December 1, 2003
Something of Value
What did we lose when we got addicted to central air?
In an idyllic all-American town called Lakewood a retired couple is being interviewed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. These well-spoken people tell a frightening story of urban planning gone terribly wrong. Their house, now paid for and perfect for what they believed would be their “golden years,” has been pronounced “blighted” by the mayor. Wallace is looking for signs of blight, but in this well-kept neighborhood of single-family homes, he can’t find the decay that the word implies. Blight in 2003, in small-town Ohio and in many other places across the country, refers to homes that don’t have at least three bedrooms, two baths, central air, and an attached two-car garage—our current symbols of upward mobility.
The land in Lakewood on which the 55 houses stand is being claimed by the city under eminent domain, the legal term for the right of the government to take private property for the public good. But use of eminent domain today is not what it was intended for. In the twenty-first century a city can condemn low-tax-yielding property that gets in the way of high-tax-yielding development. And so this Ohio neighborhood is to hand over its land and all they built on it (at a “fair market price”) to a developer of expensive condos that, Mayor Cain claims, will bring in the taxes her town needs.
What strikes me most about this sad story is the unsustainable values it represents. It seems that the technical override of nature (in this case, conditioned air) is of a higher value than a less energy-guzzling way of life. Why would houses built with deep, shading porches and well-placed windows that catch breezes from Lake Erie need central air-conditioning? Do Americans really want to spend their nights and weekends as they do their workdays, in artificially cooled rooms? And just when has a breeze from the lake lost its value?
The architects hired by the Lakewood developers have the moral duty to challenge the city’s plans. They need to be advocates for the people, not just for the developers. They know the program that informs the development. They have the training and the ability to offer alternate sites in other less contested areas of town that would suit the mayor’s needs to raise higher taxes. They know more about sustainable design than they’ve ever known before; they’re probably building to LEED ratings now. But do they have the will and the ethical fortitude to challenge this kind of destructive development in the face of eminent domain?