URBAN TRANSECT DIMENSIONS
I’ve been thinking about how we might solve some of these problems, and I must say I liked some of your suggestions for boosting local allegiance. As you know, I continue to move forward in the development of my town. We’ve decided to name it Chappapeela, after a creek which comes into the Tangipahoa River directly across from our settlement. It is a name familiar in our area, and it is one which I am confident an early settler would have given serious consideration in selecting a name for this place.
In this connection, I’ve been thinking about the Rural to Urban Transect. Architect Philip Bess contends here that the Urban Transect — going from unspoilt wilderness (Transect 1 or T1) to downtown Manhattan (Transect 6 or T6) — contains a rationally defensible moral authority. I would go Bess one better and say that no matter what part of the Urban Transect you find yourself in, it is a moral imperative that you should be within three miles of all previous transects.
Implicit in this view is the reasoning that the lower transects are always basic to — and therefore constitutive of — the higher transects. Wilderness can exist without Manhattan, but Manhattan cannot exist for even a second without wilderness, nor any of the other transects preceding it — be they farm, village, town or suburb.
My selection of three miles is not entirely arbitrary. Three miles is the distance from the horizon to a man whose eyes are six feet above the ground. And it is an eminently walkable distance, traversable within an hour or so to someone in good health. All of which means that everyone from a child to a healthy nonagenarian can have access to anything which can be taken in with an unobstructed glance. It encompasses 28 square miles.
It is the distance at which direct knowledge meets the Earth’s curvature. It is also a distance which encompassed every great city known to history before the twentieth century. If a man walked three miles in any direction from the Roman Forum, he would have found himself two miles past the city walls built by Aurelian — and well into the agricultural hinterlands which fed and watered the Eternal City.
So by this reasoning, if we take Nature as the starting point, all additional moves into greater density of population and variety of uses should never remove one farther than three miles from Nature. Meaning that whether we are on a farm, having coffee in a hamlet, selling insurance at our office in town, dining with friends in a suburb, or spending a weekend in a loft apartment in the middle of a city, we should be capable of encountering a complete human system — one which could be taken in with a glance from a lowly altitude.
Living in this way is moral in the sense that we are aware of our dependencies and our interdependencies. We can actually see the land which makes our own local society possible.
What’s needed now, I suspect, is a strong, rationally worded case for the morality of seeing oneself as a part of one’s actual surroundings. To see, clearly, where our food originates, where our rainwater runs, and the lives of the people who make our lives possible is to possess moral knowledge of a most direct variety.
Very few of us today possess direct knowledge of who, exactly, baked our daily bread, nor where the water from our morning shower goes when we’ve finished with it.
Living in this way would more nearly approach the cultural ideal of Wendell Berry by making knowledge of one’s place — and one’s part in that place — a daily revelation. Living in this way accommodates those who wish to live in any particular transect, but who must sense their dependence on a whole place if their moral sense is to survive.
Meritocracy masks our true relationship to our accomplishments by giving us the impression that we are self-made, but it seems to me to be preceded by a dispersion which masks our true relationship to land as well as to others. We imagine our cities stand on their own and we could not be more mistaken.
I’m pretty sure that some kind of rational defense needs to be made in favor of intra-cultural social proximity of the classes. New Urbanists typically look upon their designs as places for inter-cultural social proximity of the classes, and most would consider my suggestion to be a bigoted one. Au contraire! says I, for you will not find a more enthusiastic supporter of culture, from the Hasidim of Crown Heights in Brooklyn to the hippies of Haight-Ashbury, to the Creole neighborhood of Tremé here in New Orleans. Each is very nearly like the sort of community I mean when I speak of a place with “intra-cultural social proximity of the classes,” and each of these neighborhoods is able to manifest a coherence across their many social and economic strata precisely because of their intra-cultural base.
Roger Scruton has said that real communities are essentially closed places. One is either in or out, because the work of a real community requires knowing both who you are as well as who you are not. This has been known to disturb the critics.
But whereas the boundary surrounding a “closed” community has historically been intra-cultural, intra-social and intra-economic, today’s communities isolate social and economic classes while insisting on inter-cultural mixing. Robert Putnam’s research reveals that communities of this type and character possess less social capital — the willingness on the part of an individual or collection of individuals within a community to give of themselves towards the betterment of that place-than places which are measurably less diverse.
This speaks volumes, I think, about the limits of human nature to observe and process cultural information. At some point, our brains run out of the processing capacity needed to take in the motives and actions of people with whom we do not share a common way. We cannot make sense of them, nor they of us.
Andres Duany and other New Urbanists spend a good bit of time promoting the mixing of socio-economic classes within the same community, usually by appealing to their listeners’ sense of fairness: “You once lived in a cheap apartment and look how well you turned out. Why would you deny the same opportunity to the next generation, including your own children?”
But appeals to what is fair will only take you so far. There are plenty of hard, rational reasons for living within a community with a common (intra-cultural) way that, nonetheless, cut across a transect of social and economic classes. In other words, we need to strive for the greatest diversity possible within a single culture.
And by single culture, I don’t mean a town composed of only Baptists who fish and drink on the sly. The broader cultural strokes are sufficient, so that a predominantly Christian community can live within Eastern Rite, Western Rite, or Protestant interpretations of scripture and get along with one another. Their scriptural interpretations and their getting-along are coherent and therefore, compatible. Everything makes sense. Not so with, say, Jews and Palestinians, a true “clash of civilizations” that proximity exacerbates.
Culture is — by my reckoning — much more difficult than design. Good culture is the prerequisite to good design. One may have excellent design and a stagnant or nonexistent culture. On occasion, I have seen a good culture get swept up by the fashionableness of bad design, but only temporarily. And yet it is culture which performs the handyman function on place once the designers have packed up and left. It is culture which saves its money, cleans and trims the landscape, washes and paints the clapboard, or fixes the broken shingles. It only does this when it cares about place, and it must be browbeaten to pick up the smallest gum wrapper when it doesn’t care. I am not aware of any real estate management company which could match culture’s “particular devotions, loves, relationships, and knowledge.”
Ugliness and stupidity are always obvious to the common man. Occasionally he will reluctantly allow himself to buy into the grisly stillbirths put forward as “fashionable design” by the limp and enervated effetes whose main job is to “do” something new, but in the end he awakens and asks himself “what was I thinking?” In many cases, he has neither the confidence nor the authority to declare the emperor naked, but he knows, deep down, that something is dreadfully awry.
So to sum it all up, you’ve got me thinking that dispersion is a natural effect of unrestrained human craving paired with advanced technology; that dispersion — if it is to continue unhindered — has required meritocracy as the preferred metric by which success may be measured; that meritocracy only rewards doing and the tangible result, which means that leisure as a re-creational and re-formative activity, a literal refusal to “do” so that perception might be possible, becomes a luxury item rather than a necessity. Ultimately, when leisure is replaced by relentless and thoughtless activity, comes the concomitant loss of a common way-a cultural death. We constantly do everything, but we no longer love something enough to maintain anything.
Such cultural death is quite visible in the studies by Putnam and others, and in places like Los Angeles — which has become a beautiful place filled with beautiful strangers.
KENNETH W. BICKFORD