Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Statement of Purpose

I was rereading my statement of purpose for grad school tonight and wanted to share it:

Statement of Purpose

When I swore my oath and joined the Navy, it was late 2003. I had just graduated with a degree in political science and the nation, if it was critical of the war in Iraq, was still somewhat hopeful. The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly were publishing articles about junior military officers participating in Afghan tribal councils and I had just finished reading A Bell for Adano. In school Iʼd been studying nation building, the imagery and rhetoric former colonial and Soviet states used to connect to their histories, and the maneuvers of applicant states and multi-nation federations. I couldnʼt wait to be a part of all I had studied and I thought the military was the best, most hands-on way to get involved. 

After graduation, I was looking for the largest lever with which to do good work. And, for a time, it seemed Iʼd found it in the Navy. I was able to participate in multi-nation search-and-rescue exercises, goodwill tours and humanitarian missions. All our efforts were intended to build relationships. I remember standing at attention on our flight deck in Portugal listening to a four-star admiral tell us we were preparing for future “non-wars.” But it was becoming very clear to me that you canʼt use a destructive force to construct a new anything. It felt like we were a tyrannosaurus rex trying to throw a clay pot. We could barely reach the wheel and when we did our claws fouled it up. 

What I did see, though, during my travels with the Navy, was the way people were living around the world and how different it was from what I knew, what I thought was normal and what Iʼd thought was best. And I wondered why we didnʼt have these things back home: trains, small shops and fresh markets, bicycle commuters, streets full of people. I wanted to understand how the design of these cities was different from the ones in which Iʼd grown up and lived. 

At the time, my wife and I were stationed in Norfolk, VA and I was riding my bike to the ship every day. I wanted to understand the construction of my city. Why were our few sidewalks in poor repair? Why were there no bike lanes? Why was fully one-fourth of our downtown a mall and why did we have to cross a highway to find a grocery store? 

My window into understanding my city was cycling. From a bicycle, streets, sidewalks, parking lots, trains, bridges, tunnels, drive-throughs, garages, alleys, speed bumps, all take on a different significance. I began to understand how the way in which people move around in a city determines the shape of a cityʼs development and its patterns of life. 

Because of high fuel prices transportation has become a trendy subject. But far too often, I believe, we seek technological solutions that only fix the symptoms of our real problems. I want to find design answers to our transportation needs that donʼt just address the price of fuel but that also respond to the loneliness of traffic jams and empty sidewalks, the slavery of car loans, the helplessness of the young and elderly who canʼt drive and the compartmentalization of our communities into zones and functions. 

At the University of Texas I want to learn how cities are designed and how they should and could be designed to engender resiliency, health, compassion and efficiency. I want to study in greater depth transportation systems and how they can be designed to reflect our values of liberty and diversity and how these systems can be used to support a cityʼs development goals. I want to learn how to design communities to use sustainable transportation and to integrate those designs into existing communities, especially communities in the Western United States. 

I want to learn how to create compassionate transportation systems that donʼt foster conflict between drivers and cyclists and pedestrians and public transportation. These modes of transport should not be mutually exclusive and donʼt have to be. I want to learn to develop and incorporate community design that treats streets as multifunctional, as more than just a tool to drive from point A to point B, but rather as a public space, a critical element of the city and a resource to serve its citizens. So, streets can be how we travel, how we exercise and recreate, where we meet, how we introduce ourselves to visitors, the space in which we transition from our homes to our work. Our transportation models can be designed to not deliver workers exhausted and angry to work and home again in the evening. They can be an inspiring place full of human interaction. 

I want to learn to develop plans that account for and celebrate the complexity of our communities and how we move within them. The communities in which I grew up were compartmentalized into zones of live, work, play and commute between each of these. I want to learn better designs that restore the integrity of a community and bring these severed elements back together into a harmonious whole. I want to learn to design resilient models that reflect thought on energy usage and population growth; designs that address our current challenges and are adaptable to the ones we have not yet faced; designs that discourage sprawl and homogeneity and anonymity and encourage human interaction and conservation. 

In the power of our technology and in our heritage of movement there are solutions to the isolation and inefficiencies of the current transportation culture. Traveling, I saw the kind of integration and opportunity I want to see back home, but for any design to be successful here it has to address our specific needs and employ our particular talents and assets. This is what I want to study in the University of Texas School of Architecture Community and Regional Planning Program.