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Conclusion There is little doubt across the spectrum of opinion that design of the built environment matters to the health and well-being of communities and the individuals who make them up. Opinions differ markedly, however, on what role such environments play in influencing behavior, especially as they might contribute to desirable social ends. While historian John Archer can argue, ‘‘There is no question that architecture extensively structures human behavior,’’1 sociologist Herbert Gans, in a famous critique of architectural practice, disagrees: ‘‘Society cannot be remade through architecture, and architects cannot solve problems of poverty, mental illness, or marital discord through better design. . . . Their designs can make people’s lives a little more comfortable or uncomfortable, but human behavior, and social as well as political relationships, are shaped by so many causal factors that rarely is any single factor of crucial importance .’’2 Planning professor Jill Grant agrees with Gans, asserting in her extended critique of the New Urbanism, ‘‘Good design cannot cure a sick society .’’3 Alexander von Hoffman disparages efforts over several generations to affect social behavior through housing policy, arguing that such environmental determinism has led repeatedly to disillusionment. Similarly, Eric Monkkonen faults Lewis Mumford in particular for embracing an ‘‘architectural fallacy’’ that masks the nature of urban life by privileging physical structures over the people who use them, calling such practice ‘‘superficial efforts to understand cities.’’4 However pointed such criticism has been, it is difficult to avoid the question whether we can afford to ignore the connection between built form and civic function, as Jon Lang suggests has been the tendency for the past quarter century. Most critics share Lang’s proposition that the built environment is not deterministic. It is hard to contest, however, his associated argument, that if the built environment does not afford a desirable PAGE 160 ................. 17669$ CONL 02-23-10 13:51:31 PS Conclusion 161 behavior, the behavior cannot take place.5 The issue, Charles Bohl contends, is not spatial determinism but what he calls ‘‘environmental affordance,’’ the proposition that design can shape spaces to afford opportunities for positive social activities.6 Coincidently, it is hard to challenge John Archer’s contention not just that architecture helps structure human behavior, but that ‘‘the more such processes are understood, the better the architecture can serve human needs.’’7 A review of past practice reveals, however, how difficult it is for good ideas to make their way into widescale practice. Even the most ardent proponents of shaping civic life through environmental intervention in addition to Mumford—Howard, Perry, Rouse, and Dunay, among them—found that their best intentions had unintended and undesirable effects. Mumford called the violations of intent he witnessed the ‘‘law of cultural seepage,’’ in which innovations introduced by elites make their way into the mainstream only to be degraded in the process.8 His observation is confirmed to some extent by the current status of the best experiments associated with a progressive environmental tradition. They still survive, but largely as distinct artifacts of their time that set them apart from mainstream tradition. The original Greenbelt, Maryland, complex, for instance, is protected by the National Register of Historic Places. The rest of the town, however, is hard to distinguish from the suburbs around it. Homes are larger; shared open space is rare; traffic proceeds in conventional patterns ; civic structures, including schools, are reachable primarily by car. Similarly, the section of Fair Lawn designated as Radburn stands apart from the rest of the town, which was largely developed after World War II. According to Alexander Garvin’s review of best city practice, ‘‘Despite the obvious superiority of Radburn’s planning, none of the developers in Fair Lawn chose to copy it. They created typical subdivisions with look-alike houses on streets with prominent utility poles. The overwhelming majority of America’s developers have done the same.’’9 Eugenie Birch describes the process by which ideal plans such as those formulated for Radburn were adopted only selectively, noting that ‘‘while the planning movement accepted the Radburn plan as a model, its few practitioners, frequently operating with a relatively unsympathetic environment, could execute only those aspects which melded easily with pre-existent customs.’’ Thus builders avoided the superblock in suburbs while applying the technique in distorted form to group public housing.10 In more general terms, regional shopping malls, which were intended to be crucibles of civic vitality, have undergone not just crass commercialism, but privatization of public spaces that dampPAGE 161...


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