Monday, December 04, 2006

Mel Webber

UC Berkeley's Mel Webber died in late November at age 86. Long and productive careers are not easily summarized and they touch many bases.

Webber wrote about "community without propinquity" in 1963, suggesting that old notions of place and proximity had been supplanted by a new ease of communication and transportation. And this was some years before email, the internet and today's teleconferencing and virtual communities. Indeed, Webber wrote about "non-place realms" long before any of this.

This week's Economist evokes the many smiliarities of autos and cel phones ("Phones are the new cars"). Here are just two: Each can connect all places to all places, explaining their popularity; and each is a major fashion statement, being replaced much more often than wear and tear would require.

Oddly Webber also worked to bring 1890s-era transportation to the SF Bay Area in the form of BART -- and a few years after that he showed (and admitted) that this had been all wrong.

Our communities evolve in ways that have little to do with big ideas and big plans. And that's a good thing. The big ideas and big plans, however, do leave a legacy of costs. Sometimes there is also a legacy of lessons learned. Webber was quick to admit that his BART work was a mistake.