I am intrigued by the human resilience angle in the case for better urban design implied by Eric Klinenberg in his article in the New Yorker. In the article ‘Adaptation: How can cities be “climate-proofed?”’, Klinenberg discusses disaster preparedness in general and describes several large scale engineering solutions to climate change, solutions that are of necessity government backed, but he also writes about the role of resilient civil society can play in increasing an individual’s chance of survival in a disaster. Klinenberg, a Professor of Sociology, Public Policy, and Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University, writes, “Whether they come from governments or from civil society, the best techniques for safeguarding our cities don’t just mitigate disaster damage; they also strengthen the networks that promote health and prosperity during ordinary times.” He writes of Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard University, who “has been measuring the strength of social ties, mutual assistance, and nonprofit organizations in Chicago communities for nearly two decades. He has found that the benefits of living in a neighborhood with a robust social infrastructure are significant during ordinary times as well as during disasters.”
“Alonzo Plough, the director of emergency preparedness and response for the County of Los Angeles, says, ’But it’s not just engineering that matters. It’s social capital. And what this movement is bringing to the fore is that the social infrastructure matters, too.’”

Enter the urban designer and landscape architect. How social infrastructures are enhanced by landscape infrastructure and open space is the focus of various studies by the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, and the subject of an earlier Social Impact Design blog post. We have an opportunity here step up to the plate and play an important role in enhancing and creating that social capital that makes our communities and our society resilient. While I love and value aesthetics and believe fervently that beauty matters, our work as urban designers and landscape architects is more than a matter of creating artful places, we can and should learn to design to increase social connectedness. What would that look like?

For me, but perhaps not obviously, this brings me to questions of morality, and of shared societal values. Shared societal values are one of the ways that a group of people create cohesion and a sense of mutual responsibility. The lack of a shared moral system tears down the sense of social connectedness. In the entry on morality in Wikipedia it says,“The phenomenon of ‘reciprocity‘ in nature is seen by evolutionary biologists as one way to begin to understand human morality.” Reciprocity, as in the Golden Rule. Remember that quaint idea?

I was bowled over by movie critic Mick LaSalle’s mentioning of morality in his recent piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, ‘Violent Media Poisoning Nation’s Soul’. He derides the violent movies that the Hollywood industry makes so much money from and argues that violence should be rated at least as stringently at sex. He also calls on critics when reviewing ‘cruel and nilihistic’ movies to say as much. He imagines a movies critic’s inner dialogue when confronted with a ‘soul-crushing’, ‘antilife’ movie, writing, ”Yes, it’s sick, but isn’t that a moral judgment? And is it my place to comment on morality and decency?” I know the feeling of wondering if I have a right, or if its my place, but when did we cede the right to comment on morality and decency? When did we cede our right to act morally by acting in the best interests of our community by calling a sickening movie, sick?

Did it start in the sixties, when youth culture rebelled against the hypocrisy of the dominant morality of the time? And now, given that legacy and in our age of multi-culturalism, how could we arrive at an all encompassing moral code? We could start by agreeing on human ‘virtues’. Again from Wikipedia on morality: “certain virtues have prevailed in all cultures …examined. The major virtues …identified include wisdom / knowledge; courage; humanity; justice; temperance; and transcendence. Each of these includes several divisions. For instance humanity includes love, kindness, and social intelligence.” Social intelligence, temperance, wisdom, humanity, kindness: does this sound like a lot of movies you’ve seen lately?

We need to stop with the violence. For those of us who believe that art is part of architecture can we aspire, to paraphrase author David Foster Wallace who was writing about fiction, to create landscapes and builds that are “passionately moral, and morally passionate”,that help all of us to “become less alone inside”? We need to start creating an environment where we and our fellow citizens are empowered to act in their own and their communities best interests. It’s shocking to me that the one of the solution proposed for gun violence is armed guards. Really? It’s depressing to think that the solution to too many guns is more guns. Instead those of us who are still committed to finding real and lasting solutions to societies problems,

We optimists, need to get serious about putting our creativity and intelligence, our wisdom, to work to learn how to create art (places, communities, environments) that support each of us in our individual efforts to be humane, kind, and just. We designers need to learn how to design places, objects and tools that foster civil society: we need to build resilience. At the risk of alienating everyone, I would call that a moral imperative.


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Cinda Gilliland

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  1.  SWA’s Cinda Gilliland Examines Social Aspect of Urban Design — CAF

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