Monday, July 11, 2011

Against sprawl

Public Discourse gives us an essay that resonates with the kind of arguments with which Russell Kirk and other traditional conservatives would be sympathetic; an argument for the kind of town I grew up in and the kind of urban neighborhood that encourages community: "A Realist Philosophical Case For Urbanism and Against Sprawl" by Philip Bess, a professor of architecture at Notre Dame. His argument is not that urban sprawl should be prohibited but that zoning and other regulation should be revised to make it easier and more economical to build traditional towns and urban environments. Those of you who know me well will understand, in addition, some of the personal reasons I have for sympathy with his arguments. From Part 1 of the essay:
For many years, I have lectured and written that post-1945 sprawl suburbs are a peculiarly modern mistake, one both long aborning and now itself a cause of further significant and unhappy environmental and cultural consequences. I have argued that human beings should not make sprawl and that, as a hypothetical natural law precept and as we did always and everywhere prior to about 1950, human beings should make walkable mixed-use settlements. ....

.... Across political and religious lines, the propositions themselves have been affirmed by both liberal humanists and social conservatives, and been found objectionable by both environmentalists and avant gardists on the left and by libertarians on the right. Today’s generally leftist environmental regulations and modernist design orthodoxies would make it impossible and unthinkable to build pre-1930 Washington, D.C., or Boston or Savannah or Cooperstown; but so, too, would a Libertarian regime make it impossible to build pre-1930 Washington, D.C., or Boston or Savannah or Cooperstown, all of which would be decried by many on the right as “planning.” ....

.... The primary arguments against sprawl are 1) that sprawl is unjust; 2) that sprawl is culturally and environmentally unsustainable; and 3) that sprawl is aesthetically problematic, even (dare I say it?) ugly. Specifically, simply as a physical pattern of development:
  • sprawl makes it impossible for people of different generations and different incomes, even in the same (extended) family, to live in proximity to one another, and to work, shop, play, learn, and worship in the same neighborhood;
  • sprawl injures the common good in three inter-related ways: as the primary means by which both wealth and poverty are physically concentrated and isolated; by separating people according to income, age, and race; and, perhaps most importantly, by failing to provide a genuinely public realm shared by all;
  • sprawl, by separating housing settlements according to class, promotes extreme inequalities of educational opportunity;
  • sprawl effectively de-mobilizes and deprives of their independence persons without cars and those unable to drive, most notably the poor, children, and the elderly; ....
  • sprawl hastens the loss of agricultural lands and wilderness in exchange for a bad combination of ephemeral buildings and inflexible infrastructure; ....
  • sprawl, consistent with the fact that nothing in an individualist culture properly can be deemed either ugly or beautiful, produces nothing in the public realm that prompts or warrants sustained, shared aesthetic contemplation. [....]
A traditional town or urban neighborhood is by definition a walkable and mixed-use environment. “Walkable” necessarily implies walkability, but it does not necessarily imply no cars. Living in a traditional town or neighborhood simply means that 1) you do not need a car for every task or destination of your daily life; 2) if you have a car, you possess a great convenience; and 3) the formal order of human settlements should be designed for pedestrians, may be designed to accommodate cars, but should not be designed for cars alone. In short, owning a car should be a convenience rather than a necessity. .... [more]
The author indicates that Part 2 of his essay "will address some questions about urbanism, modernity, and human nature."

Update, 7/14/2011: Part Two.

A Realist Philosophical Case For Urbanism and Against Sprawl: Part One « Public Discourse

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