Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Urban Transect ("Walkable Settlement") as Foundational Moral Precept: A Critical Response

As part of our ongoing conversation about urban and suburban neighborhoods and land use development, Rick Garnett (post here) asked me for my evaluation of Notre Dame architecture Professor Philip Bess’s mongraph, titled “The Polis and Natural Law: The Moral Authority of the Urban Transect.” Professor Bess’s proposition is that the "Urban Transect" — which he defines as focused upon “mixed-use walkable settlements” — constitutes a fundamental natural law precept that is “valid for all human beings in all times and places” and thus the fostering of which is binding upon all as a matter of conscience.

I very much enjoyed Professor Bess’s engaging manuscript, finding much to praise (and learn from) in his explication of natural law in the Aristotelian and Thomist (Catholic) intellectual traditions, as well as admiring his clear and cogent descriptions of various patterns of housing developments. His engaging style and frequent use of illustrations (both visual and in words) convinced me that taking a course in architecture from Professor Bess would be a wonderful educational experience.

But, as Rick anticipated, I was not convinced by Professor Bess’s central thesis, or at least not so convinced as to accept that all persons of a well-formed Catholic conscience are required to bow before the "Urban Transect" as an infallible moral proposition.

So where, Rick asks me, has Professor Bess “gone wrong”? In my view, he goes astray in at least three ways:

First, Professor Bess overstates the virtues of high demographic density, while neglecting the potential underside of the union of all dimensions of human life in a single geographic setting. If “social isolation” is the danger of the modern suburb, then I submit that “social suffocation” is the risk of the cohesive urban core. Professor Bess touts the New Urbanism vision of being able “to work, shop, play, learn and worship in the same neighborhood.” I too see the appeal of that vision — most of the time.

But what some might see as a dream community, others might experience as a living nightmare. Not everyone may wish to see the boss and co-workers all day at the office, then again in the grocery aisle when picking up the fixings for dinner on the way home, still again at the school softball game that evening, and yet again over the back-yard fence that weekend. Not everyone may wish to encounter the same set of people, over and over again in every dimension of human life and every activity during the week, a never changing human tableau with the same faces and in the same places, day after day.

Most of us are enriched by living within a multiplicity of communities throughout the week. During the work day, we engage with our colleagues at our place of employment, working together as a team to achieve the goals of our collective labor. In the evening and on the weekends, we play and relax with our neighbors and other friends, simultaneously relating stories about what we separately experienced elsewhere in the larger metropolitan setting during the work week and being drawn together by our common interests in our families and neighborhood community. For parents of school-age children, we come together with other parents at the local or parish school, encouraging each other's children and celebrating their school achievements. On Sunday, we worship with our fellow parishioners, yet another community and one of deeply-shared meaning. The fact that, for most of us, these communities do not fold completely in on each other is not a curse, but a blessing.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Especially in my lonely moments (of which there seem to be more as I grow older), I do earnestly wish for that place where, in the words of the theme to Cheers, “everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” But does that yearning for community really demand a planned residential community in which every aspect of daily life is located within a few hundred yards, as Professor Bess suggests as an absolute moral command? I just don’t think so. Instead, the “mixed-use walkable settlement” strikes me as one viable option out of many, one that I find more appealing on some days than on others (or more attractive at some stages of my life than at others).

Second, Professor Bess’s vision, by insisting upon a pedestrian-centric approach to community development, is too narrow to be realistic and is largely incompatible with the modern world. Professor Bess defines the Urban Transect more narrowly than do some others in the New Urbanism movement, saying that it requires not only the ready availability of public transit but should be a fixed site in which all or most of daily life activities are located within a five- to ten-minute walk. In so doing, Professor Bess takes a historically-contingent demographic pattern dating to ancient times and anachronistically drops it into the modern world of dynamic economic and social arrangements.

The "walkable settlement" emerged in primitive times, in which by necessity the average person was born, lived, married, worked, reproduced, and died within a few square miles. The social cohesiveness contributed to an unavoidable insularity, in which people’s experiences were narrowly focused on their discrete set of neighbors and their understanding of the larger world was sadly limited. The high density “mixed-use walkable settlement” of the primitive and medieval worlds was one of social and economic stagnation.

By contrast, those places where human progress flourished and where economic advancement was ignited were the more cosmopolitan urban settings, in which the movement of people (and thus of ideas) was fluid and ever-changing, not tied down to a single geographic point or residential arrangement. Human progress has not been measured by how small is the span within which one can walk from hearth to workplace.

The primary reason that most Americans do not live within a five- to ten-minute walk from where they work is not the limited availability of affordable housing or the preferences of suburban zoning for single family dwellings (although such circumstances of course play a part). Rather, our residential developments reflect the positive economic reality of a dynamic and post-agrarian economy, in which specialization of products and services separates the work-place and the market from the residential neighborhood. In contrast with the “mixed-use walkable settlement” of the pre-modern agrarian society, in which the limited choice of goods and services available to the average person were produced in a small geographic area and sold in the village marketplace, the modern American economy offers a wealth of goods and services responsive to a national marketplace. The economic opportunities created by this market specialization, with its diversification of production and geographic locations, are manifold and multifold — including allowing more people than in prior generations to be devoted to such academic pursuits as writing about natural law and land-use planning.

Third, Professor Bess mistakenly translates a contested preference for a certain approach to community development into an absolute moral precept. In general, I am skeptical of any argument that presents a position on a political or social issue, not merely as an attempt to persuade others that the author’s vision is attractive or at least preferable to others, but as an absolute moral principle to which fealty is demanded by all persons of good conscience. I simply do not accept that the Sierra Club’s political platform for land use planning is grounded upon an infallible moral principle to which I as a Catholic must pledge allegiance, akin to my faithful acceptance of the the Immaculate Conception.

To be sure, Professor Bess does acknowledge that his pedestrian-centric Urban Transect proposition should be acted upon within the constraints of prudential judgment. But he leaves little to no room for such prudential judgment. Indeed, later in the monograph, he withdraws what he had earlier allowed, saying that “while there are surely occasions when prudential judgment warrants ambiguity rather than precision, this appears to me not to be one of them.” The complexities of modern life cannot, in my view, be so simplified into such a one-size-fits-all conception of community building as the equivalent of a moral command, excluding all other perspectives.

I acknowledge with appreciation and gratitude that thoughtful persons, frequently persons of faith, are taking steps to bring about a social revival of the central city. I imagine that Eduardo and Professor Bess, in different ways, are among those making a positive effort to arrest the social, educational, and governmental declines that have tarnished our cities, while working to improve the cultural climate in the cities that often is inhospitable to families.

As I said in my earlier posts (here and here), at the right stage in my life, I may again move to an urban setting that includes the advantages of community that the New Urbanism advocates. But I make no pledge to do so. Instead, I cherish the freedom the make the choice that is right for us when the time comes — and defend that same freedom for others. On this subject, as on others, I strongly believe that a conception of Catholic Social Thought that does not leave ample room for liberty is hollow, fails to connect with the inherent dignity of the human person, and will not resonate with the faithful.

Greg Sisk


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