Wendell Berry and the New Urbanism: Agrarian Remedies, Urban Prospects

by Mark T. Mitchell on March 20, 2011 · 21 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low,Writers & Poets

new urbanism

Kearneysville, WV. The decline of community is a theme taken up by many today both on the right and the left. The solitary bowler, a memorable image from Robert Putman’s book Bowling Alone, represents the loss that many feel and confirms the intuition that, despite the many advantages the modern world provides, something has indeed been lost. But what exactly is a community? Does any group of individuals living in close proximity to each other constitute a community? Does a healthy community exist more easily in an urban, suburban, or rural environment? Although he does not argue that a good life is only possible on the farm, Wendell Berry writes out of the agrarian tradition, and his vision of community is articulated in a rural context centered around a small town. Berry’s work is useful in developing a sense of the various ingredients necessary for a viable community. However, it is necessary to ask if and how this vision of community, if indeed it is compelling, can be translated into urban and sub-urban contexts. Ultimately, the discussion of community is rooted in the question of human flourishing, and, interestingly, both Berry as well as certain urban designers point to the modern affinity for specialization as a prime culprit in the destruction of modern communities.

Wendell Berry’s Agrarian Vision

For Berry, the ascent of the specialist (or what in later writings he calls the “professional”) represents culturally the victory of narrow analysis over holistic knowledge. The difference between the two approaches to reality is striking: the former reduces complexity in an effort to control all variables and thereby completely circumscribe the object or problem; the latter is open to the experience at hand, seeking to understand but content with untidy remainders. The former is characterized by a desire to dominate a problem and ultimately reality itself, while the latter is characterized by humility and love.

According to Berry, “the corruption of community has its source in the corruption of character.” And this corruption of character is the result of the inability or unwillingness to understand the complex and often messy whole. It follows, then, that “the disease of the modern character is specialization.” Specialization fragments tasks, fragments competencies, fragments individual character, and ultimately fragments the idea of community.

The first, and best known, hazard of the specialist system is that it produces specialists—people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing. We get into absurdity very quickly here. There are, for instance, educators who have nothing to teach, communicators who have nothing to say, medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest, in preventing. More common, and more damaging, are the inventors, manufacturers, and salesmen of devices who have no concern for the possible effects of those devices. Specialization is thus seen to be a way of institutionalizing, justifying, and paying highly for a calamitous disintegration and scattering-out of the various functions of character: workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility.

This modern specialist tends to be consumed by the idea of progress. He is not only alienated by the narrowness of his focus from an understanding of the whole, he is, because of his singular concern for the future, alienated from the present as well as the past. For anyone infatuated with progress, the past was, by definition, a backward place peopled by benighted, miserable wretches. On the other hand, the future is bright. The Enlightenment dream of autonomy eventually severed the limiting ties to a transcendent order to which men were obligated. But the Christian vision of a perfect future, which for the Christian was achievable only outside of history, remained. With the transcendent realm sacrificed on the altar of autonomy, the dream of perfection necessarily had to be reconfigured. Its realization must now be in time. It must be achieved by human effort. But since we are smarter than any of our race who have come before, we are surely up to the task. In this cult of the future the past is denigrated, traditions are eschewed, as this modern man, unencumbered by the barnacles of the past strides boldly to claim his prize. Heaven has been forced into time, and that time is the future. As Berry puts it, “the modern mind longs for the future as the medieval mind longed for Heaven.”

The problem of specialization manifests itself in the way we have envisioned our communities. Berry argues that a healthy community, and ultimately a healthy culture, is one in which people live where they work and work where they live.

Nowhere is the destructive influence of the modern home so great as in its remoteness from work. When people do not live where they work, they do not feel the effects of what they do. The people who make wars do not fight them. The people responsible for strip-mining, clear cutting of forests, and other ruinations do not live where their senses will be offended or their homes or livelihoods or lives immediately threatened by the consequences. The people responsible for the various depredations of ‘agribusiness’ do not live on farms. They—like many others of less wealth and power—live in ghettos of their own kind in homes full of ‘conveniences’ which signify that all is well. In an automated kitchen, in a gleaming, odorless bathroom, in year-round air-conditioning, in color TV, in an easy chair, the world is redeemed.

Here we can see the radical nature of Berry’s vision. Our entire economy, our very culture of work, leisure, and home is constructed around the idea of easy mobility and the disintegration of various aspects of our lives. We live in one place, work in another, shop in another, worship in another, and take our leisure somewhere else. According to Berry, an integrated life, a life of integrity, is one characterized by membership in a community in which one lives, works, worships, and conducts the vast majority of other human activities. The choice is stark: “If we do not live where we work, and when we work, we are wasting our lives, and our work too.”

Urban and Suburban Communities

Berry’s vision for healthy communities, and in turn, a healthy culture informed by such ideals as hard work, neighborliness, thrift, and love is presented in the context of a rural agrarian setting. And while his description of the possibilities latent in such a community are attractive and often even inspiring, it is a simple fact that the vast majority of Americans no longer live on farms, and for practical as well as personal reasons, the vast majority of American are not going to move to rural agrarian communities regardless of how taken they are by Berry’s work. In reality, most Americans today reside in urban and suburban areas and are quite content to purchase their pasteurized milk from the grocery store and their chickens nicely cleaned and plucked. But this fact raises an important question: does something about the modern, urbanized world militates against the formation and sustenance of robust local communities? And if so, are there ways healthy communities can be realized apart from an agrarian context? If not, then it would seem that, given current demographic realities and trends, the possibility for cultivating strong local communities is correspondingly dim. If, on the other hand, there are possibilities latent in the fundamental structure of urban life itself, then the kind of community that humans naturally seek may be possible without abandoning the cities in favor of the farm. Indeed, far from denigrating cities as less suitable for human flourishing, Aristotle, for instance, argues that the best kind of human life is only possible in the context of a city. The city is the proper end (telos) of humans and to flee the city signals something either seriously wrong with the person or the city. Perhaps, then, the present maladies of our cities are not intrinsic to cities but, rather, are the result of modern notions of cities that have seriously misunderstood the purpose and possibilities of urban existence.

In the same way that Berry identifies specialization–and the attendant urge to establish control by imposing an artificial simplification upon reality–as the core of the modern fragmentation of agrarian life, so too we can find the same kind of destructive impulse at work in urban and suburban contexts. In her classic work on urban design, The Death and Life of the Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argues that healthy cities are characterized by districts and neighborhoods that exhibit a diversity of uses that makes for vibrant and safe streets and the possibility of satisfying many of one’s daily tasks in a single place. According to Jacobs, safe streets are a necessary condition for a healthy neighborhood, and streets can be made safe only by the attentive presence of residents who feel a sense of ownership of the street and are willing to take action if necessary. Jacobs calls this “eyes upon the street.” Effective monitoring of the streets requires knowledge of the sorts of activities that take place on a particular street, and that knowledge requires time and commitment. Transient residents feel no ownership of the public realm and thus feel little responsibility to monitor it. Instead they rely on the policemen, whose presence can, to be sure, deter crime, but who all too often are involved only after the fact. Thus, effective eyes on the street requires residents who are committed to the health and welfare of the street and who, as a result, take a lively interest in monitoring the street and thereby keeping it safe.

Jacobs argues that the very methodology employed by city planners has contributed to the problems facing the city. City planners are too often trained to analyze various aspects of a city, separating the component parts of a city by use, after which they attempt to reassemble the various parts into a coherent whole. This approach, though, fails to deal with cities on their own terms, for cities are complex organisms, and to understand them properly one must treat the various moving parts concurrently as parts of a living whole rather than separate elements that can be understood in isolation from each other. As Jacobs puts it, “to understand cities, we have to deal outright with combinations of mixtures of uses, not separate uses, as the essential phenomena.”

Jacobs attempts to show how diversity of use is necessary for a safe and healthy neighborhood. In terms of safety, diversity of uses ensures an active and interesting street life, and that activity facilitates the eyes on the street that is necessary for safe sidewalks. For example, if a district is devoted exclusively to retail stores, then that district will be virtually devoid of people after regular business hours. The absence of people creates a breeding ground of crime and mischief, which further discourages people from even passing through on the way to another neighborhood. On the other hand, a district comprised of a mixture of uses, including residential, retail, restaurants, entertainment, and perhaps even light industry, will experience a constant influx of people. Active streets, for Jacobs, are safe streets, but they are also more interesting, and humans are naturally drawn to diversity and shun the “great blight of dullness.” Thus, mixed-use districts tend to attract people, and because these areas are more interesting than single-use areas, people enjoy them more. When the opportunity is available, many people choose to live in such diverse and interesting neighborhoods. For Jacobs, then, a healthy city is composed of healthy districts and neighborhoods, and these must include a mixture of uses that provides the safety, diversity, and interest that attract people and generate a sense of loyalty and ownership that creates a stable population of residents committed to the health and well-being of the neighborhood. And all of this is possible only if those charged with planning the city are willing to countenance the complexity and even messiness that a diverse and successful neighborhood requires.

But it is not merely the cities that must be re-imagined in order to create the context within which vibrant communities can come to life and persist. Early 21st century America is increasingly neither urban nor rural but a curious mix of the two that has come to be called suburban. Unfortunately, rather than securing the benefits of both city and country, the modern suburb often partakes of the disadvantages of both. The mixed-use neighborhoods extolled by Jacobs are typically replaced by isolated single-use pods of homes connected to the rest of the world by feeder roads. Shopping, schools, employment of any kind are absent, generally rendered illegal by zoning laws and home-owner associations that operate under the assumption that the best neighborhoods are those uncontaminated by non-residential buildings and uses. The automobile makes such an arrangement possible, but there are consequences. For instance, suburbs create a situation in which access to a car is necessary to participate in the wide variety of human activities not included or allowed in the suburban development. In such a context, those without access to cars, namely children and the elderly, find themselves virtual prisoners in a residential bubble devoid of many facets of human life.

The separation is a result of the underlying specialization—not of people but of places—for what could be more specialized than designing a town according to discrete zones designated by use? Of course, single use areas are simple to comprehend, and they look good on paper, for they are clean and unambiguous and easy to grasp. But such an approach often fails in practice, for it does not reflect the complexity of the human creature. Fragmentation becomes a necessity, for generally one cannot live and work in a suburban neighborhood. One cannot shop or worship or recreate. One can, we are assured live, but when these vital activities are removed, one is left wondering what, exactly, constitutes living.

This radically specialized and individualized conception of life turns the focus of citizens inward to themselves and their own private concerns. This translates into a diminished public realm as investment of time and money is directed primarily to private homes and often only on the interior of those structures. But such an inward orientation divests the public realm of the attention that it requires. Indeed, the public realm comes to be seen as little more than the space in which we move from one private space to another. Individuals connected by little more than coincidental proximity find themselves brushing shoulders with strangers as they variously pursue their private interests. But the interaction is only perfunctory and accidental. Any conception of the common good is reduced merely to creating a situation in which the most individual consumption can take place with the least amount of friction. In such a context, community of any meaningful sort is sorely hampered. A public realm, the health of which requires the investment of both time and financial resources (not to mention affection) is a necessary condition for a robust community. Thus, a successful community requires attention to more than individual desires. James Howard Kunstler recognizes that community is not a commodity that can be marketed and sold in a neatly packaged bundle of accessories.

The small town life that Americans long for when they are depressed by their city apartments or their suburban bunkers is really a conceptual substitute for the idea of community. But a community is not something you have, like a pizza. Nor is it something you can buy, as visitors to Disneyland and Williamsburg discover. It is a living organism based on a web of interdependencies—which is to say, a local economy. It expresses itself physically as connectedness, as buildings actively relating to one another, and to whatever public space exists, be it the street, or the courthouse square, or the village green.

At this point, Kunstler turns to Wendell Berry for a definition of community. “Most important, Wendell Berry writes, ‘“it must be generally loved and competently cared for by its people, who, individually, identify their own interest with the interest of their neighbors.”’ Urban critics such as Jane Jacobs and those like Kunstler who promote the so-called New Urbanism recognize that single-use districts, wherein residences are intentionally separated from other types of buildings, are the result of the specialization that deforms its subject matter as it attempts to simplify it. The result of this simplifying process is neither lovely nor lovable.

This predilection for specialization has infected those disciples that traditionally concern themselves with city design. Town planning, for example, “until 1930 considered a humanistic discipline based upon history, aesthetics, and culture, became a technical profession based upon numbers. As a result, the American city was reduced into the simplistic categories and quantities of sprawl.” Sprawl represents the culmination of this specialization which, in fact, represents the rejection of traditional urban design that had for centuries recognized the conditions necessary for vibrant and healthy human existence. Thus, the ideal sought by the New Urbanists is not new at all, for by championing mixed-use walkable neighborhoods, they are merely attempting to recover a simple truth long known and only recently forgotten: cities, towns, and neighborhoods should be constructed to facilitate human flourishing and not to simplify the job of urban designers.

Here we encounter an irony: the success of specialization leads to the demise of healthy communities, but the destruction of local communities leaves a cultural vacuum that is filled with a homogeneous culture that is as bland as it is broad. Specialization, then, leads to homogenization, and homogenization leads to boredom, apathy, and a diminished sense care or responsibility.

In such a context, we would do well to turn our attention to the revitalization of our cities and towns. If we hope to create a context within which human lives can be lived with dignity and joy, then we must turn our attention to preserving local culture, local customs, local beauty, local economies, families, and memories. This, obviously, cannot be accomplished primarily by political action at the national level; although, local zoning laws and ordinances are often impediments that need to be changed. Ultimately, healthy communities will only be realized when individuals commit a particular place and to particular neighbors in the long-term work of making a place, of recognizing and enjoying the responsibilities and pleasures of membership in a local community. These good things are not the unique provenance of agrarian or rural settings. They can and have been achieved in urban and town settings. The means to this end are clear. What is needed is the energy and creativity to bring it into existence and the will to sustain it.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jezza March 21, 2011 at 6:18 am

Thanks Mark, i really enjoyed your insightful analysis. As a suburbanite who works in an office block 40 minutes from home I’m still struggling with what to do about it and the ‘how should we live’ question, but I think my thoughts are a bit clearer because of your writing. My wife and I are trying to apply what I suppose are more generalist ideas to our life like thrift, a family focus and a productive food garden with a more conscious effort to speak to and get to know our neighbours, to be part of our community despite everyday busyness. But I haven’t figured out how to work from home.

avatar JS Bangs March 21, 2011 at 8:35 am

What an excellent article. Though I recently completed a move from Seattle to rural Minnesota, accomplishing the urban-to-rural transition that most people find impossible, I’ve long felt that the rural focus here at FPR is something of a liability. If Porcherism is going to have any traction in broader society, it’s can’t be purely ar rural vision, simply because most Americans don’t live in a rural environment. Articulating what urban front porches look like is a crucial step in overcoming our current malaise.

avatar Elias Crim March 21, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Many thanks, Mark–the inverse correlation you point out between specialization and community is thought-provoking indeed. And it’s clear that the FPR group is evoking a vision of human settlement that includes urban, rural and in between–it all needs rebuilding and reimagining.

avatar Zac March 22, 2011 at 2:42 am

Yes!

I grew up in Binghamton, New York (that’s upstate, if you’re unfamiliar) and recently took a bus down to Brooklyn to visit a good friend. What a weekend. You know what took me by surprise? I exercised more, and saw more of the outdoors, in my two days in Brooklyn, NYC, than I have in my entire winter season here in suburban Binghamton. Sad, right? But true. I huffed and puffed on my friend’s extra bicycle to the nearby school where he teaches. Once there, we laughed and shared poetry with the other teachers and parents at a Saturday school event — a recital more for the adult’s benefit, but lovely nonetheless, as the children slumped beside their parents’ legs or asked loud questions. It was a lovely example of a small urban community based quite simply around the needs of children.

The next day we walked to the local cathedral where my friend worships. We stopped for bagels and my friend even ran into his favorite restaurant (nodding and smiling to the waitress and owner) just to use their bathroom. After only a few months there, he was comfortable. After church, we sat outside of a cafe and I watched small birds eat crumbs off of my shoes.

This never would have happened in my suburban hometown. In fairness, it could happen, maybe it will happen soon, and there are those here who are fighting for it happen. Recovering the old bones of Binghamton. Wrapping new muscle around them.

But I thought I’d share this surprising revelation here; the article you wrote was simply too inspiring.

Oh, and God Bless Wendell Berry.

avatar dave March 22, 2011 at 11:57 am

well done – I’m just thinking, embracing self-definition within the specific context of community also means accepting constraints on identity. That’s ok, but has repercussions, ie, Polet’ post on sex. But I’m also thinking of some of the responses to Dalton’s post on small town civility, or McWilliams’ on Ga-Ga. What those two shared, IMHO, was a concern toward self-definition and communal obligation, or lack thereof. And the debate on Wisconsin, and Stegall’s self-made man, and Peters railing against Yale’s transcendent ambition, or more properly, negation, if meaning is found only within a specific context.
The web of relations also calls to my mind the scientific unfurling of complexity. I’m asking myself – if I am defined externally, by my roles and relations in the community, and embrace that constraint, can I also make a defense against something like Clark and Chalmers Extended Mind? Do I need to? Is it a different thing if my behavior is shaped by a neighbor rather than a chip?
Deciding on a relational versus reductionist paradigm can also introduce some – well, I’ll call it Heisenberg’s bastard corollary – the black boxes of systems theory. I think you aptly described a black box when you wrote as “the latter is open to the experience at hand, seeking to understand but content with untidy remainders”. This also has a shadow, what can be “characterized by humility and love” could also be called laziness, if I think about Carr’s the Shallows – ie, from Fox’s post, quoting Carr ““I don’t read books,” says Joe O’Shea, former president of the student body at Florida State University and a 2008 recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship. “I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly.”” What’s important is not what’s in the box, but how it relates to everything else. Do I know you if I read your bio? Lots for me to think about here. Thanks.

avatar Tim Holton March 22, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Thank you for a very rich and provocative piece, Professor Mitchell. Leaves me curious, though: where do you come out on New Urbanism? Does it successfully revive the pre-1930, more holistic approach? Or is it yet another case of specialization and commoditization (architecture as commodity—a superficial and misguided attempt to BUY solutions to our problems) that’s ultimately in fact destructive of community? In other words, do you see in the movement a primary concern with the fundamental economic conditions necessary to build healthy communities? I’m not as familiar with it as I should be, but it appears to be driven by those relatively specialized in the field of engineering, architecture and city planning (for-profit developers appear to be suspiciously eager to embrace it). As far as I can see, those fields are not grounded in concern for the nature of work today.

Also, your formulation seems to assume rural and urban as separate, if analogous, in terms of community. Am I wrong? If the nature our daily activity, primarily our work, is the root problem, shouldn’t we take a hard look at the origin of urbanization—the forming of highly concentrated population centers that are inextricable from the rise of modern commercial industrial conditions? Are modern cities not the result of economic pressures to maximize efficiencies (pressures that lead not least of all to the problematic specialization you emphasize), both for production and consumption, that serve the modern economic system that undermines community? Doesn’t it seem that the best community would be neither high-density urban nor low-density rural but would connect us to the spectrum of the basic economic activities, both agricultural and manufacturing, that knit people together? (Not at all embracing here the suburban realm, which I agree is not BOTH urban & rural, as intended, but neither.) I would think Mr Berry would argue for the necessity for ALL human beings to live in closer proximity, stronger connection, to the earth that sustains us. Yes? Would we not also do better living in closer proximity to the manufacturing—albeit a necessarily cleaner, more limited and humane kind of manufacturing than we have now—that sustains us?

Berry seems to say that community is simply people come together to provide for each other. Have I got that right? If so, a genuine new urbanism would exist as neither “new” (tending to undervalue preservation of past architecture and common material culture expressive of the history of the treasured place) nor “urban” (in the high-density sense we currently have of that word) nor an “ism” (an ideal imposed without adequate regard for the reality of daily activity and purpose that an authentic, organic community grows out of and expresses). It would instead start with solving the problem of cultivating work that is directed to the public realm, the greater good—the very opposite, for the most part, of what we have now. The architecture of our towns and cities would tend to take care of itself—as the history of town and cities, I believe (and it would make an interesting topic of debate), shows that it generally and essentially has.

Would love to read your answers and thoughts.

avatar RiverC March 23, 2011 at 9:22 am

I have noticed the emergence of a larger number of mixed-use structures in, say, Baltimore, but by in large the problem will be that these beautiful new buildings are designer-made and thus have a big profit margin attached to both them as finished products and to the materials and labor employed to build them. The result is undoubtedly ‘Luxury’ apartments and ‘Prime’ retail space, but still squeezed into the City Plan nicely as to not create mental disturbance… gardens may extend to about six feet in one direction provided they are not more than 2 feet in width, and if your income is below a certain amount it is unlikely you’ll be starting a business or buying a condo there.

This sort of thing can only happen I think, really, when the City Planners who planned our modern fiasco give up on the wastelands they’ve created and people start buying up the 12000-dollar heaps of brick and wood and their attendant waste parks and remake them.

But so long as zoning law remains on the books, a culture of crime continues in these areas, these cities are quite doomed. There are times when unkempt buildings are sad, like an ailing man, but other times a great ruination is a joy, like the person who lived in pain and reposed in peace.

I recall that totalitarian architect who hated the street. He did every thing he could to destroy it. It is no accident we have this problem. He and his ilk created it on purpose.

avatar RiverC March 23, 2011 at 9:24 am

In case it is unclear whom I was referring to, I have recalled the article that introduced me to Le Corbusier: http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_4_otbie-le-corbusier.html

avatar Empedocles March 24, 2011 at 10:06 am

Sadly, it seems to me that New Urbanism has been co-opted by the real estate developers. I recently went to a “lifestyle center” (ugh) which was configured to look like a New England downtown but really all it was was a collection of strip malls around parking lots and populated by corporate chains instead of local businesses. Meanwhile a real Mainsteet USA was just a couple of miles away and struggling to hang on. The saddest thing, Google maps hadn’t updated its images of the location yet and I could see what the project replaced: a farm.

avatar Albert March 24, 2011 at 10:23 am

A fine piece. I’ve generally thought the main reason rural areas facilitate community easier than urban/suburban areas is because more agriculture historically happens in rural areas. Perhaps that can change as cities and suburbs change.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 24, 2011 at 11:16 am

One of the telling things about New Urbanism is that one of its chief proponents, a tireless and very creative Andres Duany of the firm Duany Plater-Zyberk has been known to deride efforts at creating /preserving spots of wild to filter runoff and preserve habitat within new development because they interrupt the all-important organization of Neo-Classical streetscape. He advises his acolytes to beware of tweedy landscape architects pushing their weedy sumps into the sanctity of the built order. He was also recently quoted in Landscape Architecture magazine within an article about common interest farming developments that they are “ugly” or words to that effect (he has designed them and so is not against them by any means). New Urbanism is an important antidote to the terrific ugliness of our suburban century but it is still part and parcel of the atomization of the era’s estrangement from an authentically lived life. It is a better package perhaps but still very much a part of an utterly packaged simulacrum.

avatar Tim Holton March 24, 2011 at 11:18 am

RiverC—
Thanks for that article on Corbusier. In the tradition of Ruskin’s “On the Nature of Gothic, and Herein of the True Functions of the Workman in Art” (I include the usually-ignored subtitle as it indicates the antidote to Corbusier’s totalitarianism)—a must-read for Porchers.

avatar Alethea March 24, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Thank you, Dr. Mitchell! My employer is attempting to do something of that sort in our very rural area, by means of weekend book-reading nights and of our barn school – it has been rewarding to see the blessings of community worked out here. I still have to drive an hour one direction or another to hang out with people of my age and thought habits, though. . . unfortunately, all the young folk are still migrating to the cities and not returning. Perhaps that will change in places by the time I am raising my own children.

avatar Einhorn March 26, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Mr. Mitchell,

I’m coming to this post a bit late, but I hope you’ll still check out my comments on this interesting post over at my new blog here:

http://imnotherzog.wordpress.com/2011/03/26/wendell-berry-is-insane/

As you can see, I’m not a fan of Professor Berry, but I don’t understand why you bothered with him in the first place. Jane Jacobs does all your work for you anyway and has more relevant comments for the suburbs, I think, than the crazy Berry. Anyway, I hope you stop over at my blog and RTWT.

avatar Joy Pullmann March 27, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Something tangentially related that interests me is the budding abilities of technology that allow more parents and families to stay at home and together while still providing for themselves. You’re right: we can’t all be farmers or live in the country, but other prospects exist for rich community.

avatar Mark T. Mitchell March 28, 2011 at 6:57 pm

@ Tim Holton–Thanks Tim for your comments and sorry for my delay in responding. You ask what I think of New Urbanism. Well, I think you are right that it can become merely another consumer choice that doesn’t address some fundamental issues. A couple years ago I taught a course on city design, New Urbanism, and the problem of community. We read plenty of New Urbanism literature and they are clearly on to something important and, as I said in the article, the core idea is mixed use neighborhoods. Today in many if not most cities, building codes and zoning restrictions make that kind of neighborhood illegal. Thus, even if people wanted to build neighborhoods along more traditional lines, they would find themselves fighting a deeply entrenched bureaucracy. This can, and has, been successfully done, however the point is that the law makes one kind of building far easier than another.

At the same time, some New Urbanist projects feel a little creepy. A bit like Main Street USA in Disney Land. Of course, the best places are the older neighborhoods and cities that remain intact from prior to the advent of specialized zones. A walk through Georgetown, Alexandria, Charleston, etc. feels quite a bit different than a walk through The Kentlands. All this to say, I think the New Urbanist vision is on the right track, but it is not perfect. There remains plenty of work to do on these matters.

avatar bjw March 29, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Wonderful juxtaposition of two of my favorite thinkers. High marks for grappling a tough subject. I have lived in both rural and intensely urban contexts and each have their challenges for building and sustaining viable communities.

avatar Tim Holton March 30, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Professor Mitchell—
Thanks for replying. My frustration on this topic is that despite the parallel in reality between manufacturing and urban life on the one hand and agriculture and agrarian life on the other, Berry’s thinking on the latter has no parallel in our time (that I know of) in the former. And this impacts directly our ideas of where the vitality of cities, as concentrations of manufacturing (originally building and handcrafts, the primary activities that formed the first cities), comes from. So no matter how well-intended the DESIGN approach of New Urbanism, it remains debased from the real foundation of the life of the city (as well as civilization—the connection Deneen’s recently reminded us of in “Civility and Democracy”).

Going one step further, this divorce in our thinking simply reflects the divorce between the two realms of urban and rural in reality: the problem of the city seems inseparable from the problem of balancing urban manufacturing-based communities with rural farming-based communities. Hence, our manufacturing is an offense to nature and our cities blights on the landscape—not the “flowers” of a wholesome civilization that they might be if (and were when; think Florence) the human race had a healthier relationship to the land.

avatar Carl Eric Scott April 2, 2011 at 9:19 am

Mark, what do you make of Leon Krier?

I find his vision attractive, but it seems it would have to be entirely planner-initiated. It doesn’t take what we might call the political ecology of messy local democratic governance into account.

Even messier, it seems blind to the fact that local democratic governance, especially in America, often must(and in many cases should) result in a greater commitment to property rights interests than to rational/beautiful zoning/planning interests. At times this tilt toward the private property interests is even mandated by our constitutions.

avatar Gene Callahan April 2, 2011 at 9:57 am

Tim Holton, cities are in fact as old as civilization and the source of it. And density is absolutely essential to a healthy city: see Jacobs on this point.

avatar Tim Holton April 2, 2011 at 11:29 am

Gene Callahan—
My comments were intended to assert, not contest, the city as source of civilization. It’s the DEGREE of density and scale I’m questioning (limits, being a primary concern of FPR). I admit it’s been 30 years since I read Jacobs, but obviously there is a point at which density cannot be healthy (when there’s no room for front porches, for example). There’s also a point at which the size and density of the city abstracts us unhealthfully from nature. I accept a rural-urban distinction, as I accept agriculture and manufacturing as distinct, twin, realms of work providing the foundation of human life and flourishing. One of my major points, above, is that we need in the manufacturing/crafts realm a visionary of Berry’s caliber in order to understand the economic foundation of the healthy city. Returning to the density/scale matter, my question is, if urbanites are to have any relationship to nature — if we are to have not just healthy cities but healthy communities and healthy human beings — what is the proper size and density of the city? Given that the healthy city is the very basis of civilization, shouldn’t we be asking whether our current cities, made unhealthy in density and scale (I would say) by the primacy our current economic conditions place on efficiency, are not bases but CORRUPTIONS of civilized life?

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