Bushurbs? Obamatropolis?

What to call the New Hoovervilles?

tentYesterday’s New York Times article highlighting the emergence of the new American shanty town, was perhaps the strongest visual expression of the American economic situation that we have seen thus far. (The blog with day traders putting their hands to their faces is only comic relief compared to this). The media–from Oprah to the blogosphere–has been all over this one. 

I am no historian but it is interesting to me that Hoovervilles were named that and Coolidge was no where in the picture. The superficial wealth of the roaring twenties occurred under Coolidge’s lead and Hoover inherited it when it was just turning sour—and then proceeded to make a bigger mess of the situation. Hence Hoovervilles I suppose. But it does not appear that Obama’s predecessor is so lucky quite yet. We still need to sit tight and see where the stimulus takes us before legacies are written.

Seeing as everyone is talking about this today, I thought I would jump in with a different perspective. The sustainability and stimulus one of course. Shovel ready projects and job creation is fine, but the immediate needs of people, need immediate solutions. Lack of access to water, sanitation services, garbage pick up, etc. This is breeding ground for a messy situation. Not to mention the mental health threats that accompany the physical.

But what is so interesting for me, from an urban planning and sustainability perspective is the geography of it all. So far, from what I can gather based on reporting to date, these towns have developed in relatively small cities and on undesirable land. They are under bridges, next to highways and train tracks and sometimes in swampy areas. Hoovervilles on the other hand were anywhere and everywhere. Central Park’s great lawn had residents as did Riverside Park and Red Hook’s water front area. Public spaces stopped being places to enjoy by leisure. They became quite the opposite; places of emergency housing.

The idea that public space becomes a home for the indigent is not a new concept. But how this changes a city as a whole is interesting. Or rather, how crisis—specifically this financial one—will change the cityscape and design. A space generally represents the needs of those around it. In a time of crisis, do the emergency needs of some, trump the leisurely requirements of others? The benefits of public space, similar to the benefits of trees and vegetation, is often understood quite superficially and romantically by the masses. But their benefits are real in a qualitative and quantitative sense. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to appreciate my picnic in the park over someone’s housing rights. Still, I think these are relevant and thought provoking questions. How do our planning priorities change in these difficult times?

So, I am thinking about what I might propose to maintain both our public spaces and provide housing (and some jobs?) to those who need it. Can we get recently graduated designers involved in a competition to envision sustainable housing? That gives them some money, some recognition and inspiration. Not to mention that some of the people now living in these shanty towns are out of work plumbers, electricians, etc; people who could effectively contribute to the building of a more stable community. And what about all those shipping containers we still have piling up? When are we finally going to turn those into new homes? We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, people. These are just a few thoughts off the top of my head.

It might not be the brightest day in America, but carpe diem. Time to innovate.


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