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.

SOCIAL TRANSECT

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

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

NEW ORLEANS

16 COMMENTS

  1. JB–

    I can believe that Ken Bickford is, as you say, the most philosophically astute developer out there. Would that there were more of them able–and maybe even courageous enough–to say:

    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.”

    You get the sense that most developers and real estate managers are governed more by this: “I flush the hopper here and someone downstream gets a rash? Not my problem.”

    Which means, of course, that they’re not “within three miles of all previous transects” and therefore unable to honor “the distance at which direct knowledge meets the Earth’s curvature”–principles that could certainly do the trick of reintroducing something like moral vision to our ways and ideas about inhabiting the land. They articulate well the propriety of scale.

    They also put me to thinking about one of Kunstler’s gags–something to the effect that you can’t see the Wal-mart from the Target parking lot across the street “because of the curvature of the earth.” It’s nature’s way, says JHK, of telling you that you’re doing a bad job.

    Deneen put up a link here to the TED talk in which Kunstler crack’s this fine joke.

    Ken, if you’re out there, thanks for this. Of course I said all this to Jeremy when he was here giving the original talk, but the hour was late, and his brain cells few, so not much stuck.

  2. A development named after a local creek? When one could call one’s main drag Mt. Rainer Drive (as occurs in a Louisville subdivision, a mere three-days’ drive from the original) or my favorite, KenCarla Way (after Mr. and Mrs. Developer–though perhaps I should not complain about this one, as they were themselves local products)?

    It’s a start. It gives such a community a thread of a tie to the place it sits, so that while you are starting from scratch there, as any spanking new township must, you have little root. I’ll take it.

    Still, living as I do on the outskirts of an ever-spreading city, and seeing the attempts to develop farmland here, I have mixed feelings about even new urbanism. In eastern Jefferson County (that’s Louisville’s county) the much-touted new urbanist mixed used community complete with twice weekly farmers’ market is going up on what had been, of course, a farm. I will take thoughtful development gladly, because I must take development, but I will say, with respect to all here, that I wish half the mindfulness and work that has gone into new urbanism was going into old agrarianism.

    Caveats aside, thanks to Mr. Bickford for his excellent comments.

  3. Jeremy,

    Thank you for sharing the email from Mr. Bickford. In reading your original post I had failed to understand the role meritocracy plays in destroying both the “Urban Transect” and “Social Transect”. Mr. Bickford’s email was correct in explaining how the values of meritocracy lead ultimately to a forced separation of social classes, and an in-humanely scaled place. The end result of this deconstruction of society is that the culture withers away. It is a good reminder that there are concrete, natural limits that support humanity in both the physical, and social world. Modernity, by deconstructing society into a mass of individuals, has destroyed the intermediary social organizations that support true community by creating the social capital that holds a culture together.

    This leads me to wondering, now that we know how we got here, how the devil do we get back? New Urbanism is a part of the solution. Human scaled places play a role, but they will need human scaled economy to avoid the trap of becoming a “stage set” of Mayberry, inhabited by individuals who still work, and live in the meritocracy. Alternative business models like CSA, Fair Trade, and the Economy of Communion are promising, but cannot be applied to the Stockholder Corporation model. What is needed to ultimately break the stranglehold of the transnational corporation is an alternative business model that is human scaled, but economically competitive with the current corporate model. It has been hoped that the rise of new information technologies could ultimately lead to such a disruption of the current corporate model, but experience to date has shown that the transnational corporation has used these tools to strengthen their hold on economic life.

  4. It seems to me that meritocracy is bound to destroy itself because there will be more of those lacking merit and those with it, more losers than winners. Eventually and inevitably the losers will come to feel (rightly or wrongly) that it is the standards of merit that are wrong. See how “emotional intelligence” became the rallying cry of those losing out in the intellectual intelligence meritocracy.

    As for social capital, I’d like to plug my post “Why Diversity Destroys Social Capital” here: http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/02/why-diversity-destroys-social-capital.html

  5. Thomas G.,
    It has been argued by some, most notably Kunstler, that energy scarcity with break the stranglehold of the transnational corporation and force a re-localizing and re-scaling of productive activity.

  6. Empedocles,

    Thanks for the comment, and the link to your post on Putnam’s research.

    I’m aware of the scarcity argument, and was remiss in not mentioning it in my comment. The one problem that I have with the scarcity argument is the inherent fatalism of it. While I am not familiar with Kunstler’s argument for it, I have been concerned about the sense of glee I detect from some commentators who argue for the benefits of oil scarcity. It seems to me that if society waits for oil scarcity to tackle the inherent cultural destruction of globalization it will be to late. At that point we would be looking at worldwide social-political turmoil of a scale far greater than anything experienced in world history. If that happens I’m afraid most of us will be too busy stocking up on “canned goods and ammo” to bother with any of this.
    Perhaps that is our fate, but I have more hope for us than that.

  7. Bickford’s account of MacIntyre’s theory of “practice” as either an explanation of or a challenge to meritocracy is right on. In the early pages of “After Virtue” — pages that do not always seem to “merit” much attention, actually — MacIntyre defines the Weberian manager as one of the central characters of our day. The manager is one who does not have to ask questions about the Good, but can assume without question the good he must seek (bureaucratic efficiency) and pursue it more or less well; depending on how well he pursues this effectiveness, he will be either a better or worse manager.

    The importance of the manager character in our culture is both obvious and telling. It is obvious insofar as all of us have in our stock imaginations such a figure; we all can envision the caricature manager, and we all know that we can imagine such a caricature precisely because we understand the societal drive to respect and envy them. Such persons “do” “real things” in the “real world.” They get results. They are effective. No one would question that the manager (the executive or the bureaucrat) is to our age something like what a warrior-king was to Homer’s.

    No wonder then that the manager character “tells” us much about our culture. Such a character is the one sort to which we can comfortably attach impersonal standards of excellence that do not require an appeal (naturally) to personal or moral sentiment. Almost all of us, from time to time, imagine what a relief it would be to be such a character, and many of us live in just such a state of relief. For, the manager does not by definition have to ask questions about the Good. His good is that assigned him in virtue of his role, his position, in a large bureaucratic-financial structure. A society that feels with pain and confusion the absence of other kinds of social structure besides this one, and therefore, a society that lacks a secure sense that non-managerial or non-bureaucratic activities are “worth” anything, will instinctively cling to the figure of the manager as, at once, an ideal, a cause of envy, and a cause of satire.

    In sum, the manager is the only figure in modern society who seems to have a secure purpose (a definite good) beyond his or our questioning, and therefore an objective criterion by which his excellence, his practice-derived virtue, can be measured. The reason for this is that our society is utterly lacking in communities, that is to say, in places where people can confer and agree on the Good — goods other and perhaps more substantial than bureaucratic efficacy. Our lack of a community that can outfit us with a consensus vision of the Good and a vision of what a good person looks like (one who lives to conform to that good), leaves us lacking for the kind of objective standards of a good life that all of us require. Without community, no vision of the Good; no vision of the Good, no vision of what a good life objectively looks like; lacking a vision of a good life, one flails and seeks the security of a verifiable, measurable mode of life attached to an uninterrogated conception of goodness, bureaucratic efficiency.

    The lure of meritocracy would never have been so effective had communities not already lost shared conceptions of a good life or — more likely — had they not already and long ago imported into themselves doubts about any good appart from procedural, bureaucratic power in pursuit of financially lucrative efficiency.

    We mock managers, because they seem to lack any kind of “higher” sense of good. But we also envy them, because by their nature they do not have to ask any questions at all about the ends they pursue; they only have to pursue them effectively. There is great security in that — even more security than can be discovered in the lucre that often accompanies the managerial life.

  8. I want to begin by saying a sincere thanks to those who have responded so thoughtfully to my musings.

    To Thomas G., who asked “how the devil do we get back?” and then thought aloud—quite correctly, I think—that human scaled economy is the uncrackable nut standing between us and real community: There are few places left in America—and almost no New Urbanist places at all—which have anything more than the thinnest slice of a local economy within them, and without such an economy it will be impossible to live within a humanly scaled space. I might respectfully disagree, however, that what is needed is an “alternative business model that is human scaled, but economically competitive with the current corporate model,” if only because I doubt whether any humanly scaled business model will ever be price competitive with a global business model.

    I’m not suggesting that small business should completely cede price point to big business, but as long as transportation costs and labor are cheap relative to disposable income it is doubtful whether small business can find an advantage there. Having said that, I fully support exploring any restructuring which would allow local business to compete—and I have suggestions for the same.

    But all is not necessarily lost. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a fine example of how one very small part of our economy—even the most important part—has reconnected production with consumption. As a general thing, it has not accomplished this by being economically competitive, but rather because of a conscious effort on the part of its customers to live locally. I’m not sure whether this exercise of public will can be pushed to reconnect all of a place’s consumption with local production, but it’s a start.

    There’s no getting around the fact, though, that real community will require local production paired with local consumption.

    Katherine Dalton raises a good point, that much of New Urbanist development is replacing farmland with farmers’ markets—an unsustainable trajectory if ever there was one. However, when New Urbanism is found in a rural area, it tends to promote the preservation of farmland and wilderness. (For a good, graphical view of New Urbanism in this respect, go to http://www.dpz.com, click on “Research,” and then click on the link to “diagrams.”)

    In the end, James Matthew Wilson’s insight says it all: “The lure of meritocracy would never have been so effective had communities not already lost shared conceptions of a good life.”

    I don’t know whether or not it’s possible to restore a shared conception of the good life, but by God, we’re going to give it a try at Chappapeela. This much I do know: People want community. They want it so much than when they smell even a whiff of it they will start vowing to fall off of the meritocracy wagon and commence living right. Whether or not they will accept the sacrifices which must be made—and most importantly, the boundaries which must be set—in order to get community remains to be seen.

    The Quest for Community continues…

  9. “The lure of meritocracy would never have been so effective had communities not already lost shared conceptions of a good life.”

    There is much to say here, but I’m thinking the crux of returning to a shared conception of the good life comes in a unified religous faith. One wonders if the reason American communities were vulnerable to the rise of meritocracy was due to the fractured nature of its Protestant majority. Sorry to bring up such a contentious subject, but I think the nature of American Christianity is a substantial factor in why these conceptions of a good life no longer were “shared.”

  10. Speaking of scale, is it not likely that the artificially cheap money that came from the bubble is now shut off, that many of the large corporations that grew at the expense of everyone else will now shrink and go away?

    http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/17-06/nep_essay

    Also, the rise of DIY technology should also fuel the kind of decentralization that you guys favor:

    http://makezine.com/

    http://ginkgobioworks.com/

    It also seems to me that open source technology should work in your favor as well:

    http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/17-06/nep_newsocialism

  11. Neither of “kurt9’s” articles say “Middle America is coming back.” One says conditions are sufficiently poor that they approximate to the 1970s, when certain “start up” companies appeared in the Midwest (how many of them are still there? Not many). Jeremy observed on FPR that a small “renaissance” was in fact taking place in terms of a sprout of micro-farms — an empirical observation to which this Forbes article adds little.

    Taxation incentives and “renaissance zones” (as touched on in the WSJ article) are a chancy and bold initiative that I have watched work initially and subsequently fail in several Midwest towns and cities. I would not want to abandon this sort of scheme; it seems it could work. However,there hasn’t been any (that I’m aware of) lasting decisive success for these practices, though they do slow the bleeding in some places and they do help areas that are already doing fairly well. Ireland, as WSJ notes, is the great recent nation-level instance of a tax renaissance zone. The Celtic Tiger has fallen, and fallen hard, for reasons well worth exploring.

  12. James Matthew Wilson,

    I think you would agree that what is discussed in the articles I linked to is at least a start on dealing with the brain drain problem. Unlike the articles here in FPR, at least the WSJ and Forbe’s articles suggest concrete approaches to dealing with this problem. The article writers here in FPR seem to just complain about competent people living their hometowns to seek opportunity elsewhere.

    Well, gee guys. If the opportunities aren’t at home, of course such people are going else where. I mean, what do you expect? If you don’t want Mohammad going to the mountain, you’ve got to bring the mountain to Mohammad, but there’s no point in even talking about the problem if you’re not willing to bring the mountain to Mohammad. Maybe what the two articles I linked two will not work. If so, FPR needs to come up with something better. So far, you haven’t.

    Caleb Stegall talks about how he was so successful as a lawyer in fighting the abortion battle on the national level. If he was this kind of lawyer, perhaps he has the high level connections, connections that could be used to promote venture capital and other investment in the “heartland” he claims is so dear to him. It seems to me that he (and others) would rather complain about people seeking opportunity, in general, than to actually create opportunity for these people.

    In actuality, most young people today are growing up in the suburbs of major metro areas anyways. To someone growing up in the burbs of Chicago or in Chandler, Arizona, the “heartland” that is much discussed in FPR is as alien to them as Kaoshiung, Taiwan.

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