The late Irish poet John O. Donahue said, "There is a big difference if you emerge into a dead landscape, in transit from one place to another, or if you emerge into a landscape that is as alive as you are."
I think this statement rings true for our age. We seem to be living in a time when Americans have become disconnected from the visual quality of their outdoor environment. We put on blinders as we travel, ignoring ugly highways, cheaply-built shopping centers, expansive parking lots, seas of billboards, blank building walls, trash-strewn lots, treeless streets.
Certainly automobile travel is a major culprit, allowing people to leave the beauty of their homes, enter the beauty of their cars, and emerge into the beauty of a place like a mall, convention center, casino, or restaurant, only tolerating the short span of ugliness walking from the parking lot. However, even automobile travelers have to look out the window.
How have we devolved as a society to accept travel through a "dead landscape"?
There is precedent for these issues taking on national priority. In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson attempted to focus on these problems through his President’s Council on Recreation and Natural Beauty. Though overshadowed by Vietnam, that effort marked a period when the beauty of our visual environment was a priority for the White House. Perhaps it is again time for our nation to focus on what kind of environment we are building for ourselves and for our children.
One may argue that we have more pressing issues, such as the economy, poverty, and education. Of course this is true, but what kind of life are we giving our children if we are raising and educating them to live in a "dead landscape"?
Nowhere is this fact more significant than in an urban context.
We should strive to transform our schools into great palaces of learning, but even then, is it really enough if children leave those palaces, emerging into trash-strewn, depressed neighborhoods?
Can we build up the economy of disinvested areas without focusing on the aesthetic quality of our commercial streets?
Can we truly bring safety to our toughest neighborhoods while they visually convey an image that nobody cares about their appearance or their quality of life?
Philadelphia and other cities need a much more committed approach to dealing with urban design, education, crime, and business development in a comprehensive context. Indeed, they are integrally related.
In urban downtowns, many projects ignore the idea that they are part of a larger context – that the quality of the journey is as important as the arrival. Philadelphia's proposed convention center expansion, for example, calls for a blank wall along several key blocks of the Center City business core.
Naturally the convention center will bring in revenue, but is that revenue worth the lost opportunity to raise the value of those blocks, energizing them as shopping and entertainment streets, building the foundation for new economic development, residential and commercial growth? Must these goals be mutually exclusive?
Nowhere in America should we tolerate an ugly environment, but especially not in our cities. Our cities should be beautiful, iconic, thriving, and eminently livable. It is time for our society to refocus its energy to create landscapes that are worthy of the future of our nation.