Making Space for Our Sacred Cows

“Machine Space, or territory devoted primarily to the use of machines, shall be so designated when machines have priority over people in the use of territory” – Horvath, Ronald J. 1974. “Machine Space.” Geographical Review 64 (2): 167-188.

Danny Cornelissen

Photo by Danny Cornelissen, Creative Commons

ST. JOHN’S – Writing almost 40 years ago, Ronald Horvath wanted to translate technological questions into questions that were explicitly spatial and political. Today linking technology, space, and politics may not seem so strange, but even with Lewis Mumford’s writing preceding Horvath’s, this was still heady stuff at the time.

What Horvath does so well is to give our taken for granted assumptions a good shake: the car is not just a technical object, a mere tool to get us from point A to point B. The car is urban North America’s sacred cow, he writes, but “[would] an Indian imagine devoting 70 percent of downtown Delhi to cow trails and pasturage, as we do for our automobiles in Detroit and Los Angeles?”.

The language of the comparison might seem a bit anachronistic now – and Delhi’s machine space has exploded since the 70’s – but students at Memorial University (MUN) in St. John’s, where I teach Geography, love it. Suddenly the technology of the car becomes a lively thing suffused with meaning, symbolism, and myth as well as its own political and economic geographies:

“Each year we sacrifice more than 50,000 Americans to our sacred cow in traffic accident fatalities. In search of fodder to perpetuate the existence of our sacred cow, we support despotic governments in oil-rich lands”, writes Horvath.

Some good news is that here in Canada our annual sacrifice to our sacred cow is at its lowest level, since statistics have been kept. Still, we’re experiencing nearly a 9/11’s worth of traffic fatalities every year. And those despotic regimes in oil-rich lands? Well, we’re now the top crude oil exporters to the US, offering up more than double what the Saudis do according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Horvath’s approach is to map a specific form of machine space, automobile territory. His premise is simple: categorize portions of urban space into automobile space and people space. The difference? Answering who or what prevails in the event of conflict between cars and people. The results are a striking series of black and white maps. East Lansing, Michigan appears as a slightly off kilter grid allowing the circulation of cars through contiguous veins of automobile space with ample open areas to park them. People space is largely discontinuous. It is chopped, cut, and patchy. Downtown Detroit becomes a Corbusierian machine for machines to live in; people space is the exception rather than the rule.

I thought I’d take Horvath’s categories and apply them to the Memorial University campus in St. John’s, where I work, just to see what I might find. The results are stark. Here’s the campus as seen from Google Earth:

Now here’s my campus showing the automobile territory devoted to parking:

To that we can add all the space devoted to moving vehicles around the campus environs:

Tallying up the results of the map are pretty amazing. For example, Memorial University devotes more than 105,000 square meters to parking our cars. That’s equivalent to almost 13 Canadian football fields being used up just to store our cars while we’re not driving them. We devote another 79,000 square meters to driving our cars around campus. That’s nearly 10 more football fields. Compare these figures to those for some of the people space on campus: our main library is just over half a football field. Almost a football field’s worth of space goes to chemistry, physics, and other sciences. Engineering does better at a little over a football field all on its own. Back in 2006, when these satellite images, Google Earth uses, were taken, we had an outdoor track on campus. You can see it just south of the centre of images shown here. I just measured it: not quite 12,000 square meters. Two years ago it was paved over and converted into a parking lot.

My calculations are rough. For example, I eye-balled the polygons for parking lots and roads on Google Earth. Also, I only considered the footprint of buildings, which ignores that most of them are multi-story. That means I’m underestimating their true area. Don’t forget that not everyone who drives to campus can give up their car, even if they wanted to. And other transportation options, like busses need roads and parking lots too. Still, 23 football fields is an awful lot of campus space to devote to the exclusive use of one particular transportation mode, especially when 13 of those fields are just places to put our cars while we’re not using them.

MUN’s Sustainability Declaration states, in part, that the university “will minimize its adverse environmental impact while supporting the realistic needs and aspirations of individuals and communities”.  How might MUN use those 23 football fields worth of space differently to achieve its sustainability goals?  What creative solutions can be found in our communities to better balance machine space and people space?

Want to map the automobile territory in your area? Here’s how you can do it:

Use the ‘Add Polygon’ tool of Google Earth to categorize the area of your choice into automobile movement space (roads) and storage space (parking lots). You can then use free online tools like geoprocessing analyses (KML) and Speedy Converter to calculate the area devoted to each type of automobile space. You can download the Google Earth file I created to map my campus here.  Open it in a web browser, save it as a .kml file, then open it in Google Earth.

Josh Lepawsky is a new Spacing Atlantic contributor and Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at Memorial University Newfoundland in St. John’s, NL. He is interested in technology, society & space; geographies of electronics production, consumption, and disposal; geographies of cyberspace and the Information Age; and Malaysia and Southeast Asia.

Photos created through Google Earth, by Josh Lepawsky

3 comments

  1. I wonder how many other university campuses in Canada, downtown or not, are so greenspace-deficient? It’s ironic that the machine space is here measured in “football fields”: at Memorial, in seeming contradiction to university commitments to student and employee “wellness,” we are down to one (count ’em, one!) outdoor playing surface. This field is undersized, over-subscribed, and often closed to casual use. Not exactly the leafy groves of academe… most other university campuses I’ve been to in Canada provide ample greenspace for both “passive” use and formal recreation activities.

  2. Way to go Josh! Great article. I love it when we can tie our modern world to older writings, authors who have nearly predicted our current situations.

  3. It’s appalling the degree to which St. John’s has turned into a tacky, placeless suburb of itself, and the rate at which the speed of that trend is increasing.

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