Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Raymond Hain, in the context of extolling the virtues of a new book of essays by Philip Bess, lays out several arguments for the "new urbanism." This caught my eye:
[This is the most] striking difference between the various communities in the walkable neighborhood and the various communities in the suburbs: the communities of the neighborhood typically overlap, whereas the communities of the suburb do not. Though suburbanites still live, work, play, worship, and shop, there will be very few people, if any, with whom they will have more than one activity in common. We live with people other than those with whom we work, and we pray with yet a third, different community.
The most important feature of contemporary suburban sprawl, then, has little to do with aesthetics and everything to do with its fragmenting character. Suburbia makes possible and promotes a division between the various individual activities that make up our lives. But while our activities seem fragmented, we must find a way to integrate the various activities in which we engage so that our lives are a harmonious and unified whole. The task of integration, of recognizing the various human goods and pursuing them as a single human agent in search of happiness, is the central task of human life. And it is in terms of an integrated pursuit of the final end that each of the moral and intellectual virtues finds its place.
I'm tempted, as a child of the suburbs who has spent his entire adult life living in cities, to validate my own choices and shout "hurrah!" While the walkable community does offer some advantages over the suburb in this regard, though, I think it's easy to overstate the difference. Integration is difficult in the modern subdivision, to be sure. The task of integration can also be extremely difficult in walkable communities, especially to the extent that urban life can be marked by lower levels of trust and a greater sense of anonymity. And it seems like building a walkable community that also has sufficient employment opportunities to keep everyone working within that community is a very difficult trick to pull off. Even if we get out of our fenced-in back yards and onto the front porch, that's a long way from working and worshipping together.
Hain is not very optimistic about the prospects for another reason, as he concludes:
It looks like all this [integration] is only possible if enough people agree on the end, the general shape of human happiness as a whole, and this agreement on what matters most shapes and makes possible all the other integrative activities of our community. But what if we no longer agree on this (and, frankly, this seems exactly the situation we face today)? Bess reminds us that suburbia represents a turning away from public life towards private life. Front porches have become back decks, and public squares have disappeared. Suppose we were to rebuild those public squares, and all of us spent our evenings on our front porches. We might discover, to our dismay, that we had almost nothing to talk about.
In any event, it's well worth reading.