The Barbie Doll Syndrome and Sustainable Development
I had finished my first college degree with a major in economics and was beginning architecture school when I ran into one of my old economics professors, a tenured PhD, on campus. Catching up with him was always fun for me; probably because he was an engaging sort of fellow who always seemed terribly interested in what was going on in my life. He knew that I had graduated from the Fulbright College nearly a year before, so he asked me what I was doing back at the university. I told him I was going to study architecture and planning.
His reaction was not at all what I had expected. He seemed to be taken aback, and stated; “So you’re going to play with paper dolls!”
WHAT? What did he mean by THAT?
His explanation has stayed with me and has shaped what I’ve done in my professional life for the past 35 years. Let me spell out the relevance of his statement to the promise I made in my last Clyde Fitch Report (CFR) column.
I mentioned in my last column that I would look at some possible futures relating to the redevelopment of Miami’s Marine Stadium. I’d like to do that by laying out how the development of post-industrial economies and the economy’s basic sectors can affect the built environment, and thus the efficiency and competitiveness of a community–critical factors which should be considered in all community developments in today’s highly charged more competitive, global economy.
In my last column I gave an example of how past events shape who we are in the present, and how this gives weight to decisions we make that are exceedingly critical in shaping our future; something I believe we aren’t as good at as we ought to be. I contend that we make most of our future-affecting decisions on a careless ephemeral basis, with little knowledge or concern for cause and effect. I describe this human phenomenon in greater detail in a book that I wrote a couple of years ago, which you are welcome to check out if you are curious. I further mentioned in my last CFR column that the exciting part of creating new chapters in our lives, and in the development of the built environment, if done properly, could be instrumental in shaping a community’s future. This includes Miami’s future via the redevelopment of the Marine Stadium. I then asked: But which future?
Finding and Selecting the Right Future for Your Community
When making decisions about the development of your community, there are always multiple futures available. Selecting the best future for your community (or your own development) is done by understanding various possibilities which exist based on trends and cycles, coupled with dreams and aspirations. Each will take your community to a different place. Each can act as a guideline for decisions or as a monitor for programs, policies, and both public and private expenditures. Selecting one specific future as a controlling guide guarantees that decisions and money will follow the same course, and not work in divergent ways.
Determining the various futures doesn’t have to be difficult or laborious. It can actually be fun. For the most part, the process can be fruitful. It can decrease long-term financial risk for many who participate in the development of our communities; something bankers like. Although this process may be considered by some as non-essential, be assured of this: it can help to establish market and consumer demand, which aids the decision-making process that effects the built environment.
Playing with Dolls
Formulating various futures doesn’t mean getting a group of people together and coming up with a bunch of ideas. My old professor had suggested that I be cautious about embracing the same decision-making processes that those in the design professions tended to utilize. He described an impermanent process where people think of neat things to do until – for some mysterious reason – they choose one thing that seems better than the others; like putting clothes on a doll, or various colors of windows in a building, until you get something pleasing. That is what he meant by playing with paper dolls, or what is referred to in today’s world as the Barbie Doll Syndrome.
For the record, this process shouldn’t be totally discounted. It is a wonderful practice not unlike the methods that some use in creating music and art. It is an important trait of human endeavor, part of the creative process that most developers, planners and architects utilize. It’s fun! I know, because that’s partly what I do for a living: Creating wonderful spaces where people want to live, work and play; spaces which enlighten our souls, elevate our minds, and enrich our very being. I am glad there is demand for these applications. But they don’t address the underlying basis as to why our communities developed as they have, and how they should physically evolve in the future.
The syndrome goes something like this . . . A developer, or a community, sees a parcel of land, or maybe an area that they think should be “developed or redeveloped.” They think of ways it could be utilized. The operable phrase then becomes; “Wouldn’t it be neat if . . .” Maybe a business district, maybe a residential area, maybe an entertainment district, or maybe a combination. Let’s try some different shoes on this doll. Maybe we copy what someone did in San Francisco or Walla Walla, or maybe we do something based on what the community zoning map dictates. What would it look like if we put a polka-dot dress on with red shoes and a beret? Maybe we can try a different outfit, this time with slacks and a moo-moo. Is one better than another?
Under this method of trial and error, changing the clothes on the doll or the parameters of the development may be better or it may be worse. It may be dependent upon what needs to be accomplished. But for the most part this process, in the early stages of a development, is based on the whims of the participants. Under this Barbie Doll Syndrome we become compliant and acquiescent to history. We don’t create our future, because we aren’t aware that we are selecting one. We become bystanders to history, not the creators of history. I personally don’t find this to be a good way to select a future best suited for a community, or for a real-estate development that can dramatically impact a community.
Facts About Creativity, Product Creators, and Land Use
When developing your community (or redeveloping a marine stadium), there are a couple of basic facts we need to reflect on as we consider the past, and look into the future. First, the arts wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a real need for human expression, as well as a real substantive human demand for what we create. And second, creativity is the foundation of a 3rd wave (post-industrial) economy.
This foundational certainty is different than the foundations of 1st wave (agricultural) and 2nd wave (industrial) based economies. This reality is critically important when determining various futures and selecting a desired future for your own and your community’s development–especially as it relates to economic policy, educational policy, legal reforms, political initiatives, and the development of the built environment. This means that the arts are no longer to be perceived as a luxury, as they are in 1st and 2nd wave economies. The arts are now a necessity. That doesn’t mean you need lots of art displays and galleries. It means that the arts, as an adjunct to the creative process, are vitally important to your economy’s diversification and evolution.
Those who create products create wealth–an important factor to remember in the selection of a future. A grain of rice or a widget doesn’t have much value in-and-of-itself. When you produce lots of them, serious money can be made. This reality is what paid for and physically developed communities all over the world. Same thing holds true with 1’s and 0’s. No inherent value is contained within. Yet you put billions together in CREATIVE ways and package and distribute them in CREATIVE ways, and at the push of a button you have the ability to generate serious wealth.
This too is important when deciding what future to select for your development, because today, for the first time in human civilization, there are no physical constraints to the development of products and creation of wealth. Also, it is important to remember that, within all economies, you are either net importers of goods and services or net exporters. The latter creates wealth that allows your community (or your own development) to prosper.
The implication of these facts on land-use policy and the form and function of the built environment are staggering. This reality you should consider as well when selecting a future, and when selecting guidelines for the physical development most appropriate for your community; assuming you want to diversify your economy and want to participate in creating wealth.
Above I have attempted to describe two basic futures that can be prescribed for any community. One happens on its own because no one chose to choose a future that gives direction or controls policies and expenditures. If as a result of this process you end up in a good place in the future, like what the Miami Marine Stadium did for the City of Miami years ago, that’s wonderful, and it’s serendipitous. Be aware though, the disuse we see today is the result of that serendipity.
The other route is based on selecting a future that helps to direct programs, policies and expenditures; where the likelihood of achieving a desired future is improved if not assured. (I describe this process in greater detail in my book.) That is the great promise of the future Marine Stadium, a development that could be based in post-industrial land-use and 3rd wave product creation and distribution. It is ideally situated for this purpose.
My hope is this: for all of us to embrace public and private policies which support a fiscal goal of developing a built environment that can sustain itself over the long run. To accomplish this, we should become aware of how paradigm shifts in the economy’s various sectors cause physical adaptations to take place in creating and producing goods and services. And how they should become a fundamental component in the planning process, and one of the main factors in developing strategies for developing – and redeveloping – the built environment.