban planner putting on the macro lens of what makes a city good while the aesthetics today here, a micro lens on what makes a city appealing to commute, work, and just be in the moment of whatever it is.
In large part then, I believe this is not possible with a sprawled out city, it is not only financially unviable to sustain a detail-oriented development over these places but also places the human at a scale undesirable and ungraspable for one to understand their place in all of this. An urbanite in these sprawl of developments feel not the humanity but the brutality and harshness of life rubbing them off, amplifying the impoverished of their insignificance where the rich retreats back into their high castle of suburbia wherever it is, gated and beyond the confines of ugliness to soothe themselves.
I believe then that the revolution is at hand, one that is not political or technological, but human and humane. We must not aim to tolerate the disdain the city has on human life but bring it all crumbling down, one brick at a time. Leaving not destruction in its part, but life into the different parts of town, a traffic light that is pedestrian-centered, a street designed for people to be able to take it all in whatever point of the journey they are just as in life, it is not just the destination that counts but in cityscape, the journey and appreciation for life in the city as flowing and living.
Public Transport as the solution?
Replacing cars with public transport is certainly the trend urban planners have now realised and wants to adopt, I, for one, am all for it. However, I want to emphasize that my humane design does not stop there but advocate for a realisation of the city as a creature of its own, an organic being shaped by us to be more friendly, not hostile, to be more lively, not monotonous, to be more playful, not rigid. The life of an urbanite will not change because utilitarian ideals are implemented but a more traditionalist understanding of architecture to be here.
Why won't it solve everything? Well, I recently went to Singapore, a city renowned for its awe-inspiring public transport system that works so well. Where not only are car prices ridiculously high to discourage car usage but that the government goes one step further auctioning the "Certificate of Entitlement", a limited amount of car ownership license to be able to balloon to an astronomical figure.
When I went there, as I expected, the walk is pleasant, the transit was well thought out and I had a comfortable time there. It was much rather in my travels there on foot utterly hopeful of what my city could be if this model were to be adopted. Yet, on a particular day during 3 p.m., I went to an older MRT station of which the name has escaped my memory and realise that my person suddenly went back to a commuter soul, an emotion, an encounter, a groaning I experienced back in my hometown that I began to examine why.
The answer is simple. It was soulless. There was nobody, nothing, no conducive environment for the person to live but merely to exist and inhibit. It was then I realise the critical part of what makes a city a truly great city, the inhibition and accommodation to life. Where the MRT showcased the brutality of the machinery that made it all worked, I would like to contrast this with a walk that I had in a part of City Hall where I saw not just trees and crosswalk but benches in the modernist style and shades designed so beautifully that I began to sit and just took it all in.
This is not to decry brutalism as a form of architecture but that I simply cannot accept that in the discipline of design for architects to use the scapegoat of honesty to emphasize and elevate the building over people it serves. Accommodation for life to happen at all corridor of transport, conducive and accessible to all is my aspiration for my future city, a world where the groans of life no doubt would still continue but is not aided or sourced from the city itself.
tl;dr: city ugly because poor design, people sad.
With that, I would like to end by saying that modern urban planning is moving in the right direction and no doubt, removing cars which I did not emphasize is a huge step in recovering the city but that we need to know why. Removing cars may help hugely but cannot fundamentally change certain perception, the roads, the streets, the stroads, the development, the zoning, the aesthetics of it all plays a huge role in serving the people of the city, removing the ugliness that harms our city so much in underserving and exacerbating certain problems in our communal life in the city.