Thursday, November 11, 2004

A Picture Stops a Thousand Lawsuits

Designing graphics to convey a complicated idea about the urban experience in real three-dimensional space is a non-trivial task. Information designers that can tell a simple story about how the built environment effects our lifestyles and moods. Not in my backyard has disabled us from making intelligent choices about the places we live and work. Public conversations have become split into absurd positions pitting imagined evil black suited real estate developers versus nature, mom and apple pie. They can only be resolved in endless lawsuits. Why not concentrate on building beautiful places?

The animation comes from City Comforts Blog, a site that examines the best solutions for living well in cities. How do you "read" this graphic? What does it say to you about the world? Look at the little person, surrounded by cars or framed between building or street. Where do you cars belong in our hierarchy of needs? Out front or in the back? Or should we eliminate cars altogether like my friend, Ket ("parking lots are stupid. silly humans.") might like?

There's no right answers to these questions. But the strength of the graphic is that it helps you start asking questions about how the new apartment building or Wal-Mart Supercenter will change your neighborhood. It offers a shared reference point to base rational public discussion and decisions on.

Now there's no denying numerous benefits to both layouts. The suburban design gives first dibs to people in cars and the urban one to people on foot. But both are about people. Cars are both peaceful individual enclaves and makers of aggression and separation. Driving is fast and convenient -- point-to-point, no transfers, no waiting, no walking. Indoor air conditioned place to air conditioned place, cars are comfortable and efficient ways to get around.

Walking gets our hearts pumping and slows things down so that our senses can gorge on falling cherry blossoms and the smell of coffee on a sunny sidewalk day. I think people want the sensual city of walking and the speed city of driving in its convenience and comfort. There are design solutions that can incorporate both.

Our cities are constantly remade. Hollywood yuppies disguised as starving artists displace the poor from gritty downtown industrial districts. Farmland and forests get gobbled up by sprawl. We can make choices about how that happens. Talking about the choices we have in our landscape in flux is made smarter and easier by graphics like David Sucher's. It allows us to sidestep confusion, obstructionism, and name calling so we can concentrate on building great collaborative cities.

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