In 1956, Johnny Cash penned a song that spoke of the eternal vigilance needed to balance choices that were easy and tempting, and those that were hard but ultimately better for him. The song was ‘I walk the line’. It is said that hearing a demo tape played backwards inspired the song tune – I can relate to this. It may seem surprising but many an artists’ inspiration has come from a creative misread; sparking an alternative way of seeing a problem and embracing a false premise to develop a wholly different response. Often, this comes in the form of accidentally reading a ‘section’ as a ‘plan’, or – in the case of my first year design studio program head – ripping apart the physical model I’d spent all week making and putting it back differently. A roof inverted. A cantilever re thought. A whole section of the plan removed and separated from the main form.
This ability to suspend the present, and imagine an alternative reality is just one capacity the ‘creative’ mind brings to communities. Their ability to ‘walk the line’ between the ‘now’ and the ‘possible’. Some fans suggest that the original title of ‘Walk the line’ was ‘I’m still being true (to myself)’. It may just be rumour, but there’s a nice theme to be drawn from both these stories. Somewhere in there is an admission that, if Johnny didn’t remain absolutely hyper-vigilant, that it would all come to a crashing end. And that ‘walking the line’ was only possible thanks to having his eye fixed firmly on a constant; a value set so clear in his mind that it made choices self-evident. And the original song title – “I’m still being true” – somehow revealed a deep desire for authenticity.
In what may seem a real stretch, what if we applied these two ideas to community building? The thought was posed in my mind last week at the annual national conference of Australia’s architectural peak body, the Australian Institute of Architects. In a session that explored how we negotiate the boundaries and definitions we give to things, the discussion looked at how architects and landscape architects ‘walk the line’ in their work; between intervening and not, between new and old, between collective and individual. And, by extension, how cities ‘walk the line’ every day; between chaos and control, between the planned and spontaneous, between economic rise and fall.
Cities of the past were planned around defined zones. We had a work zone (the CBD, the factory etc). We had a ‘living’ zone (our suburbs). And we had a ‘rural’ zone. That was the green bit where farmers and livestock lived. Today we’ve realized that zoning has produced many of the issues we face today. Clearly chief among them is traffic congestion. Each day we empty the suburbs to travel to commercial centres. Along the way we drop kids at school (what did happen to school buses?), or at daycare. Some cities have turned to car-pooling, or shared bike schemes to alleviate the pressure on roads, and to give a genuine alternative. But bike lanes take decades to become a joined up network, and car-pooling only accounts for a small percentage of trips made.
Many in the area of public health note the link between traditional zonal planning and the escalating instance of obesity, diabetes and a frightening projection in dementia (an increase of 350% by 2050). We’ve fallen in love with the idea of ‘convenience’: parking at the door, food delivered at will, air-conditioned comfort at all times. And in the process – as Dr Tony Capon from UNSW’s Faculty of the Built Environment knows – we’ve deviated from our biological predisposition of ‘hunter gatherer’ and become ‘homo conveniensus’. Remember that bit about choices that swung from ‘easy and tempting’ to ‘ultimately better for us’?
Perhaps on this one we’ve wandered off the line and need to look once again to restore balance. And perhaps, we might return to a more ‘authentic’ quality of life. A quality of life that is not ‘generic’ but celebrates an innate cultural identity of its people; Norwood is a great example of a community that bursts with the stuff of its DNA. In a city that is spending an inordinate amount of time coming to terms with ‘mixed communities’; Norwood lives it. As we encourage others to build communities around an established centre. Norwood has it.
Maybe we should ‘walk the line’ a little more in Adelaide; stretching some of our preconceptions about how we define things. And whether we even need to. Another tenet of successful city shaping is knowing when to ‘leave it alone’. Sometimes we need to design with gaps; bits for the community to fill in and own. And, every now and then, to get it ‘wrong’. In walking that line we negotiate the balance between what Rem Koolhas calls the ‘Generic City’ and the authentic experience of a place connected to its past, and confident about its future.
Tim Horton, SA Commissioner for Integrated Design