Buildings and Blocks

Rural Urbanism

One might have expected an independent film like "Manufactured Landscapes" to be featured at the new Gay Street cinema, with its constituency of city dwellers, tourists, business people and University of Tennessee professors and students. For whatever reason, the decision-makers at Regal obviously don't see the market downtown for films of this sort, so I had to make the 24-mile roundtrip journey to Downtown West to take in what might be one of the most important and compelling cinematic statements of the year. While it will likely not win any prizes for box-office receipts (there were only 3 people in the room on a weekend evening screening) the film will change the way you think about the world.

It opens with a breathtaking panorama of industrialism that has to be one of the epic scenes of cinema, eerily quiet, but easily the equal in breadth and impact of those traditional battle scenes that enthrall moviegoers. This contemporary drama, though, is about a transformation that is affecting every human being on the planet. Set mostly in today's China, the film is a cinematic translation of the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian who has been traveling the world documenting the movement of societies from agrarian to industrial. In doing so, he never loses touch with the fact that Euro-American society is also in a process of transformation. Burtynsky and his colleagues put the pieces of this increasingly complex puzzle together for us in a clever and memorable way.

My viewing of the film occurred just as I was preparing to write an article on the remarkable pockets of ruralism still remaining within the boundaries of the city of Knoxville. The phenomenon is noticeable to most visitors but taken for granted by local residents until they venture out to other urban areas and are reminded that we're still a bit behind the times. What is it about our region that has enabled us to hang on to the kind of buildings and neighborhoods that have disappeared elsewhere? And how long will it be before we experience the destruction of our own traditional landscape, as do the Chinese?

For one thing, the topography of the area has not been kind to large-scale development. The lumpy green landscape makes it difficult and expensive to clear broad, flat areas for retail or residential development. While there were attempts at the beginning of the twentieth century to superimpose a grid over hilly terrain - the neighborhoods lying to the south of Sharp's Ridge are an example - such planning has resulted in serious flooding due to uncontrolled run-off of rain water, and the siting of houses on the north slopes minimizes solar gain in the winter when it is most needed. The grid as a design concept was abandoned in favor of suburbs with a more organic layout, following the contours of the hills rather than rigid rules about how to divide property.

The rainy climate of the region has added to the rural character, with luxuriant tree cover, fast growing vegetation and a traditionally agrarian economy working against the orderly tending of lawns, yards and streets. The historical tendency for people in East Tennessee to feed themselves and others results in parcels of land generally larger and farther from one another than usually found in an urban setting. The low density resulting from agricultural use of land is different than what we now call sprawl - low-density development related to an economic system based on personal-vehicle mobility and real estate speculation.

One need only visit parts of Lonsdale, Burlington (along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue), Vestal or Bearden (along Sutherland) to find neighborhoods without sidewalks, cars parked in front yards, small groceries serving pedestrian customers, farm stands, and improvised flea markets - all surprising phenomena to find within the boundary of a contemporary city. Walk a few blocks from your front door and come upon a country store that could have been built eighty years ago. It's not the Mast General Store or some Disney-like replica of the past, just a family business providing for its neighbors. Across the street is the barbershop. You'd think it were 1948 if not for the spanking new red F250 pickup parked out front. This isn't a plea to protect picturesque pockets of nostalgia, just an observation that the forces of economic transformation have not yet reached every corner of the city. Nor is it an argument to plan and design new neighborhoods that look like what might have been built in simpler times, just a consideration that our past might embody values worth preserving.

The government of China, looking to provide some version of the so-called "good life" for all of its citizens, has determined the future geo-economic mix will be 30% rural-agrarian and 70% urban-industrial, the reverse of what it is today. (By contrast, the U.S. is 77% urban.) That decision is already having startling physical consequences on the country, with larger cities like Shanghai (population 20 million) absorbing migrants in thousands of new high-rise offices and dwellings that are rapidly replacing older, traditional neighborhoods.

Knoxville, along with the rest of the urban United States, continues to be transformed physically by the movement of an economy from agrarian/industrial to service-based. Space, once the measure of our wealth, becomes the measure of our poverty. The increase in low-wage jobs, trend away from owning to renting, growth of the immigrant worker population, higher costs of land and construction, and renewed use of mass transportation systems will affect the look and feel of the city. Densification will take place, not because we necessarily want to live closer to other people, but because economic and environmental needs and concerns will push us in that direction.

We all wonder what our urban futures will look like, and find ourselves frustrated with a growth process that often seems hopelessly out of touch with basic human needs, even out of control. The lack of comprehensive planning at the state and national levels clouds the crystal ball. Somehow, it is assumed, the magic of the market will find solutions. But those solutions will not necessarily be practical or appropriate or pretty. While we can't all travel abroad to learn how others deal with these issues, we can watch "Manufactured Landscapes" (on DVD - it's no longer at the theater) or check out Burtynsky's companion book, and start thinking bigger about small things.

2007 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice. Photo: King 2 convenience store on Mercer Street in Lonsdale, a reminder of a simpler rural lifestyle