Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Solutions always come from people

Dr. Jerome Groopman, in an interview about his new book How Doctors Think, made a fundamental point about doctors and patients, that resonates with the fight for human rights in the sphere of architecture, construction, and urban planning.

I should point out that "first, do no harm" is, essentially, a non-existent sentiment among urban planners, and a rare sentiment among architects -- but it's a majority sentiment among doctors.

But the sentiment is not effective if you don't fully respect the patient, says Groopman. "Every solution to a medical problem ultmately comes from listening to the patient", he says. Of course you don't want to kill the patient. But if you really want to resolve the problem, you need to treat the patient as a partner.

Most urban planners on a city's staff do not want to destroy the lives of residents in a neighborhood. But, neither do they fully respect their lives. The lack of respect comes partly from the availability of usable force, and the demands of capital -- also, if you're a staffer, and you believe you have a good idea, say "density" or "maximized property tax" or "anchor projects", why would you listen to anyone else's ideas -- the ideas of the "ignorant natives" -- if you didn't need to?

But the lack of respect also comes from something else. We can all sympathize with it: insecurity. City officials have done a terrible job in the last century of growth. In this situation, if professionals now switched strategies, and admitted that solutions should come from normal people, from non-professionals, how could they continue to justify their status? How could they remain elite? Deep down, they know they're only human, buffeted by forces unrelated to quality-of-life, and this makes them insecure about their power. So they use all their means to defend and inflate their own superiority. They dismiss the detailed knowledge of the mass of people they are supposed to be serving. Thus a common human failing has transformed into a completely accepted system of elite power projection, from the intimate to the international. It's corrupt, but it's the law.

This is, of course, rarely recognized by professionals. But the majority recognizes this massive failure in our building culture. Our remedy is to organize.


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