There is a value to direct action, or actually experiencing the things you talk, learn, and read about. Theory, data, numbers, and knowledge are important, but they can only take you so far. There is a value to getting your hands dirty, to wading into life’s messy, murky waters. Direct action – and its sensual experience – is the only way to verify as true that which we’ve already grasped with the mind. To seriously comprehend anything about life, we must understand it both in our minds and our external, physical reality.
There is a lot of talk these days about the plight of the poor, the minority, the disadvantaged. Politicians trumpet their ideas for fixing what’s wrong and lambast their opponents’. I’ve seen churches condemn the meek -- forgetting that they shall inherit the Earth – and offer platitudes, soup, and the blood of Christ in self-righteous acts of “selflessness.” Planners write papers and reports on the condition of the disadvantaged from hills far above, but not within, the communities in question. They write as if they know the poor like they do the answers to the tests they took to earn their Master degrees and PhDs. In a sense, they do: they have them memorized as numbers, statistics, and surveys. They speak about the sacredness of public engagement, and then turn the hallowed halls of their planning commissions into bureaucratic mazes that would make Kafka proud.
But how many of these “experts” have physically engaged the poor, disadvantaged minority? How many politicians have stayed at a soup kitchen after the cameras have left and spoken to the people in line – who are, after all, also their constituents – one on one, human to human? How many churchgoers overcome their self-righteousness and see themselves in the faces of the poor? Most poignantly, how many planners view community engagement as a valuable way to incorporate invaluable local knowledge and tactile data into the planning process? As this recent election has taught us, the gap between the public and supposed experts is smaller than we’d like to imagine.
There is a significant distance between theory and practice. Like those four-star generals in the War on Drugs – few of whom have ever dropped a tab of acid, smoked a blunt, or taken a bump of cocaine – who say that jail time is the best cure for addiction, designers that speak on behalf of cities they haven’t first taken the time to experience, don’t know what they’re talking about. What does the landscape architect who talks endlessly about greening the grey, but doesn’t garden, have in common with the planner who writes volumes about the merits of the subway, but drives to work? Both are hypocrites to their city and their craft.
Theory says, “despite their obvious differences, research and scientific data show that all cities are, on some level, the same.” Experience through direct action and engagement replies, “the only similarity cities share with each other are the innate differences between them. Even within a city, no block looks the same in the sun of different seasons.” Only those privileged (but naïve) residents of ivory towers sit high enough to claim that all people, and therefore all cities, are the same. A walk from one part of a city to another, performed with open eyes and ears attuned to the local frequency, will reveal this high-minded theory to be false.