Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Economic ecology in the North American Peripheral Corridor City

The scene is a state highway hurtling through the valley of an endless landscape of detached houses, strip developments, franchise outlets, electrical lines, and brightened signs of businesses forgotten the moment they are passed by. This highway is one of a hundred and one that run North-South across the country. It is, at a glance and by thought, wholly unremarkable to our public consciousness. And yet this scene, is now and will be, the present/future reality of the way we live.

The highway is 99W. It runs concurrent with Interstate 5 until just south of Portland, Oregon, where it splits westward, plunging through the wine country and bread basket of the Northern Willamette Valley, and breaking apart amidst the Coastal Range as feeder roads splinter into the logging forest and further towards the Pacific Ocean. This corridor serves to link these local productive economies with national and international shipping routes clustered around the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. But along its stretch, back washes and eddies of the global consumptive economies disrupt the identity and desires of cities and towns as we thought we knew them.

Implicit in the structure of this landscape is the contested relationship between the desire for a private life rooted in a specific place and the privatized individuality of global consumer culture. The people that live here do not work here, and the people who work here do not live here. Every day three quarters of the populace trades places with other economic actors in a ballet of transposition played out in a ritual of coffee served out of small windows, loads of goods rattled across tarmacs in small carts, and the ever present smell of carbon emitted from combustion engines.

This "in-between landscape" between local production and global consumption continues even into the very fabric of the fine grain of the urban condition. The great majority of businesses in the area thrive on the market share of the highway. Their business model is utterly focused on the customers in their cars moving from sub-region to sub-region. To partake in their business, even if they are your immediate neighbor means to enter that market stream. As a business, to partake in this market share requires the resources to develop ones own infrastructure, focused inwardly as an extension of the national highway system. This gives a significant advantage to national and multi-national corporations who have the strategic experience and tactical capabilities to 'plug-in' to the standardized network of transportation infrastructure. McDonalds, Jiffy Lube, Sunoco, et al. To be an small business or independent business owner is to be dependent on strip mall developers who provide a 'plug-in' unit of standard dimensions and shared infrastructures. These developments heed only to their own internal logic which is in turn driven by the demands of external national and global market forces.

The town below and around this scene is Tigard, a periphery city that goes by unmarked from the view of an automobile. It is the background on which this ballet is set. Where the highway rises on a viaduct over a disused rail track the Main Street breaks away and runs parallel for a half a mile, rejoining again, sublimated back into the stream. Businesses dot its length though they seem undifferentiated and largely unable to compete with the strip development that is ever present along the corridor route. A town center that is swallowed by the conditions of the urbanized landscape, it is readable only as a depression amongst the unreadable field condition of the "sprawl" that surrounds it. Its Main Street will never be a nexus of self subsistence and community support, the vision of which maintained within American imagination throughout the 20th century. This long held dream is now clearly a myth of a past America, one whose grave was marked amidst the confused squeals of 24 hour punditry and editorial page essays this past fall. It will have to find a way to re-identify itself as a civic being which has no pure understanding within its local context; rather as a complex, multivariate node of hybrid economies, itinerant market forces, contested ecologies, and new images of civic life. One in which recreation occurs in re-purposed industrial sheds, markets are traded on the surface of structured parking lots, and people come and go by way of feet, rails, and roads.

At this heart of this city unrealized, lies nascent capacities for this new vision. The confluence of potential transportation developments at divergent scales converge at heart Tigard. A recently renewed commuter rail running on the disused heavy rail tracks, a potential for a new regional light rail line run in tandem with the highway, and the eventual need to replace the highway viaduct itself present an opportunity for infrastructural investment sourced from a variety of funding streams.

However, the normative methodology of transportation infrastructure guided by the single purpose designs of civil engineering will only continue the trend of economic and civic disassociation. What is needed is an integrated design thinking that considers the potentials of infrastructure as a lasting part of our narrative history and public imagination. A public infrastructure which incorporates and allows for local ad hoc economic and social activities to participate in and engage with the comings and goings of the global surge of capital.

Cities Without Cities Charrette Presentation
Nicolaus D Wright Summer 2009
Critics: Hajo Neis, Thomas Sieverts, John Brehm, Shawn Collins

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