Practice What You Teach?

Buying a home in a New Urbanist neighborhood in Eugene, Oregon becomes a practical lesson on the line separating academic discussions on New Urbanism and personal lifestyle choices for Professor Sriram Khé.

Photo: Sriram Khé

As a first year graduate student at the University of Southern California I enjoyed a guest professor's presentation on urban homelessness and the role of government. So, despite the intense self- consciousness of my newness in the US, I walked up to the professor's office in order to discuss the topic in detail, and asked him how he reconciled the everyday problems of the homeless people with his own affluence, particularly when his affluence was closely tied to research and talking about the homeless. He replied that it is up to the individual to draw the line that separates personal lifestyle from social problems.

In a sense, the professor's reply is the ethical, philosophical issue that I have been struggling with this ever since my undergraduate days: how do I draw that line between social problems and my own life? Growing up in India I always felt awkward and uncomfortable when we watered our garden while squatters stood outside the fence hoping to collect a pot or two of water. Eating candies in a railway station while malnourished children begged for food was another guilt-provoking event.

Looking back, I find it rather funny that I thought I would be able to find in graduate schooling answers to such troubling questions. Many years have gone by since I earned my PhD and now as a faculty I routinely lecture, discuss, and do research on social problems. Not only am I yet to find those all-clarifying answers, but more questions keep popping up and am still searching for that "line".

The latest one resulted from our home buying experience when thanks to our new jobs my wife and I relocated to Eugene, OR from Bakersfield, CA. Buying a home in Eugene became a wonderfully practical lesson on the line separating academic discussions on New Urbanism and my personal lifestyle.

New Urbanism champions planning and building urban neighborhoods that promote a sense of community. This means that, for instance, auto garages are behind the houses so that cars are de-emphasized and neighborhoods are walkable. Until last July, my exposure to New Urbanism was through professional and journalistic publications. As a transportation planner, I keenly followed issues such as urban sprawl, smart growth, and the "Los Angelization" of urban areas. As a university faculty, I taught urban geography and planning, where my students and I discussed these topics.

But, discussions on New Urbanism were nothing more than academic exercises. As disconnected as I am from Ethiopian poverty or nanotechnology, I was equally disconnected-at a personal level-from urban sprawl and New Urbanism. In fact, every once in a while I used to pat myself on my back that by being an objective observer I was doing a good job of leading a balanced discussion in the classroom. When I became actively involved with a few local organizations that sought to influence land use planning in Bakersfield, California, the research that I did furthered my understanding of the issues; but, the research findings were just academic work.

Photo: House Photo

Thus, when we first spotted the house (photo on the left) that we eventually bought, my wife and I ignored it. Not because it was not spacious; its 1,983 sq. ft compared well with our 2,150 sq. ft. home in Bakersfield. But, the neighbor's house was too close, and the driveway to the garages behind the respective homes is a shared one. The streets are narrow, barely two lanes wide. There is practically no backyard space-after all, the house sits on a lot that is not even 5,000 sq. ft.! In other words, the house and the neighborhood were almost like the examples I would find in a textbook on New Urbanism and I was having problems with that.

However, my wife and I kept coming back to this house, and tried to picture ourselves in the house: would we be happy feeling that the neighbors are this close? How comfortable would we be sitting on the porch and exchanging more than a hello with our neighbors? Will we lose our sense of privacy? Interestingly enough, these are some of the same questions my students and I discuss in the classroom, and critics of New Urbanism raise these and other questions and argue that, therefore, consumers will not purchase such homes.

Well, even though we were not able to get rid of these insecurities, we bought the house, which is near the Willamette River-a tremendous contrast to the dry Kern River that runs through Bakersfield. In September 2003, the escrow closed, and my wife and I (and our dog, of course) moved into our new home. It is almost a year now and we couldn't be happier.

Two academic quarters after we bought the house, last spring, urban sprawl and planning were two of the topics that I covered in a course on urban geography. But this time, thanks to the personal experience with New Urbanism triggered by the experience of home-buying, I had to consciously make sure that I was an objective observer in the classroom and discussed all the aspects of the controversy without indicating my own personal preferences. As the discussion neared its end, I began wondering whether for the first time I had figured out where to draw that magical line between my academic life and personal decisions.

I was pretty excited, and a tad smug, about this sense of accomplishment until Katie in the front row (of course!) asked me, "Francesca and I were talking the other day about you, Dr. Khé. How come you don't drive a small car but drive a gas-guzzling Jeep Cherokee instead?"

For a moment it seemed as though Katie's question had set me back to when I started graduate school-trying to draw the line that separates academic discussions and personal lives. But, the long summer break has helped me recognize that the troubling questions never stop coming; they merely morph from homelessness to New Urbanism to something else. And perhaps academic life means a continuous attempt to redraw the line that separates what I teach from how I live.


Sriram Khé is an Associate Professor of Geography at Western Oregon University . Prior to this, he taught at California State University-Bakersfield , and was an Associate Planner with the Kern Council of Governments.

Comments

Comments

Writing

Sriram

You write extremely well. A good article.

We are most pleased that you are settled in a new environment and still have a brilliant , piercing and questioning mind about many interdisciplinary relationships.

Finding a specific line between presriptive urban theories and living realities is never retricted by the magic of "willing" a newly devised urban design.

The future can only be "lined" by means of a pencil in hand. Thus guided by thoughts one merges the three principles of graphics with alphabetics and unfortunately numerics into a satisfactory built form for humans to occupy, to move therein, as well as, to arrive and depart therefrom. This continues to be our living challenge.

May God shine through you in these endeavours of yours.

Graham

Our society's use of resources

This is good insight and self awareness. If we do not practice what we preach it is a sign of mental illness. That is not to say that we can not have our ideals while we live in the not-so-ideal, but at what point are your ideals, that you do not endeavor to see through daily toil to bring to fruition, begin to erode ones psyche lending to either a split personality or one that becomes depressed due to the deepening feeling over time of helplessness? To keep a keen sense of "what can be" in an 'as it is' world takes on-going application of 'reality checking'. I am a firm believer that what can be imagined, can be. But like a recipe for a good dish, the recipe, writing it out and reciting it alone never brings forth the final product. And enjoying the journey of course is a good part of the healthy approach. Having said all this, not meant as a non-sequitor, but something that has always baffled me, why in any community where so much money and resources are spent caring for millions of acres of plants around our state not to mention our country, why is it these landscape areas are not planted with fruits and vegatables? Think of the harvest! This simple act could solve a good portion of our nutrition/food deliemma!
Cheers,
Anthony

Values and childhood lifestyles

A very provocative article, making all of us think a bit more about our values, both in theory and practice.
I personnaly like your home in the picture. It would suit my wife and me just fine.
Our 1500 sq. ft tract home (built 1952) in which my wife and I have lived since 1977 and raised our two children has suited our values, lifestyle, and finances just fine. Especially when we walked our dog regularly and our kids played on the sidewalks, we knew nearly everyone on our street and the next streets over and found this very satisfying. Sidewalks are great! We felt comfortable about our home, unusually modest for a professor, because neither of us grew up in large or fancy or new houses and neither of us defined success in terms of income or size of home. This freed up money for other things, including a second home in the mountains for a while.
I have often joked with colleagues that when visiting university trustees or legislators come to campus they should be entertained at my house rather than at the expansive, lavish home and grounds of some university administrator, to imply to the visiting dignitaries that professors are not getting enough pay.
Incidentally, on a 2-month trip to India, traveling by land from Kashmir to the southern tip of the country, I found a way of drawing the line -- of dealing with my relative wealth and the great need of the people I was seeing each day. Each day I gave all loose change in my pocket to the first person who asked me, and after that I gave no more to anyone for the rest of that day. This seemed to me a good compromise and permitted me to say "no" with greater firmness than if I was unsure in my own mind when and how much I should give.

responses to comments

hi folks:

thanks for your comments. thx to cyberspace we are able to have a discussion on this topic; i can't imagine what we did prior to this!

if i may respond to some of the comments:
1. i suppose it is not only in academia that there could be a gulf between what we teach and what we practice. it could very well be the case with planning practitioners too. so, yes, i concur with the view that in any walk of life it will be neat not to have the divide.

2. the development is a new one indeed. our home is almost six years old. it is actually in a high density area: across the street, and on an adjacent proprty, are huge apartment complexes. the development is also next door to a catholic high school. the "unbounded" side is the willamette river. the development has homes built in the 1930 "craftsman style" modernized versions, and a few more "mainstream" homes that are closer to the river. apparently these 1930 homes were also profiled in an architecture magazine a couple of years ago.

3. initially we were concerned that the development reminded us of the movie "the truman show". the compactness and the neatness of the development, and the retro style made us wonder if the entire thing was a show. it was definitely a culture shock we had to either consciously or unconsciously deal with before we could bid on the house.

even before we placed a bid, when we repeatedly kept walking to the development, we sensed that the people there were more gregarious and friendly compared to the average neighbor. the development is gated; but, one of the owners, who had no clue about us other than the fact that we were considering buying a home there, gladly volunteered to us the access code to open the gate. the people sitting on the porches (it was mid summer when we were home hunting) seemed to be friendly.

while the friendliness appealed to us, it all the more reminded us of the "truman show". the anonymity that the typical tract-home development had offered us had, i think, conditioned us into a way of thinking and behavior that made us very cautious!

but, it soon became clear that this was no superficial friendliness, nor was it anywhere near what could become interfering. in one sense, we therefore, had the luxury of walking up the property for more than a couple of weeks and get used to the development before we even placed the bid.

i suspect that in most cases of new urbanist developments, people do not have this opportunity. for that matter, this is the case with any home we buy--sometimes we find out after the fact that we do not enjoy the home. but, with new urbanism, because it is so much contrary to the "mainstream" i am now convinced that people will be way more cautious than ever.
turns out that we made the right choice. we now know more neighbors here (in a year now) than in our old place (where we lived for ten years). we have had dinners with some of our neighbors, and been to parties at a few others'.

sriram :-)

"... couldn't be happier"

I enjoyed your article and would be very interested to learn the reasons why your wife you (and pooch, of course) "couldn't be happier" in your new home. Is it the New Urbanist qualities themselves or (for example), can you walk to work, the kitchen has granite countertops, thankfully your neighbors are quiet, the Willamette actually contains water (!) - or any number of reasons that aren't related to the modest scale of the house or neighborhood settlement pattern.

Off-topic a bit, but I recently picked up the premier issue of a mass-market magazine called "Cottage Living," which (in effect) espouses New Urbanist principles. It showcases bungalows and cottage communities old & new. One article discusses the role of roof pitch and dormers to create liveable attic space. An article about cottage-community developers in the Pacific Northwest includes a discussion of zoning issues. All quite fascinating! (Delicious recipe for Mac & Cheese too...)

And "they" said everyone wants a McMansion! New Urbanist principles are finding life outside academia and Celebration. As evidenced by this magazine, they're making an impression on some builders - as well as on Madison Avenue. Powerful combination - and I predict that demand for cottage-community developments is sure to follow.

New urbanism?

Excellent op-ed. In looking at the photo of your new home, however, I find it difficult to determine whether it is located in a pre-WWII neighborhood, or a newly created (or in-filled) "new urbanist" neighborhood. Could you please clarify?

drawing the line

Why suggest that this "magical" line only applies to those in academic roles? Shouldn't everyone be concious of how they "live" and whether or not it is in alignment with what they profess to belive in? Wouldn't it be wonderful if people's actions truly supported how they think "others" should behave?

Very Good

This is a wonderfully refreshing piece and really highlights a danger of our profession: the need to practice at least some of what we preach. It's OK to say what the ideal is as long as we admit it may be hard to reach.

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