Plumb Lines

March 30, 2009

Unachievable Urbanism

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:57 pm

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 sisleyUrbanism 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. auray1There 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.”

David Schaengold

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10 Comments »

  1. But without compromise what do we have? Extreme solutions with no practical implementation. I suppose “compromise” is a sort of dirty word in a sense, but it’s also the grease of politics and to some degree of tradition. Tradition and policy are always compromised as progress and conservatism collide; as federalism and localism collide; and so forth. So the question rightly asked would be “Compromise where? How?” And in that regard I come up woefully short on good answers. Thanks for the mention and the thoughtful response.

    Cheers!

    Comment by E.D. Kain — March 31, 2009 @ 12:04 am

  2. I second everything that the estimable Mr. Kain says.

    Perhaps naïvely, I’ll propose that it all starts with this — with conversation amongst (almost-)-like-minded folk, as we come to compromise on the generally smaller concerns (or perhaps never fully agree, deciding instead to fight common enemies rather than to waste time bickering, presently, anyhow, over minutiae) and then work to flush out, over time — Rome —a fine city, I hear — was not, I’m told, constructed in a mere twenty-four hours. We’ll not figure out how to save our communities, let alone do the actual saving, with much rapidity; and as I noted in a follow-up comment to the post to which you so kindly linked, I’ fine with this. Slow and steady, and all that jazz.

    The more we contemplate this and discuss it — online, regrettably; I’d prefer over pints of local brew — and engage constructively those who disagree, the more likely we are, eventually, to fix things.

    Comment by nathancontramundi — March 31, 2009 @ 2:02 am

  3. Thanks for the comments. Talking to each other is certainly a good thing in itself, even if over the blogs (two cheers for glocalism, etc), but I am wholly pessimistic about the prospects for structural change. This leave us, as Kain says, without many options if we eschew extreme solutions without practical implications, but it may be the case that there’s nothing we can in fact do about the march of bureaucracy and deracination. Every social movement can be co-opted. As Professor Deneen is fond of pointing out, even the student protest movement started out at Berkeley as a defense of the liberal arts and localism against industrial-bureaucratic capitalism.

    Comment by David Schaengold — March 31, 2009 @ 8:46 am

  4. David wrote:
    “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.”

    I don’t know what style that is, but you’re dead right that rural villages and urban neighborhoods share something essential. A lot of people don’t get that. What they share, if they are to be sustainable, is walkabilty. That entails compactness, mixed use, safe civic spaces including streets, and a connected network of thoroughfares, including passages, paths, and alleys or lanes. For the elegant and pragmatic solutions you seek, consider the planning framework known as the Transect. Visit http://www.transect.org for freeware planning & design tools and policy reforms.
    Cheers, Sandy

    Comment by Sandy Sorlien — March 31, 2009 @ 9:03 am

  5. Patrick Deneen has also pointed out, I think rightly, that any kind of reform begins with ‘nudging’ the cultural ship in a certain direction. Very slight corrections in course can, over time, have an effect. I don’t know what, exactly, this would entail. Still, I think it’s worth our time to seek small fixes and pursue compromises in which we always gain a little more.

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — March 31, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

  6. I am very fond of radical responses (“solutions” is a misleading term that suggests more closure than one can expect in hac lacrimarum valle) to contemporary challenges, but “radical,” as I’m sure everyone reading this recognizes, need not mean violent or even confrontational. And despite the genuine novelty of our historical situation, I think many of us will be disappointed by the boring familiarity of most of the strategies that will help save us.

    For instance, out in the fertile vastness of America (Oklahoma to be exact) we have the Benedictines of Clear Creek: http://www.clearcreekmonks.org/aboutcc.htm. At present they are far from being a self-sufficient medieval village (they do not even have schools), but I expect that the model of peace they strive to create will be more and more attractive and spawn distinctly un-Millian ‘experiments in living.’

    As for structural changes, I agree it’s not clear what to do, but I think if we can dethrone ‘growth’ as the main political imperative (and this is possible only after a titanic effort of consistent and convincing public argument, if it is possible at all) we will find all sorts of interesting choices suddenly on the table. For instance, something as simple as restricting hours of operation of businesses, European-style, so as to keep family men competitive, would change the cultural tone in a big way.

    Comment by Keith Staples — March 31, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

  7. Keep your eyes on Britain with the approach of Cameron and his “radical social revolution.” A lot of what the Red Tories are doing is right in line with this conversation we’re having. It will be interesting to see how any (if at all) of this is implemented there under Cameron’s Prime Ministership. I like Cameron, I have to admit. I’m rarely excited about politicians, but Cameron has real potential.

    Comment by E.D. Kain — March 31, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

  8. I look forward both to Keith’s development of his ideas about radical responses and to Cameron’s election. I suspect that Europe may have more cultural resources held in reserve than we do.

    Comment by David Schaengold — April 1, 2009 @ 9:01 am

  9. […] Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:52 am Over at the comments section of my recent post on urbanism there’s the germ of a discussion about what the proper response to modernity […]

    Pingback by Radicalism against Revolution « Plumb Lines — April 1, 2009 @ 10:52 am

  10. […] engaged in a couple of really great discussions that began over at the League, and stemming from those conversations, I’m going to write a […]

    Pingback by Coming This Weekend « Nathancontramundi — April 1, 2009 @ 9:29 pm


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