Time To Change
Drive through the fringe of any city in North America and you will find a standardized world of big box stores, fast food outlets, and row upon row of identical streets filled with almost identical houses. It doesn’t matter if you are in Calgary, Phoenix, Toronto, Atlanta, Vancouver, or Orange County. In fact, it can sometimes be difficult to tell exactly where you are because all of these places look so much the same. Like fast food, the familiarity of knowing what we can expect in almost every new suburb on the continent comes at the cost of a mind numbing blandness of experience.
Over the past sixty years, the task of creating houses and new communities has become a very big business dominated by land developers, production house builders, real estate agencies and big box suppliers. These industries treat the house and neighborhood as nothing more than commodities to be produced at the lowest possible cost and sold for the highest possible price. As with other commodities, sophisticated marketing programs are used to convince us that the one-size-fits-all houses that they are selling are actually unique, exciting, and exactly what we need.
These big businesses build for profit instead of people. The result is a standardized cookie cutter world that is boring, wasteful and, all too often, just plain ugly. We have become a land of home buyers instead of home makers and we find ourselves trapped in a situation that seems to have no escape. Marketing images promise us a place that will meet our broader emotional and social expectations of home. The reality, however, is only a shallow version of the original sales pitch. This dissatisfaction breeds desire and before too long we are once again trying to quench our deep yearning for a real home with the purchase of yet another, albeit larger and fancier, commodified house.
As an architect and academic, I know that there are pockets of resistance to this industrialized ready made approach to housing. There are architects, landscape architects and designers around the world who are creating beautiful projects that sensitively respond to their location, respect their materiality and seamlessly support the daily life of their inhabitants. There are also product designers, craftspeople and manufacturers who care about the things they make and create functional objects of beauty and grace. Most importantly, there are many people who aren’t design professionals who have rejected the system and discovered new ways to create their own great places to live. Unfortunately, these projects, products and people usually exist in isolation and fail to register as viable alternatives to the conventional residential production industry.
Slow Home is a way to change this situation.It is a refreshing and much need alternative to land developers, production home builders, real estate agencies, and big box suppliers. As a community based resource network of projects, products and people working outside of these industries, Slow Home empowers individuals to take control of their home and create a place that fits the way they really want to live.
From Fast To Slow
The distinction between fast food and slow food is an easy one to make. Even if we are not exactly sure what slow food might be, we are all familiar enough with fast food to recognize the point that is being made. Fast food is one of our collective dirty little secrets. We eat 40% of our meals outside of the home, most of them at fast food restaurants. One in four of us visit a fast food restaurant every day. French fires are the most eaten vegetable in North America and all together we eat more than 1,000,000 animals an hour. We spend more than $110 billion a year on fast food. This is even more interesting when compared to the $3 billion we spent in 1972.
The recent release of books like Fast Food Nation, The McDonaldization of Society, and Don’t Eat This Book – Fast Food And The Supersizing of America, as well as the academy award nominated documentary Supersize Me have brought much needed public attention to the negative impact of the fast food restaurant industry on both our personal health and the well being of our communities.
The statistics are sobering. Sixty percent of us are overweight or obese and the American Surgeon General has stated that fast food is a major contributor to this obesity epidemic. One in every three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes, a disease commonly associated with obesity, and one that can reduce life expectancy by 12 – 27 years. According to Eric Schlosser, the effects are equally disturbing from a social context.
“An estimated one out of every eight workers in the United States has at some point been employed by McDonald’s... (It) operates more playgrounds than any other private entity in the United States. It is one of the nation’s largest distributors of toys. A survey of American schoolchildren found that 96% could identify Ronald McDonald. The only fictional character with a higher degree of recognition was Santa Claus. The impact of McDonald’s on the way we live is hard to overstate. The Golden Arches are now more widely recognized than the Christian cross.”(1)
While fast food restaurants are perhaps the most visible face of the problem for the average person, they are really only the tip of the iceberg. The agriculture and food processing industries that provide almost all of the food we eat outside of the fast food chains are also causing problems; not just for us but for the environment as well. Intensive agriculture is a major cause of water pollution and livestock degradation. Genetically modified crops are better able to survive long haul transportation but have almost no taste, reduced food value, and are dangerous to natural indigenous species. Mass produced beef, and now even some vegetables, reach the supermarket contaminated with dangerous pathogens. It is estimated that in Britain, taxpayers spend over $5 billion (Cdn.) annually to repair the damage to the environment and human health done by industrialized agriculture.
As discussed more fully in last week’s entry, slow food stands for everything that fast food does not. It promotes a re-acquaintance with the way we used to think about food. Instead of seeing food as only a commodity that is instantly available at any time and at any place, slow food promotes the advantages of being more involved with the things we eat. By giving more attention to where our food comes from, taking more care in how it is prepared, and being more thoughtful of the time spent enjoying our meals, it argues that we will not only be healthier and happier, we will help reduce the damage being done to the environment and our culture.
More recently, the idea of fast and slow has expanded beyond the realm of food to encompass a more general cultural critique. Carl Honore, in his book, In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging The Cult of Speed, observes that an increasing number of people are recognizing the frustrations and limitations of our over stressed daily lives.
“The backlash against speed is moving into the mainstream with more urgency than ever before. Down at the grass roots, in kitchens, offices, concert halls, factories, gyms, bedrooms, neighborhoods, art galleries, hospitals, leisure centres, and schools near you, more and more people are refusing to accept the diktat that faster is always betters. And in their many and diverse acts of deceleration lie the seeds of the global Slow movement.”(2)
Slow medicine is a reaction against the high technology drug centred approach of conventional medical practice and promotes a more holistic philosophy to health. Slow cities is an Italian movement that seeks to create livable urban environments in which cars are limited and residences, workplaces, shops and schools are within reasonable walking distance to each other. Slow sex promotes the channeling of sexual energy into better sex and a more perfect spiritual union with your partner while slow leisure trades off extreme sports for activities that allow one to contemplate, relax and sometimes, just do nothing. To that list I want to add the voice of Slow Home. It promotes a strategy for individuals to take more responsibility and care for the places they call home. By taking control of home away from the big business interests of land developers, mass production builders, organized real estate and big box retailers we become more than just passive consumers awaiting the next round of super-sized housing products.
In all of these contexts, fast and slow mean more than just describing a rate of change. According to Honore,
“They are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity of quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality over quantity. It is about making real and meaning connections – with people, culture, work, food, everything.”(3)
However, this does not mean that everything in life suddenly moves at a snail’s pace. Nor does it mean a rejection of technology or a naïve desire to move everything back to some pre-industrial utopia. As Honore concludes,
“On the contrary, the movement is made up of people like you and me, people who want to live better in a fast-paced world. That is why the Slow philosophy can be summed up in a single word: balance. Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for. Seek to live at what musicians call the tempo giusto – the right speed.”(4)
(1) Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, p. 4.
(2) Carl Honoree, In Praise of Slow, Toronto: Random House, 2004, p.14.
(3) Ibid, p.14.
(4) Ibid, p. 15.
The Slow Food Movement
The first McDonald’s in Rome opened in 1986, at the base of the historic Spanish Steps in the heart of the ancient city. I was working in Milan at the time, a young architectural graduate with two small children. We happened to be in Rome the week the restaurant opened and I followed with great interest the protests that arose over the latest invasion by the most American of fast food companies. Those arguments were lost on my four year old daughter of course. She simply wanted a Big Mac and insisted that we go on opening day. For Alex and her younger brother Houston, it was like a dream come true. After six months of unfamiliar food, they could at last eat something that reminded them of home. We braved the madness of young Romans flocking to this latest fad and, in the shadow of de Sanctis’ famous public staircase, sat down with our Big Macs, fries, and Cokes.
After my first bite I realized that my children were right, it was just like being at home. Unnervingly perhaps, it was also the same as being anywhere. The taste, the smell, the wrapper, the cartoon imagery, the architecture, the uncomfortable chairs and the plastic smiles of the staff behind the counter merged into a commodified experience that was identical to every other McDonald’s I had ever been in. For my kids, that was exactly the point. Children find safety and comfort in experiences that are precisely what they expect, particularly when those experiences can be exactly repeated over and over again. From their point of view, the strictly delimited and standardized taste of a Big Mac was good in the same way that reading the same story book every night was good. No matter how many times you read it, the end is always the same. Children find delight and reassurance in knowing absolutely what is going to happen when they turn the page. The difference, of course is that while we all grow out of children’s fairy tales, the same can not be said for fast food.
The result of this has been devastating. According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, the enormous growth of the fast food industry has not only affected our diets, it has also helped to transform “our landscape, economy, workforce, and popular culture. Fast food and its consequences have become inescapable, regardless of whether you eat it twice a day, try to avoid it, or have never taken a single bite.” (1)
This is because producing, preparing and distributing food within a standardized industrial process has become such a tremendous economic success that most other industries, including residential construction, have followed suit. According to Schlosser,
“The basic thinking behind fast food has become the operating system of today’s retail economy, wiping out small businesses, obliterating regional differences, and spreading identical stores throughout the country like a self replicating code… America’s main streets and malls now boast the same Pizza Huts and Taco Bells, Gaps and Banana Republics, Starbucks and Jiffy Lubes, Foot Lockers, Snip N Clips, Sunglass Huts, and Hobbytown USAs. Almost every facet of American life has now been franchised or chained. From the maternity ward at a Columbia/ HCA Hospital to an embalming room owned by Service Corporation International – “the world’s largest provider of death care services,” based in Houston, Texas, which, since 1968 has grown to include 3,823 funeral homes, 523 cemeteries, and 198 crematoriums, and which today handles the final remains of one out of every nine Americans - A person can now go from the cradle to the grave without spending a nickel at an independently owned business.”(2)
Pockets of resistance to this mind numbingly standardized world exist. Slow Food, the first and perhaps best known of these, arose in reaction to the very McDonald’s I visited with my children. I am not sure if its founder, Carlo Petrini, was also in attendance on that opening day, but I do know that the threat it represented to the place of good food in Italian culture was his impetus for the creation of the Slow Food movement.
Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slow, states that, “as the name suggests, the movement stands for everything that McDonald’s does not: fresh, local, seasonal produce; recipes handed down through the generations, sustainable farming; artisanal production; leisurely dining with family and friends.”(3)
The Slow Food Movement’s goal is to “counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” (4) With over 80,000 members around the world, Slow Food is actively pursuing its threefold mission of defending bio-diversity, spreading taste education, and connecting producers of quality food and the public.
Slow Food is both an international organization headquartered in Italy and a series of local chapters, or convivia, who work on the ground within their own particular culture. Calgary is home to one of the nineteen convivia in Canada. Like the other chapters, Slow Food Calgary produces many education and entertainment events over the course of the year that promote local food products, the restaurateurs and processors who use them, and the pleasures of preparing and eating good food.
The Slow Food philosophy is centered on a commitment to increasing the level of involvement that the average person has with the food they eat. Nowhere is this more evident than in their use of the term ‘co-producer’ rather than the more typical term ‘consumer’ when speaking of the public. According to their website, “We consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers, because by being informed about how our food is produced and actively supporting those who produce it, we become a part of and a partner in the production process.”(5)
Slow Food is an opportunity for each of us to re-acquaint ourselves with the role that food can, and should play in our lives. By becoming more involved, we start to care more about where the things we eat come from, how they are prepared and enjoyed. We also become less willing to let the mechanized food industry just continue to do whatever it wants. In this way the choices we make and the actions we take in the simple everyday act of eating become acts of resistance against our overly commodified, too fast world.
(1) Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, p. 7.
(2) Ibid, p. 8.
(3) Carl Honoree, In Praise of Slow, Toronto: Random House, 2004, p.59.
To Learn More
Fast Food Fast Houses
During the early post war years in Southern California, Carl Karcher, Richard McDonald and Glen Bell were getting ready to change the face of Twentieth Century food with the creation of the first fast food restaurants - Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s, and Taco Bell. At approximately the same time in Pennsylvania, Charles Levitt was starting a revolution in North American city building with the creation of Levittown, the first comprehensively planned and mass- constructed suburban neighborhood. Before this time, most people in North America living outside of the urban centers either built their own house or hired one of the many local builders working in their area. These small, usually individually operated, companies would build between 2-10 houses each year, usually in the neighborhoods in which they themselves lived. The development of higher density projects in the urban cores, ranging from attached row housing to mid rise apartment blocks, was obviously more organized but still relied on local developers to implement the projects.
This all changed with the flush baby boom economy of post war North America. It needed goods and services that were cheap and readily available and both industrialized food and industrialized housing arose as direct responses to this need. Both responded with uniform standardized products that emphasized quantity over quality and produced through a tightly integrated system of production, marketing, distribution and sales.
The success of these industries has been staggering. Huge real estate development companies dominate the North American housing market. Since World War II, the housing stock in North America has increased from 34.9 million units to 105.5 million. The continent has the largest amount of private housing space/ person in the history of civilization with the size of the average home more than doubling since 1945 and one quarter of households having seven or more rooms. Housing has become a hallmark of national economic policy and single family housing starts are an important indicator of economic growth. The noted architectural critic Dolores Hayden observes that housing in North America, “is a big, big business (and the) banking, real estate, manufacturing, and transportation interests are intimately involved.” (1) As discussed in more detail in a previous column, our food supply has been transformed in a similar manner. According to Eric Schlosser, author Fast Food Nation,
“McDonald’s annually hires more people than any other North American organization, public or private. It is the largest purchaser of beef, pork and potatoes and the largest owner of retail property in the world… A generation ago, three quarters of the money used to buy food in North America was spent to prepare meals at home. Today, about half of the money used to buy food is spent at restaurants – mainly fast food restaurants.” (2)
Fast food and fast housing are shaped by one of modernism’s core philosophies - the promise to make life better by making it easier. This powerful promise continues to capture the imagination of the majority of people, despite the mounting evidence of just how much harm it has wrought.
Most of the development created by the fast housing industry has resulted in environmentally unsustainable, culturally homogenous neighborhoods of single family detached houses and strip retail malls. 70% of the population resides in this seemingly endless landscape of suburban sprawl largely “unaware of the subtle and not-so subtle ramifications of its presence in their lives.”(3)
According to Dolores Hayden,
“(North America) has a housing crisis of disturbing complexity, a crisis that, in different ways, affects rich and poor, male and female, young and old, people of color and white Americans. We have not merely a housing shortage, but a broader set of unmet needs caused by the efforts of the entire society to fit itself into a housing pattern that reflects the dreams of the mid Nineteenth Century better than the realities of the Twenty-first Century.”(4)
The impact of the fast food industry is equally disturbing. McDonald’s has about 28,000 restaurants worldwide and opens almost 2,000 new ones each year. It is responsible for 90% of the new jobs created each year. Within a 30 year time span, fast food’s low paying service sector has become a major component of our economy. The majority of the population is overweight and the frequency of diseases associated with obesity such as early onset diabetes and high cholesterol is rising rapidly. The cost of these problems to both personal well being and the health system is becoming immense.
The world of ever expanding girth, of both our waistlines and our cities, is a testament to the problem. Easier is not better its just easier. Moreover, in examining the consequences of this problem, easier actually brings us to the opposite of better.
The fast home industry markets its cookie cutter houses and instant neighborhoods with a combination of “theatre, show business, seduction and fashion. Like clothing lines, new houses are sold through the seductive power of “models” – or, in the sense of the luxury home, supermodels, tricked out in fashionable and flattering outfits.” (5)
Walking in to the latest ‘Street of Dreams’ showcase is like being a kid in a candy store where everything is promised and nothing denied, at least until you get to the cash register. These sophisticated marketing programs promise to make what for many people is the largest and most significant financial transaction of their lives, easy, safe and entertaining. They fail to tell us what the real costs are.
Low down payments and easy to obtain long term financing produce a false sense of affordability by minimizing short term economic stress and hiding the real cost of the transaction. A limited number of carefully selected optional features and finishes provide the illusion of choice while ensuring that no one is able to stray too far from the expected norm. Deed restrictions on house size, lot layout and exterior materials control the demographic profile of the neighborhood by fixing the price point to a narrow range. Synthetic materials and maintenance free landscapes promise to alleviate household chores and the skill required to complete them. Strictly limited commercial usage ensures that only the most innocuous of retail uses can be ever encountered. Finally, community concierges, hired by the developer, set up only those community programs so inane, such as little league teams and bake sales, as to offend no one.
(1) Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream, New York, WW Norton, p.54
(2) Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, p. 7.
(3) William Leach, Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life, New York: Vintage Books, 1999, p.13.
(4) Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream, p.30.
(5) Marjorie Garber, Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses, New York: Pantheon Books, 2000, p.23.