Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Rejoinder on New Urbanism

Rhett, a dear friend, has offered some searching comments on my post dealing with New Urbanism. (He has also started his own blog -- go check it out as soon as he has posted.)

Specifically, he writes:
based upon my experience in local government, I'm not optimistic that it works with our culture: 1) It can be more expensive to buy goods and services under a New Urban concept; businesses in mixed use areas often fail because they can't compete with big boxes; 2)Our country loves cars so they don't mind driving,even in traffic; 3) People prefer to live next to other houses not in mixed use areas.

He also adds that he likens it to an aesthetic choice, that he likes Classical music because it is more aesthetically appealing, but the masses think otherwise.

I have a twofold response to these points.

1) Is New Urbanism purely aesthetic? This is an important question for two reasons: first, there is a common notion that "aesthetics" are indifferent, a nice add-on if desired, but basically nonessential matters, to be chosen only as preferences -- that is, for no particular reason. Are you going to wear a red t-shirt or a black t-shirt? Only someone out of touch would claim that this is a moral question, that there is a right or wrong answer for how someone expresses themselves through clothing. Aesthetics generally are construed along these same lines: there is no (or only a minimally) rational reason for choosing one aesthetic expression over another, or none at all. So if New Urbanism is only a matter of aesthetics (in this sense), then why push it on other people, since it is essentially a personal preference?

(The anti-realism of aesthetics is well-attested since the Enlightenment in particular, and under the corrosive effects of the market and American-style bottom-line pragmatism, aesthetics as a serious pursuit has fallen on bad times indeed. Before Romanticism, for example, poets were political actors and subversives; now, they tend to plumb the depths of their souls, and are relegated a marginal space in the academy in exchange for their retreat. But I digress.)

Is there really no such thing as"beauty"? As Christians, I think we have to advert that beauty is real, if elusive. Perhaps the difficulty is it only that we do not have cultural consensus on what constitutes beauty?

But these worthwhile discussions aside, New Urbanism has to do with more than creating "beautiful" spaces, (although that is a concern, too): it is concerned to make livable,walkable, environmentally responsible spaces too.

And this brings me to the second reason that this is an important question: New Urbanism often takes on the forms of architecture made popular from times gone by, whether classical architecture or Pre-War building styles. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is that these styles have historically rendered very livable, memorable spaces. But culturally our notion of "architectural style" is similar to our notion of "clothing style": they are an outer consumer expression of some inner identity, to be determined by an individual based on "preference" or "fashion". And so it bears mentioning that New Urbanism is not primarily an issue of style, but of design and planning. Rather than being part and parcel of an individual's consumer choice, if anything, it cuts against this in creating neighborhoods and communities.

Rhett's analogy to music is appropos -- but Itake it the other way. There is in fact a beauty to classical music, and there is better and worse classical music (although we don't tend to hear the worse). I would make the same argument about any genre. And suburban sprawl is the equivalent of a raw garage band with a lucrative contract from a tone-deaf production company. It is objectively unaesthetic,unbalanced, unliveable. (Well, I actually want to temper that somewhat; it is more a matter of degree than black-and-white. But I do think if we continue doing sprawl exclusively, it is a bad thing.)

2) Rhett makes a very salient point in saying that it is against our culture to pursue such places, especially as we seem wedded to our cars. I would like to unpack the cultural associations with cars at some point -- Ithink they have to do with some sense of individualism and autonomy (pun intended). I also think they are quite unhealthy. But I suspect that a) as oil continues its stratospheric rise and b) we become more attuned to the environmental impact of our constant driving and c)traffic becomes even worse and d) more New Urbanist-inspired spaces become available, some changes in the culture will be seen. Preferences such as living in single-use areas have arisen in part because that is our cultural expectation since that is what has been given to us -- something different seems strange, or, quite literally, foreign.Yet people love visiting London, Paris, Rome, and dozens of other cities -- and often might wistfully think "what a great place to live" -- which are entirely mixed-use. Even such places as Williamsburg,VA, Manhattan, or Boston are mixed-use and (for many)desirable places to visit or live. (Although many dislike Manhattan -- I am not among them -- it is clearly a popular place to live: if not, you or I could afford rents there!Same with San Francisco. Contrary to some popular notions, densely populated areas are not unlivable or typically undesirable.)

Put simply, I think that our constant reliance on our cars is unhealthy and dehumanizing in subtle ways. Mass transit such as railroad, bus, light rail or interurban is vastly superior in terms of environmental impact. Fact is, though, we have made continual decisions as a nation in favor of automobiles and against mass transit, a costly decision in the long run (and one made, it must be pointed out, under the influence of the petroleum and automobile industries after World War II).

I agree with Rhett that it will require vast cultural changes for New Urbanism to be the sole model, but that is beyond the goals of New Urbanists: they just want enough municipal codes to be rethought so that they can present something other than sprawl-as-usual.

I think that there is actually a widespread, if somewhat unvoiced, sentiment against driving. Most people would like to drive less and live closer to work; traffic in major urban centers grinds away at people; a second (or third) car adds up to a significant outlay of cash every year, even for the cheapest auto.

Those are my two points. They don't answer the issues raised point-by-point, but I think they advance the conversation a bit. Perhaps I should post the baseline values of New Urbanism, as found in Suburban Nation. Perhaps also I shouldn't post so late at night, as I fear this has rambled around a bit more than usual.


Blogger Gaunilo said...

I have too little competency in this area to throw in any cents of value here, but do follow up on your note about cars - there's some fascinating cultural forces at work in our "car culture." Much on my mind since returning from Europe.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 3:28:00 PM  

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