The Flow of Life (Academic)

The “flow of life” is not an altogether well-known or widely-used term. Yet, it springs up in many forms throughout art, literature, psychology, and theory. It may surprise some that a high-quality explanation of the importance of the flow of life in our built environments comes from film theory. In his book, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Siegfried Kracauer, a significant realist in film theory canon, writes about how a street may be a symbol of life for the film screen. Life, in the context of Kracauer’s thinking, is “still intimately connected, as if by an umbilical cord, with the material phenomena from which its emotional and intellectual contents emerge,” and the flow of life is a material continuum that “extends to the mental dimension” (Kracauer 1960). The street, then, is a “place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself.” This metaphor refers mainly to city streets, where many pedestrians and “anonymous crowds” flow by with their unknown stories and possibilities for chance interactions.

The concept of the flow of life has, in many manifestations, become central to urban design. It may be called the vibrant street, the public realm, or the pedestrian corridor.Various stakeholders know the benefits of a place that encourages the flow of life: the businesses surrounding it will flourish, the street itself will be a destination for the city or town, and people will have a place to walk and exercise. Streets have historically been the source of the flow of life, yet streets have changed dramatically as a concept, especially in modernized, Western, car-centric culture. The transformation of streets from public realms to automobile corridors has robbed society of a connection to the flow of life that is crucial to individual and communal well-being. Subconsciously, we as a society have dealt with this loss in a myriad of ways, including the upsurge of social networking and its design, which recently has morphed into a virtual flow of life. To explore this pattern, I will examine three areas regarding the “flows of life” in Ann Arbor: Liberty Avenue, Stadium Boulevard, and the Facebook live feed. I will then explore the question of whether we still need urban space and the physical flow of life, and if it is still feasible for the United States.

Liberty Avenue, mostly developed in the mid-19th Century, reflects the traditional pedestrian commercial corridor. Before cars were invented and widely used, streets were for pedestrians and public transit, and enclosed by two walls of storefronts and institutional entrances. Much like a hallway, the street is a passage from one’s starting point to one’s destination. However, because the street belongs to everyone, it allows for stopping, pausing, talking, rioting, performing. Liberty Avenue, from curb to curb, is about 30 feet wide and has sidewalks about eight feet wide on each side. That is a ratio of roughly 2:1 road-space to path-space, with intermittent parking lanes as a buffer between car traffic and pedestrian traffic. Short blocks facilitate the pedestrian’s mental connection to the other side of the street as an opposite wall and an accessible destination. On a Friday night, Liberty is bustling with pedestrians, bicycles, and cars. Rush hour and happy hour occur simultaneously, the latter group exhibiting much more enjoyment than the former. Main and Liberty is a site for much outdoor seating for the many restaurants, which diners choose over inside seating if weather permits.

Stadium Boulevard serves as a commercial corridor and as a conceptual boundary for Ann Arbor along its west and south sides. It is zoned to accommodate automobile uses, such as gas stations, oil changes, and drive-through restaurants. The curb to curb width of Stadium is more than 60 feet, while the sidewalks are the minimum standard of 5 feet wide. This is a ratio of 12:1 road-space to path-space. Its blocks are about a half-mile long, roughly ten times longer than those on Liberty in the downtown area. Though there are many destinations along Stadium, including restaurants, they are mostly accessible by car. It is not enjoyable for the pedestrian to stroll down Stadium, as the long setbacks of the businesses and long blocks create a boring experience, and the 40-mile-per-hour traffic decreases perceived and actual safety for the pedestrian. Any flow of life occurring on Stadium is from the cars; this is too homogeneous of a source to be edifying or entertaining.

Stadium Boulevard is an illustration of what happened after the second World War, as many young couples settled in suburbs, intentionally cut off from the noise and mess of inner cities. It was a status symbol to have a car, a yard, and a television, and if you wanted your fix of public life, you drove downtown for a few hours. Petula Clark’s lyrics to the song “Downtown” describe this phenomenon exactly:

When you’re alone

And life is making you lonely,

You can always go downtown

When you’ve got worries,

All the noise and the hurry

Seems to help, I know, downtown

Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city

Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty

How can you lose?

The lights are much brighter there

You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares and go

Downtown, things’ll be great when you’re

Downtown, no finer place for sure,

Downtown, everything’s waiting for you.

Downtowns and vibrant places soon became a destination and not part of everyday life. Downtown was great to visit, but not to live in. As the 1960s wore on, and demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam war arose and became violent, even more faith was lost in the street as public space. Policy and marketing clung to the comfort of car-only streets. Highways and corridors continued to gain prominence, and walking became a last resort. This sequence of development, dissipating communities into developments and individual parcels, resulted not only in race but class segregation, building fear among Americans of people from different walks of life. Not having a place where all classes roam equally deprived Americans from exposure and practice in living civilly together.

Indeed, Stadium Boulevard, a commercial corridor, was victim to this time in planning. Though the street has moderate residential density in its vicinity, its storefronts turn away from these neighborhoods and towards the wide street, looking over substantial parking lots. Recently, Stadium was updated with sidewalks and bicycle lanes, the latter of which is not used so often. Though the sidewalks do accommodate daily pedestrians, these amenities do not increase the pedestrian’s connection with the businesses lining Stadium; they simply allow the pedestrian to move through just as the vehicles do. Streets like Stadium have a flow of life, but not an audience, unless it is a “metro cruise,” a gathering of car enthusiasts, who either drive up and down the corridor, or park at a location to admire the other cars. Conversely, Liberty Avenue is almost inhospitable to vehicles. The storefronts open immediately to sidewalks, and the lack of bicycle lanes rarely stops the cyclists from riding through. The residential density in Liberty’s vicinity has easier access to these buildings, but one can argue that economic access to these living spaces is quite limited. Ann Arbor’s living prices correlates inversely with distance from campus and downtown. The closer you are to the center, the higher your rent will be. So, for many, streets like Stadium are home and streets like Liberty are destinations.

Facebook emerged as an online college social network in 2005. Six years later, it has over 800 million users. It encourages virtual contact with the user’s social circle from “real life.” Starting out as a flipbook of profiles, Facebook has morphed into a live feed of status updates, links, videos, and photos. Social networks emerged as a way to connect those not spatially related, but interest-related. Facebook does not operate this way. It gathers together people who know each other from work, school, church, family, friends, though, theoretically, these listed places are the original gathering spaces. Because people often live far from where their work, school, church, family, and friends, Facebook serves as a third place as described by Ray Oldenburg, who points out that people in America are less likely to leave home casually because it involves planning and travel of long distances (Oldenburg 1989). So, if one feels disconnected or isolated, she can log onto Facebook and experience, to a limited extent, what is “going on” in her social circles and in the world. Scrolling down the live newsfeed is similar, safer, and easier than strolling down an actual street, bustling thoughts, ideas, reactions from many different entities.

The political demonstration and protests that happened on the streets of many cities in the 1960s are still echoed by today’s youth, who see reasons to use their free speech in this way. Surprisingly, the Internet, instead of replacing physical demonstration (and occupation) in public spaces, has helped to organize these social uprisings. The online petition, an early version of online political action, still circulates the Internet, but does not make the dent that the recent “Occupy Wallstreet” protests have made on the collective psyche. When broadcast television and radio were our source of the outside world, there was far less interplay between authorship and readership: the broadcasters were an authority, deciding what flow of information came through the speakers and on the screen into our homes (Zeng et al. 2010). Today, when all users have the ability to share, write, and pass on the information they choose, all types of dissenting opinions arise. People feel less separated by class and more separated by ideology. They create their own spaces.

As people gain deep habits of relying on the Internet for their needs, how do urban designers proceed? Do we continue building cities that illustrate an impression that physical space does not matter anymore? Or do we build cities the way they used to be built, before technology and media became a replacement for the flow of life, risking an impression of nostalgia and impractical design? How do streetlights, benches, pavers, and storefronts compete with the glowing screen of the iPhone in the hands of most young people? Is anyone safe to assume that anything will appeal to the masses ever again, or has the Internet created a place for our imaginations to organize their own flow of life?

Current development (often disregarding much thought to urban design) will often ignore the possible “wants” of the markets, and simply serve the needs: a continuation of the modernist pattern of building for function over form. Allan Jacobs and Donald Appleyard argue against this on humanistic grounds: “A city should have magical places where fantasy is possible, a counter to and an escape from the mundaneness of everyday work and living” (1987). The response to this need?  Privately-owned magical places. Sorkin writes about Disneyland as a “concentration camp for pleasure,” a physical manifestation of the media’s perception of urban life at its best, an absurd product of the devices we have used to escape from urban public spaces (Sorkin 2007). He asserts that this replacement for urban life is stripped of accidents, unpredictability, opportunity, and, ultimately, an authentic flow of life. Our boring everyday worlds and our controlled fantasy lands reflect our anxiety, a point underscored by Richard Weinstein:

The interchangeability, predictability, and ordinariness of this urban landscape also offers comfort and security to a mobile population, anxiety ridden in the pursuit of profit, pleasure, individual self-definition, and the control of chance. Yet the ordinary, common, and conforming still contribute to this anxiety by a tense relation to the singular, individual, and privatized (Weinstein).

We have built a nation to calm our anxieties, which are possibly related to our isolation, but find that the predictable, interchangeable landscape does little in this regard.

Perhaps it is social media that can help us rebuild public spaces usable to everyone. Governmental entities and transportation authorities have both experimented with the use of social media to get feedback, and arguments for and against its equity have sprung up in reaction. Though the people without means or ability to use social networks will not have input in this way, it still gives those unable to attend public meetings a say in how things are decided. On the social side of things, applications have emerged that allow the Internet user to “check in” to the places they are in reality, so that they can represent where they are in actual space to their social network. The desire to display one’s life and its activities upon an Internet social network gives a fascinating clue to our cultural tendencies. Before the 20th century, this public display of life was often the default of lifestyles. People had to go out into the public streets to retrieve the goods and services they required, and they were bound to run into people they knew, as well as to be watched and to watch others. Though we still go out for errands and goods, the space through which we move to get them is much more anonymous and sometimes quite deserted. As a response, people both broadcast their life’s activities on social networks and intentionally go to public spaces to “people watch,” an activity often regarded as somewhat creepy, though it likely has been happening for much longer than we think.
A question that all researchers in this field run into is this: what happens to society as we as individuals turn inward to our private life? Perhaps this loss of society, community, and citizenship not a new problem at all, as stated in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as quoted by Weinstein in The First American City:

Each person, withdrawn into himself, behaves as though he is a stranger to the destiny of others. His children and his good friends constitute for him the whole of the human species. As for his transactions with his fellow citizens, he may be among them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone. And if on these terms there remains in him a sense of family, there no longer remains a sense of society. (Tocqueville 1835).

Tocqueville made this observation long before the more obvious signs of individualism, such as suburbs, personal computers, and private automobiles took place. Thus, it may be erroneous to assert that rapid advancements in technology has ruined public life–perhaps the cause of our fragmented social lives is written in our very Constitution: a reactionary response to the ideology of Europe, and an implied rejection of community in the search for individual liberty (Weinstein 1996). What we have today in terms of community and society is a product of what we used to have, not a loss of it.

Though this country was born and raised to be individualistic, community springs up between the cracks in the asphalt of our parking lots. Though we can video chat from hand-held devices, we still travel to see each other in person, to hug, to shake hands. Though we can sign online petitions and send e-mail blasts to demonstrate our political messages, we still gather in public spaces, paint signs, yell, and sing. Though our own zoning codes have forced the flow of life out of our cities, placed it in cars, and sent it 7 miles per hour on the highway to nowhere, people still yearn for it. We should have no doubt that if we build places for people again, the people will gather, exist, wander, and meet in those places. And the places will record our histories, will be carved out by our flows of life, constantly moving, changing, affecting, making a mark.

Works Cited

Clark, Petula. Downtown the Greatest Hits of Petula Clark. Buddha Records, 1999. CD.

Jacobs, Allan B., and Donald Appleyard. “Toward an Urban Design Manifesto.” The Urban Design Reader. By Michael Larice and Elizabeth Macdonald. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film; the Redemption of Physical Reality. New York: Oxford UP, 1960. Print.

Oldenburg, Ray. “The Problem of Place in America.” The Urban Design Reader. By Michael Larice and Elizabeth Macdonald. London: Routledge, 2007. 139-48. Print.

Sorkin, Michael. “Variations on a Theme Park.” Ctools, University of Michigan. Print.

Weinstein, Richard S. “The First American City.” The City (1996): 22-44. Ctools. University of Michigan. Web. 18 Nov. 2011.

Zeng, Daniel, Lusch Hsinchun Chen, and R. Shu-Hsing Li. “Social Media Analytics and Intelligence.” IEEE Intelligent Systems (2010).

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