Designing cities for silence

As an academic, I crave silence. In fact, without silence, I can’t think. And since thinking is my job, in our current media blitz steal-your-attention economy, I’m often miserable. When I don’t wish to work from home or my office, or am on the road, there are scant places where I can simply walk in, sit down, open my computer, journal, or book, and get to work. It’s a tyranny of noise. Or in the words of Grand Master Flash in “The Message”: “It’s like a jungle sometimes It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”

The noise, the stress of noise, the violence of noise, is one of the elements that push us close to the edge.

As I study harmony inside and outside, among humans and between humans and nature, silence – or the science of listening – plays major. If we wish to cultivate a harmonious society, where we can invest our resources in art and movement and beauty and biomimcy and regeneration, then we need to create the conditions where we no longer have to contend with broken social norms; where crime is low to nonexistent; where hunger is nonexistent. Where we’re not polluting our air and our pure water is sacred. Where we respect silence and freedom of movement enough to create large carfree swaths of our cities. Where we find better ways to deliver goods like rail and cargo bike. Where we plant trees for shade and beauty.

People always lament: how do we get from here to there?

I always answer: queerly. Asymmetrically. In fits and starts. Non-linearly. Start with where you are. Don’t wait for a new city. Transform what you’ve got.

Buckminster Fuller always said that it’s easier to create alternatives and magnetize the world to the new innovation than to battle antiquated ideas. We have to actively make the old ideas obsolete by making the new ones simply more sexy.

But how do we make silence sexy? How do we make the tao sexy? How do we make sitting around and doing nothing (meditation) sexy? How do we make things sexy without the manipulative strobe-light grab you by the eyeballs and ears approach of hype-media that has come to be the dominant carnie form in late capitalism?

We do this by fairyrings of trees, solidarity circles of silence, nested neighborhoods of stillness. Dedicated communities upon communities showing the shades and nuances and varieties of silence, stillness, quietude, tranquility. We show the 1001 ways of doing silence. The abundant variety of nuance. We help people downregulate from numb dumb shouting blaring beeping to listening to jazz, then classical, then kora and koto, then the water in the river, the wind in the leaves, their own breath. We take people down in stages. We titrate with waves of in and out, so it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, so severe. But it does become all-encompassing in a non-cloying, non-forced way. Like the unforced force of the better argument – which only works under the auspicious conditions of listening and self-reflection and openness – silence can be won. It can be wooed.

For if we don’t have places to think, what good are our cities? Without silence, how do we think? How do we enter conversation, if not from a place of knowing our own thoughts? How can we truly join a crowd or a team if we don’t already know the beautiful solitude of trusting our senses, by living in places of beauty and the song of the elements?

Desperate for Nature

The Guardian recently aired an article on a boutique hedgehog petting zoo-café that opened in Tokyo. For $9 per person, visitors can drink coffee and cuddle these animals. Popular with kids and adults alike, this café, named Harry to pun on the Japanese pronunciation of “Hari” meaning spiky, aims to soothe the souls of nonhuman nature deprived urbanites.

While the Guardian sells the phenomena of animal voyerism cafés as a cute part of Japanese culture, I read this situation of one of perversity. These animals, 30 different species of hedgehog, are for sale, and their raison d’etat is to be handled, petted, and inadvertently abused by children and well-meaning connection-deprived adult humans.

Capturing animals in the wild and breeding them for commercial purpose is like putting an ape on display to be laughed at and anthropomorphized. The authentic hedgehog encounter happens conveniently enough in a city, where these animals would not last 5 minutes outside the café before being run-over by a car or otherwise killed. These animals are given what Agamben has called “bare life.” Yes, they are living. But they are stripped of their Umwelt. They have been deprived of their prey and predators and are kept in glass cages; looking happy enough to the projecting human. But their lives remain ones of involuntary slavery, and at-will arbitrary torture.

Certainly, the humans paying their blood-money for an hour of handling these creatures don’t think of their actions as morally or physically abhorrent. They are simply buying a service, a product, that happens to be free and unrestrained access to another living body without consent. But the pervasiveness of such shops in Tokyo, and with much of pet ownership in general, is that these creatures end up becoming the dumpsters for unresolved human emotions and energies, positive and negative. They are infected with our moods and attitudes, on what invariably end up being what Karen Barad calls “marks on bodies.” When you put hedgehogs in a commercial setting, you don’t get hedgehogs “as a representative of a species” or as a token of a type. Instead, what you get is an onto-ethical-epistemological nexus of performances which can only be true as every aspect of the encounter.

While such encounters might assuage some of the Naturverlassenheit of zombie robot consumers, it does little to establish anchor of learning from these hedgehogs as autonomous agents with geographic and environmental histories and desires of their own.