I read E.D. Kain’s delightful anti-federalist, new urbanist, distributist, localist, Jeffersonianist post with great interest. Having too much to say, I present some scattered thoughts:
1. Nathan Origer’s point about the need for an uncoerced form of New Urbanism can’t be repeated often enough, though I’m not sure “uncoerced” is exactly the right word. The New Urbanists I’ve met who were original signers of the charter are all fans of Jane Jacobs, and I think most of the people who talk and write daily about New Urbanism believe that cities should be sites of unplanned contact and creative chaos. Most of the actual planners I’ve talked to, however, still believe that if only they were given more control, cities would be lovely and perfect. In part, this is the fault of their role in public policy. There probably should not be any person whose job it is to think about what a whole city should look like in advance, or even a whole district. The very idea seems bizarre and counter-productive. One of the manifold charms of cities is that no one knows what will happen in them — architecturally, politically, aesthetically, religiously. Sometimes you get the Symbolists in Paris, sometimes you get Savonarola in Florence, and sometimes you get the Sagrada Familia.
2. Both Kain and Origer see the link between the homogenization of the built environment and certain economic structures. New Urbanism, specifically, has actually been coopted by the forces of homogenization. Where once there was Aldi, now there is a Whole Foods. That Whole Foods is not quite as gigantic and corporate as other grocery stores is irrelevant in the long run. Either Whole Foods will become progressively more gigantic and bureaucratic, or a larger, more bureaucratic competitor will arrive, steal its market of would-be crunchies and put Whole Foods out of business.
3. It’s easy and appealing to visualize what a localist urbanism looks like. Communities govern their economies, cultures, and built environments along Jeffersonian ward-republican lines, with many decisions made by direct or nearly direct democracy. In the country these communities are villages; in the city they are neighborhoods. The food-production of these communities is sustainable (maybe), small businesses are vigorously protected, and due latitude is given to heteronomy of all sorts. What’s not easy is to imagine how to get there. There are no elegant and pragmatic Ryan-Avent-style policy solutions that will make our communities look like that. Rationalized, bureaucratic capitalism, which I take to be the fundamental nemesis of localism, has its own momentum. We localists can walk alongside the libertarians and the progressive pro-market urbanists for a few steps, because our federal and state governments systematically subsidize sprawl and the destruction of whatever is local (viz. CPSIA, New Hampshire HB367, the war on raw milk, mindless road “improvements,” and on and on until we need a stiff drink), but the modern bureaucratic state isn’t the real culprit. The depredations of public bureaucracies are obvious because they are heavy-handed. The work of corporate bureaucracies is much subtler, and more powerful in shaping the character of the individual men and women who make communities. Despite the promising resurgence of local-spiritedness on the blogs, I’m afraid I can’t agree with Kain that “the answer to much of this lies in compromise.”