Sunday, February 15, 2009

Chaos and Human Dignity
Throughout our trip to Manila, and participation in the Burnham Meets Vincent-Urban Renewal through University Engagement conference, I began to formulate a more complete understanding of the connections between poverty reduction, urban planning and Vincentian practices. My biggest “uh-huh” moment came at the end of the very last presentation by Filipino architect Paulo Alcazaren. He closed with this quote by Victor Hugo: “But where no plan is laid, where the disposal of time is surrendered merely to the chance of incidents, chaos will soon reign.”
The words “...chaos will soon reign” prompted a slew of different images to race through my mind. I thought about the impromptu community of scrap metal shacks attached to the back of our Manila hotel, bare-footed children playing in the milky waters of the Pasig River along Quirino Blvd. and Jeepny exhaust pipes blasting at face level during tricycle rides. I also reflected on some of my other experiences outside of the Philippines; the villas de miseria on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and C√≥rdoba, Argentina, the scramble of squatters for abandoned living spaces on the east side of Brooklyn (Squatters Celebrate Brooklyn Victory - New York Times) and the overcrowded ‘Coca Cola’ market square in San Jose, Costa Rica are just a few of the more prominent ones. Chaos. Organized chaos.
In these previous contexts an organized chaos adds to the affront on human dignity and contributes to the degradation of human life. Almost certainly, better planning could have reduced the chaotic environment of many urban areas, but what is done is not easily reversible. The major question facing urban planners nowadays is - is there a way to reduce poverty while maintaining human dignity of all involved? What can urban planners do? What should they do?
In an attempt to more fully embrace the human dignity aspect of urban planning, the concept of development as freedom (Amartya Sen) has emerged as an alternative approach. In essence, new development techniques are attempting improve human dignity by melding the values of St. Vincent DePaul with the tenacious planning style of Daniel Burnham. An exploration into the lives and philosophies of both men cultivates theses current progressive ideas and may lead to discovering more alternative paths of development focused on limiting chaos and placing human dignity of all stakeholders at the forefront of the process.
St. Vincent de Paul was an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised. He addressed poverty directly by clothing and feeding the poor, but he also actively fought against the social inequalities. Vincent lobbied the power brokers of his day to make the poor a salient stakeholder in decisions, especially those concerning land use and allocated resources.
Daniel Burnham believed in the power of logical diagrams and recorded documents, which he asserts that “…long after we are gone, will be a living thing” (Full Quotation). Burnham was also a big proponent of using public space as a means to enhance the living conditions of society, thus his concentration on landscape and parks.
Both men, Vincent and Burnham, had vision to see how the use of public space impacts the dignity of human life. However, in Burnham’s case, he did not take into account the dignity of the poor and working class as much as he should have. Although his plan of Chicago did call for roads and accessibility to public areas and some civic centers (never built) there is a clear attempt of class segregation. By Burnham’s plan, the cost of urban transformation was (and is) insulating wealthier segments of society from the economically lower classes (traditionally non-WASP and racial minorities) and, dare I say, to gentrify more desirable property for the benefit of the already prosperous and affluent. The Chicago Tribune newspaper argues that this is one of the major factors that resulted in Chicago being one of the most racially and economically segregated cities in the US
When the voices of disenfranchised populations are drowned out in the name of development, human dignity is being accosted and chaos is likely to be a consequence of the neglect. We see this in Chicago and across the world daily. From Burnham to current trends in urban development (gentrification specifically) there is a lack of implementation (not a lack of lip service) for the Vincent paradigm – viewing the poor and underprivileged as key stakeholders in development decisions. However some individuals, Amartya Sen and Greg Mortenson for example, both use a combination of Burnham and Vincent development styles to advocate an execute more just and holistic models of development.
Perhaps most importantly these models include an added focus on the objectives of empowerment for oppressed and ignored populations – the direct and indirect outcomes being less chaos and more attention to human dignity. While in the Philippines, I was encouraged to see a leader such as Father Fajardo of the Vincentian Center for Social Responsibility practicing the advocacy and development that places human dignity of the community at the forefront. Speculation and theory can help us with our development paradigms, but it is the people on the ground clearing the way for a better path of development. We would do well to draw on inspiration from Vincent and Burnham to continue standing up to the chaos that threatens to engulf the lives of the poor and society as a whole.

Related Recommended Readings:

Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen

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