Slowth vs. growth

In the Cluster interview on participatory city planning, which we featured yesterday, there is also an interesting passage on the role of time and speed. Some things, like physical growth, need to slow down, while informational feedback processes, need to go faster.

John Thackara and Sunil Abraham:

JT. “Speed or slowth are not lifestyle choices. Our ways of life will not become sustainable just because we decide, as individuals, to “slow down”. Slowth will, to some extent, be imposed by events: escalating energy costs will drive re-localisation more powerfully than attitudinal change. But sustainability does not mean that fast is bad, and slow is good. Some forms of speed, such as feedback, or the implementation of lighter solutions, are desirable. Think of the polio vaccine; it was disseminated around the world in a few years: we need to innovate our life support systems just as quickly. In the language of sustainability, this means changing the word “faster” to “closer” in our design briefs for cities. Moving bodies and products fast is bad; moving information fast is good. Wireless communications have an important role to play here. They make it possible to reduce the distance between people who have needs, and people who can meet those needs.

SA. Speed alone does not guarantee efficiency. Sometimes – it is better to do less. Remember that the pace of a city is often determined by economic relationships between those who own and those who do not own resources. This applies to rents charged for intellectual property and intangible resources, as much as it does to rents paid on physical property: the pattern is that the poor are forced into high-pace lives while the elite can afford to purchase idleness. In a Vietnamese village, the International Fund for Agriculture Development [IFAD] tried to introduce a package of loans and proprietary cash crops. This required additional farm labour during the afternoons. The villagers rejected the project saying that they prefer to play volleyball in the afternoons. More equal distribution of resources allows a city to find its own unique pace.

JT. Show me a city with a “dynamic image” and I will show you an unsustainable city. “Dynamic” usually means high entropy buildings, financial speculation on a massive scale, and a low degree of social participation. From now on, the most interesting cities will be those whose citizens are able to invest their energy and creativity on “re-inhabitation” within the unique ecosystems of their place. This approach will often involve adaptive or more intense uses of existing infrastructure rather than the construction of signature buildings – and sometimes this approach will mean building nothing, nothing at all. To live sustainably we need to place more value on the here and now: a lot of destruction is caused when design is obsessed with the there, and the next – and the “dynamic”.

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