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brian sinclair space time culture


 

Space, Time, Culture, Sustainability: Gazing at the Globe via Different Lenses

 

Dr. Brian R. Sinclair, PhD FRAIC AIA (Intl) IIAS

Faculty of Environmental Design

University of Calgary, Canada

 

Sustainability is a term commonplace in contemporary culture. The idea that we do no harm, and even that we might leave the world in better condition than when we found it, seems reasonable in principle yet incredibly difficult in practice. Globally our populations are growing, our cities expanding, our technologies developing, our environments decaying, and our cultures destabilizing. Literacy increases. Crime spreads. Indifference grows. Compassion dissolves. Internationalization advances.

 

The developed world looks back at several centuries of industrialization, along with the accompanying promises, perks & problems. What lessons, if any, have been learned? From Pruitt-Igo in St. Louis, from Exxon Valdez in Alaska, from Union Carbide in Bhopal, from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, and from countless other crises surfacing at the hands of professionals, in the realm of new media, and with a plethora of facts and figures, equations and equipment? The developing world seeks to chart similar paths to ‘comfort + joy’, obtaining equitable lifestyles, profits, opportunities and considerations. India and China both stand with populations exceeding one billion each. Both of these amazing nations, with long histories and rich cultures, hold promise to propel with force into the new millennium. How can advancement be realized with sustainability ensured? How do east and west, and north and south, cooperate, collaborate, harmonize and develop? There is a crucial need to recognize differences in culture – to acknowledge the global while celebrating the local. Consideration must be given to differences in spatial perception, the valuation of time, the importance of tradition + ritual, the spectrum of meaning imparted within and to the environment, and the needs/wants of various communities. Until this array of considerations are effectively delineated, examined and understood, it will be hard to find common ground and to articulate a shared vision as pertains the sustainability of our world.

 

Challenges of realizing an ecologically-sensitive, humane & human, diverse & pluralistic, just & balanced, sustainable planet are daunting. Four vehicles have significant potential to make a positive contribution: integration, design, education, + research. While each separately has potential to make a difference, woven together in a systems + holistic manner they could have profound + critical impact. The stakes are high. The clock is ticking. The problems many. The opportunities abundant. The responsibility imperative.

 

Key words: sustainability, environment, integration, design, education, research, interdisciplinarity

 

Introduction

 

“We are not getting something for nothing; we are getting nothing for everything.” (Wendell Berry, 2000)

 

Sustainability is a term commonplace in contemporary culture. The idea that we do no harm, and even that we might leave the world in better condition than when we found it, seems reasonable in principle yet incredibly difficult in practice. Globally our populations are growing, our cities expanding, our technologies developing, our environments decaying, and our cultures destabilizing. Buildings are placed everywhere yet belong nowhere. Literacy increases. Yet crime spreads. Indifference grows. Compassion dissolves. Internationalization advances.

 

Design is inspiring. It makes our spaces come alive. It makes our lives full. It makes us healthy. It builds our future. Design is vital. Today design holds tremendous power and potential to tackle increasingly complex and complicated problems that arise, in large measure, through our world’s ever escalating milieu of fragmentation. The physicist David Bohm once noted, “What is needed is for man to give attention to his habit of fragmentary thought, to be aware of it, and thus to bring it to an end. Man’s approach to reality may then be whole, and so the response may be whole.” Fragmentation is commonplace in our contemporary ethos. Interpersonal communication often proves difficult, with all things classified and labeled and with turf established and boundaries demarcated. Disjoint, disconnect and dysfunction are pervasive.

 

Accompanying and inter-related with fragmentation is the increasing push for narrowness and specialization. Rather than viewing and managing the world in an inclusive and holistic manner, the path today is too commonly one of selfishness, taking care of individual before communal needs, seeking information and securing solutions with a ‘point of sale’ mentality, and looking almost exclusively at the short term. Contemporary society attempts to distill complexity down, to focus on the measurable and empirical, and to view science as the modern religion for the modern ethos. However, such a tight and restrictive stance denies the true richness of life and limits our possibilities. Sri Aurobindo noted, “Subjectivity and objectivity are only two sides of one consciousness.” We need to escape from the delusions of the modern world, to transcend disciplinary borders and arbitrary constructs, and to realize that facts, theories and even truths change depending on available knowledge, the power of tools, and our abilities to comprehend. There needs to be some equilibrium and synergy of science and spirit – new knowledge and innovative frames should be expected to arise from collision and juxtaposition of the scientific secular with world wisdom traditions. There must be new ways of understanding that can lift us higher and move us forward. In a world so lacking in clarity of path, it seems vital to intensify the search for wisdom. Wisdom can be cast perhaps most simply as the coupling of head and heart – impressively simple in definition yet remarkably allusive in attainment.

 

When we speak of environment we are really concerned with the three realms of the natural, the fabricated, and the human. Others in seeking to convey the Gestalt, so necessary in effective strategies for environmental sustainability, have spoken about ‘mind, body & soul’ or ‘soil, soul, & society”. Today there is much more talk about the environment, its rapid degradation, and the desperate need for us to turn things around. We grapple with intervention and invention, with many players, many perspectives and many agendas. There are, concurrently, many opportunities at our doorstep. What seems essential is to cope with the vortex of demands, to realize success from the plethora of difficulties that seem to populate the landscapes of our lives. We need to think differently. William James observed that “Genius means little more that the faculty of perceiving in an inhabitual way.” We are, today, far too habitual.

 

Space, Time and Cultural Relativity

 

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” (Gandhi)

 

The developed world looks back at several centuries of industrialization, along with the accompanying promises, perks & problems. What lessons, if any, have been learned? From Pruitt-Igo in St. Louis, from Exxon Valdez in Alaska, from Union Carbide in Bhopal, from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, and from countless other crises surfacing at the hands of professionals, in the realm of new media, and with a plethora of facts and figures, equations and equipment? The developing world seeks to chart similar paths to ‘comfort + joy’, obtaining equitable lifestyles, reaping profits, seizing opportunities and enjoying considerations. India and China both stand with populations exceeding one billion each. Both of these amazing nations, with long histories and rich cultures, hold promise to propel with force into the new millennium. How can advancement be realized with sustainability ensured. How do east and west, and north and south, cooperate, collaborate, harmonize and develop? There is a crucial need to recognize differences in culture – to acknowledge the global while celebrating the local. Consideration must be given to differences in spatial perception, the valuation of time, the importance of tradition + ritual, the spectrum of meaning imparted within and to the environment, and the needs/wants of various communities. Until this array of considerations are effectively delineated, examined and understood, it will be hard to find common ground + to articulate a shared vision as pertains sustainability of our world.

 

The stakes are high, very high. Our environment is under attack to unprecedented scales and scope. While many futurists contend that better technology will arrive on the scene to save the day, history teaches us to proceed with caution and to seek a path of moderation. Wendell Berry (2000), the Kentucky farmer, once mused: “Let us take that ubiquitous and misleading word ‘environment’ – which as used proposes that reality is composed of a creature and its surroundings. But is, as in fact we know, the creature is not only in its environment but of it, and if the relationship between the creative and environment is mutually formative, and if this relationship is a process that cannot be stopped short of the creature’s death, then how can we get outside the relationship in order to predict with certainty the effects of our participation?”. In other words, if we can’t be absolutely sure of what we are doing and know with clarity the causal relationships at play, then we need to be wary, patience, humble and particularly cautious. We need to take smaller steps, proceed more slowly, and be very careful as we attempt to move ahead.

 

Consider for a moment the notion of space. Consider for a moment what space means and how we use it. Or perhaps, how we misuse it. For example, in the United States, tax breaks and incentives can be secured that in effect make it attractive to drive unreasonably large vehicles. To the contrary, in Japan there are tax breaks and incentives available that make it attractive to drive exceedingly small vehicles. While we can ascribe the differences in viewpoints and lifestyles merely to available space, such a simplistic answer proves lacking. History, culture and philosophical underpinning also contribute to our attitudes toward the environment and our place within it. Looking at Japan again, one can see clearly very positive attitude towards conservation, preservation, compaction, reuse, and design in all aspects of the culture. From the kimono and bento box to the cemetery and home, space is something precious to be respected, arranged, and always considered.

 

In North America the tail might be wagging the dog. In many Canadian cities, for example, transportation, parking, snow clearance and garbage removal often prove primary shapers of the built environment. The focus, or obsession, with engineering is evident. Our urban centres tend to be fields of parking with cars sprouting like blades of grass, pervasive and expected. It is interesting to note that automobile transportation takes up, on average, about five times the land required for equivalent public transit. Outside of the North American model of waste and want, many urban centres are designed and delivered in much more sustainable ways. Effective solutions and scenarios tend to demand rich & multifaceted dimensions. Tsenkova (2002) calls for Urban Regeneration, defining it as “…a comprehensive and integrated vision and action to address urban problems through a lasting improvement on the economic, physical, social and environmental condition of an area.” Such comprehensive approaches usher in new thinking and contribute to the promise and achievement of more sustainable environments.

 

Our ways are clearly not sustainable. The city of Calgary in Canada, for example, takes up basically the same land area as New York but with one tenth the population. We are increasingly privatizing our public realm, effectively ensuring control over our movement within and access to the commons. We are increasingly engineering physical activity out of our urban settlements. The United States Center for Disease Control has in recent years clearly established the link between urban design, health & wellness. The built environment undeniably plays a role in the proliferation of disease and holds promise to now play a role in turning the tables around. Illness such as asthma + diabetes have environmental dimensions that warrant our immediate attention and profound intervention, if not for the human reasons of lessening suffering than for financial implications of lessening the health care costs. The health of our cities is in question and the health of their inhabitants is undeniably under assault – the well-being & very survival of the planet is in jeopardy.

 

Strategic Program for Advancing

 

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (Saint-Exupery , 1946)

 

While there are clearly unique regional/national perspectives on urgent matters pertaining to the sustainability of our planet, and there are multiple definitions and interpretations of modernity, some strategic steps (universal in applicability and pervasive in potency) can be advanced. A program to promote and advance global sustainability should include: 1. Integration, 2. Design, 3. Education, 4. Research.

 

Integration is a vital aspect of the equation for a sustainable environment. Our modern world is fraught with fragmentation. Communication between departments, disciplines, governments, corporations and individuals is commonly strained and often dysfunctional. Western culture, in particular, emphasizes dualistic thinking and acting, and seeks to classify and categorize anything and everything. Increasingly specialization of knowledge is sought and rewarded. Discrete knowledge is promoted, bounded and protected. Silos of information and containers of knowledge are cautiously and aggressively guarded. The end result is often systems that break down, approaches that are isolated, problem-solving that is limited, and solutions that are less than effective.

 

Interdisciplinarity is related to the quest for integration. Rather that retreating to the comfort & safety of disciplinary places, the new era demands a willingness of researchers and thinkers to transcend the borders and to look to collaboration for generation of new knowledge and innovative answers to complex questions. Klein (1990) notes that, “Interdisciplinarity has been described as both nostalgia for lost wholeness and a new stage in the evolution of science. Some people associate interdisciplinarity with the historical quest for unified knowledge, others with developments at the ‘frontiers’ of knowledge.” Integration & interdisciplinarity, seen in the context of the urgent call for sustainable design and responsible intervention, hold promise to span the gulf between art & science. Integration of knowledge + methods can bridge the gap between the realms of the sciences and of the humanities – a rift with risks that C.P. Snow so rightfully underscored a half century back in his vital essay The Two Cultures. Thinking must be linked meaningfully with feeling; telos with techne; art with science; intuition with reason; and synthesis with analysis.

 

Design affords modern civilization with a powerful vehicle for problem solving. Buckminster Fuller once mused that, “The best was to predict the future is to design it.” In many cultures design is a key part of life – it manifests across the broad spectrum of city dwelling and improves citizens quality of life. In North America, however, a very small percentage of buildings are actually designed by architects. Design is too frequently relegated to the margins. North American society has been content with separating and otherwise disconnecting the Vitruvian trilogy of ‘Firmness, Commodity, and Delight”. Bottom line thinking and budget-driven decisions have needlessly resulted in banal, sterile and soul-less environments. Clinical zoning, with arbitrary and problematic segregation of uses, has created cities that simply don’t work. The messy vitality so necessary for healthy physical and social environments is missing – in its place we have corporate towers dedicated exclusively to productivity, residential towers filled with lonely people who don’t know each other, and retail environments intentionally engineered to promote consumption. Despite this somewhat bleak reality, design can and must deliver more – its potential is limitless.

 

Design as a methodology is powerful, holistic and of great promise to a world in tremendous crisis. Corbusier observed that, “A building’s purpose if to keep us dry, while architecture’s goal is to move us." Our environments must be far more than pragmatic. To the contrary, our environments are undeniably part of who we are and what we aspire to become. Psychologists refer to phenomena of place attachment and place identity. The notion of environmental determinism suggests that our environments can shape our thinking and acting. We shape our environments and then they shape us. Globally, and especially in the more developed nations, we spend an increasing percentage of our lives indoors. The built environment plays a crucial role in our lives, in both positive and negative respects. Spaces become places when embedded with meaning and significance. Our buildings provide us with strong identities (e.g., Sydney Opera House), they provide us with powerful symbols (e.g., White House), and they provide us with security and safety (e.g., our homes, whether they be cardboard boxes or stone palaces). Design is by nature comprehensive and inclusive. Design is about connecting the dots, seeing the bigger picture, and realizing that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of the parts. Design is the antithesis of fragmentation. Design is innovation, creativity and synthesis.

 

Education is a potent vehicle to realize change and introduce improvement. It has long been understood that one of the best investments a nation can make is in education – the return on investment is predictably significant. Modern public education has too commonly pursued a path of control as opposed to a path of inquiry. K-12 education all too commonly serves to inculcate students with facts and figures, rather than building tools and techniques that encourage curiosity, critical questioning, and discovery. We need educational realms where the students do more questioning than their teachers, where the questions hold as much value as the answers, and where it is okay to take risks, be wrong and learn from doing. We need education that values and experiments with service learning, with putting students into the community to learn in action, and with jumping out of the disciplinary boxes that limit our ability to problem solve. We need education that places equal emphasis on science and art, on poetics and pragmatics, and on the balance between priorities technological and priorities human/e. If we are to propel ourselves out of our global crises of high pollution, rapid decay and over consumption, we must educate and equip our citizens to make a difference. The realization of solutions to many of our most pressing problems will depend on our success to develop a new civilization of people who see, think and act in a radically different way than the generations that preceded them. Issues of environmental sustainability, ecologically sensitive design, and the quality of urban life, must be embedded in curriculum from kindergarten to graduate studies. Content addressing environmental sustainability must surface in coursework throughout K-12 education. Content addressing sustainability, global challenges, systems thinking, and interconnectivity, must be delivered through mandatory core courses within undergraduate university programs around the globe.

 

Lastly, research and scholarship must ask and answer the appropriate questions. Research that is necessary, potent and profound must be funded and undertaken. Research must be conducted in both disciplinary and interdisciplinary realms – the pattern of supporting only narrowly-defined and discipline-bounded inquiry will likely never give us the solutions we will need to make sense of our world. Seeking a healthy balance between ethos of art and science seems necessary and worthwhile. Asking unexpected questions and employing unconventional methods seems vital. Research, as with education, is an investment that pays important dividends. Research, as with education, is not an optional pursuit but rather proves an essential aspect of the equation of environmental sustainability, a healthy planet, and the survival of our species.

 

Tomorrow

 

“The human being acts at almost all times not according to direct perception of the world around him or her, but according to his or her beliefs, at that moment, about the world. These beliefs provide the context for each person’s actions, for our perception, and for our ideas about how the world is. The beliefs that we have about the world form layer after layer of preconception, prejudice, or bias. This bias is not a bad thing or a good thing, it is just so. It is the nature of the human and perhaps of all perceiving organisms.” (Jeremy Hayward, 1987)

 

Challenges of realizing an ecologically-sensitive, humane & human, diverse & pluralistic, just & balanced, sustainable planet are daunting. Four vehicles have significant potential to make a positive contribution: integration, design, education, and research. While each separately has potential to make a difference, woven together in a systems and holistic manner they could have profound and critical impact. The stakes are high. The clock is ticking. The problems many. The opportunities abundant. The responsibility imperative.

 

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References

 

Berry, Wendell. Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Washington DC: Counterpoint, 2000.
Hayward, Jeremy W. Shifting Worlds, Changing Minds: Where the Sciences and Buddhism Meet. Boston: New Science, 1987.
Klein, Julie Thmpson. Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory & Practice. Detroit: Wayne State University, 1990.
Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures. (Canto Imprint) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Tsenkova, Sasha. Urban Regeneration: Learning from the British Experience. Calgary: Faculty of Environmental Design, 2002.

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article + image copyright dr. brian r sinclair 2009 | use with permission only