Monday, June 15, 2009

Planning for Social Exclusion

Having just finished another book on planning and development, I am beginning to get worried. On top of all this, when I say the things I will discuss here, more and more people are agreeing with me. This topic started out as a side-note to my interest on development in the age of globalization, and instead has become a central challenge to planning and community development theory in my life.

I begin the discussion of social exclusion with technologies of social exclusion. Since then, I have come to realize that I was taking the wrong path, focusing on the enabling factor (technology) instead of on the users (people). This is kind of like blaming drugs for the addict. Our entire society has a goal of more individual social freedom. Liberal intellectuals discuss a new world of freedom. These people are those who most value "saving the world," people like Daniel Quinn, for example (I have not read his books, but I am familiar moderately with his thesis). In a used bookstore yesterday, I finally could not take it anymore. The liberal intellectual society of which I am part decries the destruction of our communities, the end of community-based projects, and champions the creation of new projects like community gardens or the building of community centers/facilities. Simultaneously, however, we are working against the "communalization" process by advocating a world where the individual is so absolutely free and powerful that every aspect of their lives is customizable. I am seeing finally the beginnings of fear in the voices and words of some people who are discussing the decline of the aquaintence and the focus of society on ways to avoid leaving the comfort zones of its members.

Liberals primary failure is that they DO NOT REALIZE that people are community animals who desire to create a very specific environment, surrounded by that which comforts them. We have always done this, creating communities segregated by race, income, origin, sexual orientation, political belief, and worse. We will, if given the power, never interact with anyone with whom we do not wish. The age of true and absolute individual liberty is created by technologies and is the culmination of decades of policies. Everything we have done it seems is designed to allow more spatial auto-segregation. This includes many urban planning policies that encourage people to create barriers between themselves and their neighborhood. We destroy community links through policies that cut up communities and remove the features such as businesses, schools, or parks that tie them together. We eliminate the "sidewalk culture" by forcing houses to be set far back from the sidewalk. We create communities of individual, selfish, wasteful people living in massive, sprawling, inefficient, cold, and boring suburbs. What is more, we have decided that creating situations where people are forced to interact, such as through school integration programs, are bad. This not only further relagates the unfortunate individuals stuck in failing areas to more poverty, but it also prevents any type of mutual understanding that can begin to bridge the divides in our increasingly unequal and segregated society.

My point is that people want to customize their social and physical spaces and our entire history of planning policy and technology development assist them in this. We will never be able to build communities by merely creating the spaces that so many new development claim as selling points (just look how small they often are to know how much use they expect them to get). The liberal intellectual ideal of a more aware human is foolish since, although we are all happy to donate massive sums to disasters in Asia, we cannot fathom helping the desperately poor who are near us, in our cities and countrysides. Our world may be one of integrated information networks, but it is also one of customized contacts with the world outside of the four walls and yard of your suburban house. We want this, we work for it, and it will be the cause of more polarization and less ability to get things done. In truth, this is the real cause of our loss of moderation as a society in politics and everything else. We must recognize this. As a planner I am concerned because I see it as a threat to my goal of expanded participation in real democratic planning (i.e. where most people actually participate). People, as I have said before, will not care about their first life if they are concentrating on their "Second Life."

I am almost panicked now because I am seeing the rise of customizable social spaces as a GOAL, a REAL goal of intellectuals. I am all for freedom, I am all for increased equality through increased access to opportunity that many of these technologies can, in theory, provide. I am not for the loss of our community. I do not want to see us split apart into ever smaller factions as has happened all over the world in movements for change in society.

I hope to design an empirical study of this once I start grad school in planning this fall. I am trying at this point to get a clearer idea on the history of a process that I only recently pinpointed as a problem of "technologies of social exclusion." I failed to realize that this has historical precedence and that there are visible problems today arising from humanity's natural goal of divided communities.

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