David Byrne’s longstanding love for good urban patterns has done much to advance a worthy cause. But I found myself shaking my head at this piece in the Wall Street Journal in which Byrne describes his “dream” city. The article’s implication is that mixed-use developments, human scale, and public spaces are–far from being essential elements for just and dignified communal life–just another trapping of hipster or bobo taste, the city-planning equivalent of a pair of Birkenstocks. Obviously, some of the item’s in Byrne’s list really are matters of personal preference. But having walkable, mixed-use communities is very nearly a minimum requirement of justice.
Having auto-based communities makes them inaccessible to anyone who can’t afford or drive a car, which includes not only minority groups whose exclusion may be welcome, but also the elderly and the very young. Parents spend much of their time chauffeuring tykes to soccer practice while the older people, unable to leave their homes to find food, must depend on “meal on wheels.” There are obviously ways to see to basic human needs in a society that’s auto-based; this is just what we, for the most part, do today. N0t only does this rely on a likely unsustainable use of natural resources (which in turn raises the matter of justice between generations), it also creates high barriers to entry and destroys the publicness and casual interactions that help constitute community.
These are only a couple of the things at stake in having livable communities. What’s important to remember is that good urbanism, much as it is loved by people like David Byrne, is most needed by the people who buy scratch tickets and watch American Idol, not by those who listen to the Talking Heads.