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City of God and city of man, take II

In comments on a recent entry, David Sucher was quite skeptical that either modernist urban design or its contrary has anything to do with religion or general political divides like liberalism and conservatism. He also wanted to know just what I meant by “modernist urban design.” Since the issues are interesting, my views need developing, and this is my blog I’ll go into the matter a little more:

  • By “urban design” I mean the practices etc. that determine how cities are built, and by “modernist” I mean a basically technological approach to things—one that defines separate functions and tries to carry out each as efficiently as possible. Put the two together and you get what I call “modernist urban design”—rows of large glass boxes in the middle of plazas, belt parkways, bedroom communities, big shopping malls in the middle of big parking lots, and so on. I hate all those things because they’re alienating. They’re deadening. They make it impossible to feel that one is in a world that in its arrangements and rhythms connects to any pleasing or comfortable or natural way of living. Since they put one in a physically alienating world they also alienate one from one’s neighbors, the people with whom one connects by sharing a physical environment.
  • Using “modernity” or “modernism” as synonyms for “technological rationalism” may be confusing, some would say incorrect. I won’t argue the point here, but I hope it’s clear I’m not talking about architectural or artistic modernism, which I understand as an attempt to achieve some sort of artistic integrity in a world generally dominated by a technocratic outlook.
  • The traditional town is the opposite of the modernist or technocratic town in all respects. The objects are more my size. To the extent some of them are (obviously!) much bigger than I am hierarchical detailing and variations of design (e.g., streets, squares, boulevards and whatnot) bridge by stages the gap between my scale and the scale of a large building or the town as a whole. Since decoration is integrated with the detailing I feel further at home and in a world that reflects human concerns such as beauty, comfort, dignity, continuity with the past and whatnot. A tendency to mix uses further helps the sense that the environment fits together with the whole of human life.
  • Traditional towns also give much more of a sense of particularity of place and connection to a definite past. That also helps one connect to one’s surroundings. Modern design and architecture give the impression that you could be anywhere at all, which is disorienting. Also, it promotes vitality of community life to give up the attempt to serve particular uses extremely efficiently and to favor settings like town squares and mixed-use neighborhoods that permit people to initiate and pursue, without going out of their way, a variety of connections and purposes of their own choosing.
  • The association with “liberalism” is a matter of general philosophy rather than practical partisan politics. In America almost all politics, certainly at the national level, is philosophically liberal—that is to say, it has to do with helping people get whatever they happen to want as efficiently as possible. Thought today tends strongly to treat means/end rationality as the only rationality, and to treat final ends as arbitrary choices. That trend is reflected in philosophical and ultimately political liberalism. It is also reflected in hyperrationalized (and unliveable) modern cityscapes that train us in the forms of thought behind them.
  • The main thing opposing that tendency is a residual religious understanding that there are “higher goods”—final ends that can not be manipulated, reduced to the goals we happen to choose, or even formulated with total clarity. Modern conditions have generally favored technocratic ways of thought and suppressed what opposes them. Social life is somewhat of a piece, though, so if the limitations of hyperrationalized ways of doing things is recognized in the built environment, and changes are made, then the changes will spill over to other aspects of life and resistance will become easier. The physical setting of people’s lives will begin to train them out of technological rationalism. The friendliness of the built environment to evolved small-scale social arrangements will make it easier for people to grow into the ways of feeling and understanding that naturally characterize human beings, which have a much greater religious and communal component than we see around us today.
  • All of which may seem somewhat speculative and high-flown. The basic idea is simple, that man is naturally social and religious, and a setting that facilitates natural human forms of connectedness will favor productive expression of other aspects of human nature as well. Nonetheless, it may be easier to approach the matter from the standpoint of the antireligious effects of the technocratic cityscape. Certainly that was the focus of the pieces I cited in my original entry. Modern cityscapes separate people from each other and so make religious community, among other forms of community, that much more difficult.
  • For a lengthy look at related issues, here’s another piece, that Mr. Sucher kindly forwarded.


Here is some evidence that modern architecture arose from the sexual deviance of its originators.


To Liberalism, religion is a technology. It is a human created social engineering tool, to be applied to a social order like the correct amount of baking powder in a bread recipe. You have to know the ‘right amount’ and only the formula will tell you that.

If the cosmos is just a machine, now and then you have to oil it when it gets clanky.

At the root of modern city planning is the viral infection of liberalism’s premise that the engine of beauty and architectural harmony in a city is a technical formula which, correctly applied, ‘cooks up’ what people long for, community, connectedness, neighborliness, beauty, and the ‘love of environment’ which creates the motive to care for it, which can be the only reasonable definition of ‘sustainable architecture’ or ‘sustainable cities.’

What these forumlas create is graphically illustrated in James Kunstler’s book, Home from Nowhere, in the figure on page 111, titled ‘current zoning codes’. Here you see a diagram of circles labeled as follows: school, shopping, education, entertainment, home, hospital. Each circle is connected to every other circle by a line, representing a ‘technological connecting device’, the telephone, automobile, bus, etc. This diagram IS the spatial experience of driving around a ‘big box’ shopping district, of interconnected seas of parking lots, punctuated by identical box forms, egalitarian boxes I might add, screaming signs the only assertion of heirarchy! “Always low prices! Always!” The experience, once one makes three or more turns in his auto, is of disorientation…of being hopelessly lost. You start to look for where the sun is on the horizon to get your bearings.

Zoning, instituted for your health and welfare, and building codes, and sales engineering requirements have created this heaven for commerce! It’s the future! Your feelings of anomie when you are in its clutches must be decisively disavowed!

This ‘form’ has replaced the archetypal form of the European village, which can be drawn as a mountain rising to a point which seems to want to pierce the heavens. The high point is the church steeple, and next come government and civic structures (in height) an next mercantile/shop districts where shopkeepers and laborers can live over their places of work. On the edge are the farms which supply the village. Space is heirarchical the center and heights occupied by the most important social functions. Also, I might add, the arrangement of its parts intuitively understood when one sees the real thing, or even a one line diagram of it compared to the rationalistic diagram of egalitarian circles connected by egalitarian lines.

Carl Jahnes

I wouldn’t be the first to point out that modernism became a kind of religion for many of the people who practiced it. David will probably quarrel with me on this point, but I don’t think it’s just a matter of practicalities—there are deeper reasons (a few of them even non-economic) why people were and are so determined to drive the modernist vision through, and I think it’s great to respond to those drives, which are (IMHO, of course) religious ones, however much they may claim they aren’t. Heck, if they weren’t religiously driven, why would they be so incredibly snappish (and offended, and made furious) about being disagreed with or challenged?

Michael’s comments bring Mary Douglas’ observations to mind…that Man is a creature for whom artistic form in physical objects, words, bodily movements, become metaphors, symbols which stand for meanings mundane and profound. Most often they are compulsive and instinctive attempts to fashion one’s world so that that world and its parts and ornaments become a reflection in space and time of what one believes is the Identity and Source of the Good, the Beautiful and the True.

This symbol making propensity is fueled by man’s insatiable desire to be connected to God, to transcendent Truth. So, it can either be a conscious activity if one is not afraid to believe that his god’s authority preserves his human freedom, or it can be unconscious if one believes faith in a god ties man up in fossilized rituals to create fetters to control other men and women. One would proclaim, by his instinct to make symbols of what he believes for example, the divinity of Man. But what ‘science’ proves that man is divine? We can create a symbolic world to proclaim our freedom from the gods, from constricting superstition, only to hide from ourselves a slavery to the faith the Identity and Location of the Good the Beautiful and the True is in Man, and that the understanding of this ‘fact’ becomes explicit through a nebulous process of social concensus. The myth of the so-called ‘social contract.’

To the Corbusian Modernist, the white faceless apartment block brushes the sky, and down below the tenements have been razed, carted away, leaving a green space extending to the horizon and infinity. The white box forms of his houses become direct allusions to the laboratory, where science and socialism WILL usher in heaven on earth, once we control nature, as soon as we understand her laws. All it will take then, is a ‘recipe’ to cook up beauty.

I was explaining this to one of my coworkers today, and he said architects should only do ‘ethical’ design. Well, I asked him, ethical by what god’s decree?

Carl Jahnes and Michael Blowhard raise interesting issues related to modernism etc.

I usually use “modernity” and “modernist” to refer to the overall tendency of thought that abolishes the transcendent. As such it abolishes essences and so reduces all goods to human desire and all nature to raw material for the rational fulfillment of desire. It’s the tendency of thought that makes technological rationality the universal principle of morality and politics. So described, it doesn’t sound like much of a religion. It puts everything on the same absolutely mundane level. Still, it claims to be an authoritative system of truth so as Carl points out it functions as a religion. Enlightened people believe true righteousness consists in furthering it and doing away with whatever opposes it.

Still, not everybody is satisfied. In particular, artistic types don’t like the reduction of beauty to pleasure, of poetry to pushpin or for that matter to the pleasure of scratching oneself. It seems that something is lost when everything is made interchangeable with everything else. Much of artistic modernism involves an attempt to reassert what’s been lost in ways that don’t make sense because the fundamental principles of modernity aren’t questioned. It’s a revolt against modernity that fails because it accepts the basics of what it’s revolting against. The incoherence explains the intolerance, bad temper and cultishness Michael mentions.

A lot of it’s pointlessly reactive. Since modernity abolishes differences of kind and makes everything part of the same technological system modernism insists on absolute originality. Since modernity makes pleasure the ultimate criterion modernism invents a new concept of beauty that excludes pleasure and doesn’t even call itself beauty any more. Confronting people and making them uncomfortable is needed to establish the aesthetic integrity and importance of a work of art, because otherwise the work would simply be absorbed into the general system of mundane utilitarianism.

So where do we go from here? The New Urbanism, with its openness to things that are unplanned, seems to suggest the beginnings of an escape from the closed utilitarian system modernity has established. It seems to me though that at some point those beginnings will have to be supplemented by a more definite recognition, in the built environment as elsewhere, of things that lie outside that closed utilitarian system. In the long run then there is likely to be a need for Carl’s churches and town halls as well as for the correct placement of parking lots—important and useful though the latter point unquestionably is.

The archtypal form of the European village I mentioned above, the hill which ascends to a point meeting the heavens, was a response to the environment - in Italy malarial mosquitos didn’t inhabit the heights where the healing breezes blew - to the requirements of defense - Hold the heights! - to well established spiritual traditions held by the community - the shelter and symbol of the supreme social function, the worship of God, be reflected in the ‘form’ of the city. Technical considerations were important, as how high could you build a stone wall without reinforcing elements, but ‘technique’ was under the control of one of the two Powers the West is known for, the Spiritual Power. This power judged whether it was *right* to create a physical symbol, an artifact which contradicted what the Church taught. No structure then, should occupy a more prominent spot in the village than the Church, because this would imply its preeminence over her.

The extension of ‘technology’ into every nook and cranny of life was limited by a mutually accepted (for the most part) authority which determined whether the new or proposed technology *should* be accepted into the social mix. The Amish community today is one ‘authority’ which is able to maintain its preminence over modernity…exactly in the sense you define it, Jim. It views traditional religion as a creation of man for the purpose of social control. It presupposes man is the measure of all things.

Have you seen the designs of Boulee? He put in form what the French Revolution proclaimed. That Man is divine, and that the revolutionary environments he dreamed up would proclaim that Man has shaken off the shakles of supersition and that the Legislator who *knew* this would force men to be free. Well, we know what that got us.

But what we don’t see is what our symbols embodied *everywhere* in our built enviromnent increasingly proclaim (and by the way this was my point in my posts about Libeskind’s tower being a reach for a ‘transcendence’ of sorts, that of divinized Man bursting engineering limits of height, of structure to pierce the heavens with a new tower of commercial babble) that any and every technology is a means of salvation, of furthering the good life, and when a new technology bursts on the scene, cloning for example, only a Luddite Rube would claim that there exists a higher standard of truth which determines that this technology is intrinsically evil and should be shut up in a sealed salt mine along with barrels of nuclear waste. Such a person is laughed out of the academy.

Alasdair MacIntyre gave an example of how we have lost our living tradition by which we judge conformity of symbols to the True, Beautiful and Good, (Christendom) and we have lived, starting with the so-called Reformation, in a foreign tradition. The churches were razed and altars stripped, and eventually the government buildings took the place of the Church in the built landscape. The genie is out of the bottle though, because when Man becomes the definer of the standards which determine What Spaces will occupy places of prominence in the village, the skeptical among us ask, “WHICH men make this determination?” Verily verily.

Now our tradition operates by its own laws, produces its own judgements, is consistent with its premises. However, it produces environments some of us positively hate, but even when we are lost in them, we can get what we want when we want it at a reasonable price. I can live in the country, and drive to the city for a show and a meal and a fine bottle of wine.

It seems to me that the new urbanism wants to reproduce what was an organic tradition by ‘modern’ means…developers have to purchase huge tracts, get politicians to deliver tax abatements, get politicians to deliver variances to their traditional zoning codes, and then the developers have to create their own political subdivision, known affectionately as the ‘deed restrictions’ policed by apparatchicks of the ‘homeowners’ association’ because I, when the development becomes a raving commericial success, HAVE to be prohibited from coming into the center of town, and buying a plot caddy corner from City Hall to plop down my new CVS drugstore.

Here’s a thought. New Urbanism is only a more successful extension of Disneyland into everyday life. Think of the new town, ‘Celebration’. Hidden from Truman is the technological infrastructure it takes to bring the artifact into existence…to maintain it…to subsidize the cutesy shops…the symbol, the reconstructed new town, HIDES better from the believer in Modernity but who hates its more raw symbols (Bauhaus architecture) the fact that IT ITSELF is the latest symbolic expression of Modernity, filtering out the uncomfortable and unbearable truth that its dwellers must live with these symbols because it is the only way they can bear that they live in unquestioning servility to the technological imperitive.

New Urbanism seems fine, until you consider the old urbanism:

“At the time the [Delaware & Hudson] Building was conceived, it was standard to base designs of contemporary buildings on specific precedents in the architecture of the past. Marcus T. Reynolds, therefore, visited Belgium in 1912 and selected the Guild Hall of the Cloth Makers in Ypres (also known as the Cloth Hall) as the primary model for the D&H Building. Begun in 1205, the Cloth Hall was completed in the 15th Century and its architectural style is early Flemish Gothic. By coincidence, the Cloth Hall at Ypres was destroyed by German artillary fire in November of 1914, shortly after work was begun on its counterpart in Albany.”

Until I so more reading I’ll have to accept instruction from those who know better, but I thought the tendency in the New Urbanism was toward defining a comparatively few well-chosen rules (e.g., no more than X stories, no cul-de-sacs, a public square here and there, put the parking lot in back) and then let people do things as of right. If so then it seems quite different from Disney-ish imagineering. I’d imagine there are conflicting tendencies as in all movements though.

The rules are simple, yes. But it takes a sophistocated technical and political infrastructure to enforce the rules and to insure the purity of the concept. The ‘architectural expression’ of dominant culture is the network of single use nodes connected by transport technologies…the sea of indistinguishable big boxes in interconnected parking lots, and it will inevitably leak back into the pure new urbanist formal concept because that is what is in the ‘pores’…it is what we live and believe as a set of first principles…

Oh, you and I don’t, maybe. But many of our clients are condominium developers, and they are busy paving farmland to develop market housing which is more like a picture than a real place. You drive over the threshold of the development, past Kentucky horse farm fencing, and the fake guard house, and the pond with the aereator fountain, into a monotonous sea of 4 plex units, each with a 2 car garage, beige carpet, honey oak cabinets, white ‘california stucco’ ceilings, numerous cable tv outlets. You OWN the space encased by the drywall. The condo association, of which you are most often a non-participating member, except for retired engineer busybodies, owns the ‘shell’. It also enforces the deed restrictions, the ‘covenants’ you buy into to achieve the perfect manicured look to the exterior, the myth of the ‘maintenance free’ life. You give up your freedom to park your pickup on the street, to have a woodshop which spills out of your garage. You essentially only have a visual relationship with your environment…it is a Picture. It is also the perfect architectural symbol for the dominant
Modern Worldview, as you’ve defined it. Hide the ‘soft socialist’ infrastructure by heavy marketing whose main message is ‘push the buttons, write the checks, let technology do the work’ (In Disneyland, they have these dwarfs that come out at night to spear all the McDonalds wrappers floating on those perfect green lawns, don’t they? They emerge from underground tunnels and even wear uniforms? They actually live somewhere, I think).

A building is only the skin of the skeleton, the being inside, the life, the institution, business, entity that calls forth its form. The new urbanism relies on the same social and technical infrastructure to come to exist and to maintain its existence as a pure concept as the typical outerbelt condominium development. We hide the electric lines underground and put a phalanx of thick pine trees around the power substation, the gas pumping terminals, the landfills, the strip mines. Now if we could only hide the smoke! I think some enterprising developer is working on self cleaning mirrors to encase these nasty necessities and hide the fact that our symbols of ‘freedom from Modernity’ or our architectural emergence ‘from’ it are just symbols to hide from ourselves our deeper identity as tried and true Modernists. This is just like the African tribal chief who orients his village and decorates his dwelling to convince the villagers that he is ‘god’s conduit’ of authority to them. What does he do when the coke bottle drops from the sky and lands in front of his feet? Are the gods angry?

Carl’s criticisms of New Urbanism strike me as on the money—it can certainly tend towards Volvo socialism. On the other hand, and from a practical point of view, if you’re interested in reestablishing some of the old virtues, I’m not sure what the alternative is to working within (and with) the system as it currently exists. Once the old, tacit understandings have been blown apart, isn’t it likely that putting them back together will have to be a largely conscious process? It’s too bad, but how else to go about these things? I’d love to hear Carl’s ideas about this—I don’t mean this in a challenging way; I suspect he’s on to approaches and thoughts I’m not familiar with. Eager to learn.

A small tale about the New-Urbanist town Seaside, the first of the bunch. It was used as setting and object of mockery for the movie “The Truman Show,” a critique of make-believe and Disneyfication. I happened to talk to some of the people involved in the movie. And they all confessed that they wound up feeling fairly sheepish. They’d arrived all primed to ridicule, but at the end of shooting all agreed that they’d found their weeks in the town very enjoyable. FWIW.

Speaking as a near-absolute newcomer in these things, it seems that there are probably lots of different possibilities someone might link to “the New Urbanism.” For example, there might be:

1. Some version of Carl’s condo developments, a totally planned “community” in which the plan happens to take into account recent views as to what makes for a happening urban scene.

2. A simplified zoning code for of right building in existing cities or suburbs that pays attention to the conditions on which a variety of uses can live together in a way that makes for urban life, combined with transportation (highway and whatnot) and other public policy that respects that goal.

It seems to me the latter, if it’s possible, doesn’t necessarily lead to a yuppified version of modernist oppression.

Michael, your comments are challenging and welcome! I mean that in a good sense. There is the honest good natured ‘challenging’ question (can he succinctly communicate it? get the idea across?), and then there is the ‘challenging tone’of the preformed opinion which seeks, in responses of the challengee, proof of its presuppposed image. I’m approaching this in the former sense!

Jim, at the forefront of my mind and responses here is the preamble to this discussion…Mr. Sucher’s skepticism about ‘religion’ or political ideologies informing and affecting city planning. Please! No more skepticism on this!

In the mix of what’s possible and available to us to recover environments for humans from what we’re making over for machines, new urbanism is welcome. But I also read “Markets and Morality” with its advocation of the Church being a new urbanist developer as a form of ‘evangelism’, and my eyes glaze over.

Our city has ‘The Next Church’(do a websearch for this article in a mid 90’s edition of The Atlantic) megachurch malls of spiritual consumables ringing its outerbelt. These churches are doing the very thing Mr. Bess advocates, *except they are creating sprawl* for
Christ. They buy farms on the outerbelt, put up a sign, “Coming Soon…” and build a metal building (a catecombs symbol…it could just as easily ba a UPS terminal in form…)to which they add and add, surrounded by a sea of parking. They add a school, assisted living complexes, and condominiums featuring ‘universal design’ (units easily adapted to elderly disabilities). They use the very same marketing ‘research consultants’ to determine how many square feet to build, what amenities to offer, absorption rates of units built, price points, and options to offer. These at this point all are individual entities in seas of parking ‘right off the Hilliard exit going north…’

The only new urbanist artifact we have in central Ohio is Easton, a themed small town Ohio replica of a downtown, property all assembled by one wealthy individual’s development division of his immensley successful companies, and I do not know for sure, but I suspect, built somewhat to specifications tenants request, but with the traditional formal overlay imposed by *Zoning*, in the form of a new urbanist addition by ordinance to existing zoning. This is exactly how a mall works.

The mall is actually, within its walls, an authoritarian political subdivision, just as authoritarian as any Medieval Kindgom. You ‘buy in’ to rigid standards of design, cleanliness, participation in group advertising campaigns, signage limits, agreements on hours of operation, and your ‘return’ is statistics on projected guaranteed traffic. The mall is SURROUNDED by parking, and that is why small businesses in the core of our county seat cities in Ohio have dead and dying downtowns (or so they say). But in the mall, you don’t have a ‘gentleman’s club’ opening up next to your fine antiques shop, and you don’t have a dead zone at night when your neighbors go home and refuse to man the store at night, to generate part of the reason to be downtown.

But we Have Here NOW what new urbanists want to plop on brownfields, farms as a single entity. We have declining downtowns in small cities (25,000 to 100,000 population) of Ohio which are *exactly* what new urbanists want to re-create as unitary entities. Why in heaven’s name don’t they address and conserve and breathe new life into the very cities and villages that already exist *here*? That they don’t yet to this, I believe, is because to keep the vision pure and set it into action, they need a project large enough that it can become Loved. To do this, to keep its formal fabric as doctrinnaire ‘new urbanism’ true to its aesthetic principles, it has to form a political subdivision *away* from City Government, because it is that government which misallocates dollars which should be spent on existing infrastructure maintenance, and not spent on extending water and sewer lines to farms to grab more tax base.

New Urbanist development has to have true control of its space, because as the arbiters of its Zoning laws, the City, often for the highest bidder, grants the Variance, the power to do so which exists in *every* code.

Jim, I was objecting to, also, the idea that a ‘themed environment’ can actually be anything more than a Picture Environment, and by that I mean an environment one has relationship with only through the Visual Sense. We experience life in our cars, whiz by villages and landscapes and we hear whatever music or talk radio we perfer, smell the filtered air of our air conditioners, touch the vellour seats or plastic covered steering wheels, and *see* the landscape *framed* by our car windows. We see images in a TV frame. And so, we confuse a whole person experience with the real experience of having 5 senses abstracted into One by our preferred technological conveyance!

I believe it is this ‘training’ which allows people to desire and feel comfortable living in an outerbelt condo as I describe it. I mean, if you get old and can’t mow your lawn, shouldn’t the weeds be able to grow *by right*??? Why do all modern living environments have to be equally dull and equally perfect?

But anyway, I don’t disagree we Traditionalists have to encourage beauty in architecture and planning wherever we see it. But lets honestly try to understand how it is we can all of us create by rules the best intentioned have produced ‘for our safety and welfare’ Ugliness and Anomie. Consider what the most successful big box discounter offers, and whether the allure it has to ordinary folks can be overcome by essentially a monastic, ascetic temperament to trade this retail experience, for walking, lets say in Edgartown Massachussets (since I’m a bit familiar with it) to themed botiques and shoppes where I have to buy overpriced goods and get 75% to 50% of what I could afford at the big box? Giving up your car for the bus (out here) would be akin to the aescetic experience of donning a monk’s habit and taking an oath to the monastery. Difference in degree, of course, but foreign to us now.

Enough for now. Next I’ll tell you the latest effort to ‘save downtown’ in our town, our ‘alternative’ to new urbanism, to save the OLD urbanism… and in its 4th year running (the most successful and productive effort yet!) we may rescue our downtown before its critical mass is carted away to a landfill.

Carl’s critique of new urban developments - that they are merely “themed” environments - is remarkably similar to those made by the radical left wing and self-avowed Marxists. I’m sure Carl can appreciate the irony of keeping such company.

Carl is correct that Easton Town Center is a mall dressed up with (admittedly attractive) urbane flourishes. Ever since new urbanism became a popular marketing term, developers have felt free to slap the label on just about any project that might have porches or sidewalks. There are several lists of new urban developments, maintained by different groups, and none include Easton.

The new trend of the “live-in mall” makes for perfectly horrible, dystopian living environments where the civic realm is replaced by shopping plaza. In the built expression of place, consumerism becomes the highest aspiration.

There are efforts to define and appraise new urban projects. I think you’d be interested in that debate, because it goes to the heart of what makes a good place. In order to prevail against the status quo, new urbanism often must resort to technocratic arguments. A completely objective appraisal system would be most effective, and some measures can indeed be objective (compactness, connectivity, mixed use, etc.) although some subtlety and judgement is lost. However, on critical measures such as quality of the architecture, streetscape or civic space, total objectivity is probably impossible. The best we might be able to achieve is firm, clear standards like those used to rate the artistic merits of an ice skating performance.

It may be that the DNA of modernist planning will inevitably leak into the pores of new urbanist neighborhoods. At the same time, those that have been built are serving as models and inspiration for reform. Developers, planners and architects visit the mature new urbanist neighborhoods in droves and take away a sense of possibility in the context of contemporary development practice.

Carl wonders why new urbanists aren’t “breathing life” into old towns. The fact of the matter is half of new urban projects at the neighborhood scale (more than 15 acres) are infill, often redeveloping abandoned structures and cleaning up contaminated properties. Many new urbanists are closely allied with historic preservation, main street revitalization and downtown redevelopment initiatives.

New urbanism is varied. Some projects are totally planned and managed according to a cold calculation of higher profits resulting from a created “happening” scene. Other projects are built by taking risks and making sacrifices and time commitments that don’t make sense to Wall Street, but do make sense to owners with a conscience who are determined to improve their part of the Earth.

Most new urbanist developments built on greenfields (previously undeveloped land) control their space to a greater degree than older urban centers. This isn’t Volvo socialism, but rather an absolutely capitalistic response to the free market. Most new developments throughout the nation have an extra layer of privatized government, and home buyers and retailers demand the control and high-quality management afforded by these associations. I wish it was not so, but competition forces this situation. Even older downtowns are adopting the suburban model, with BIDs taking on the role of mall manager. On the positive side, new urbanist developers have created some good model homeowner associations that are far more democratic than the run of the mill.

I’m extremely interested in the antagonism between community and inclusivity that Jim has pointed out, and I hope he will continue discussing the topic. It’s one that is central to new urbanism, and new urbanists have not yet faced it comprehensively.

I don’t think I’ve commented on community and inclusion in connection with the New Urbanism, but it does seem there would be issues.

“Community” involves freedom, restraint and common values. Freedom encourages unplanned complex interactions among people for a wide variety of particular goals, many of them unforeseeable. Restraint involves common standards, mostly informal, that keep people out of each other’s way. And common values facilitate cooperation and make it more likely that people will hang together and find common or at least consistent goals.

What it all amounts to is that community involves common culture, or at least a dominant public culture. The limits it places on freedom tend to be informal, flexible and home-grown, and dependent on common understandings that can’t be forced. All that’s cultural, so “inclusiveness” doesn’t like it. Inclusiveness thinks it’s oppressive and racist for particular cultural habits and attitudes to be dominant. It claims to celebrate all cultures, which in practice
means that all cultures have to be irrelevant to everything that matters. Otherwise, not all cultural tendencies will be equally represented and rewarded everywhere.

So instead of informal restraints of culture and community all restraint has to be formal and regulatory—we get enclosed malls, gated communities, BIDs and whatnot to make up for a loss of common understandings of how things should be and how people should act. Instead of the common values symbolized by Carl’s churches and whatnot you get the acultural common values of money and consumerism symbolized by the shopping mall.

In a free community interactions are mainly spontaneous. That means they’re based on the common goals and understandings and feelings of affiliation people are actually moved by. To the extent the interactions are durably satisfying they settle into institutions. My understanding of the New Urbanism is that it tries to improve urban life by providing an environment in which such things come about easily.

Unfortunately, that kind of freedom means social differentiation. Not everyone is moved by the same things, not everyone connects equally with everyone, and not everyone has the same talents. So the practices and institutions that arise in such a situation won’t be “inclusive”—they’ll involve different sorts of people in very different proportions. And they can’t be made inclusive without destroying the genius of the system, without telling people that no matter how good the results or how harmless or even beneficial to others they can’t simply link up and pursue rewarding goals with rewarding people. People have to drop what they’re doing and give up the specificity of their vision and human connections for the sake of making sure other voices, perspectives, interests, backgrounds and whatnot are always equally included and taken into account in everything that has the slightest public importance.

So it seems to me that inclusiveness is at odds with what I take to be the more interesting—and inspirational—side of the New Urbanism, its interest in productive spontaneous life. The basic problem is that community is nonmodernist while inclusiveness is hypermodernist—it insists on bringing about a preordained result at odds with natural human tendencies in all aspects of social life through whatever technical means are necessary.

Anyway, that’s my rant on community and inclusiveness. The latter ideology is simply inconsistent with the former.

Mr. Kalb writes (today, 09:04 AM),

“What it all amounts to is that community involves common culture, or at least a dominant public culture.”

This is the crux of the entire discussion. Without confronting and dealing with this elemental truth—which is not going to go away, folks, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the participants—all the rest of the discussion will be in vain.

Mr. Kalb writes,

“Inclusiveness thinks it’s oppressive and racist for particular cultural habits and attitudes to be dominant. It claims to celebrate all cultures, which in practice means that all cultures have to be irrelevant to everything that matters.”

In other words, it claims to celebrate all cultures, which in practice means that no culture (still less any *ethno*-culture, which refers partly to ethnicity or race) will be permitted to exist except the liberal “culture” that decrees all cultures will be celebrated equally, i.e., no culture will be permitted except the liberal “culture” that decrees all cultures will be celebrated equally, i.e., no culture will … and so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam …

People’s sense of being part of a community of individuals, individuals who are alike in some decisive way (usually in ethno-racial, religious, or overall cultural respects, often all three) don’t stop or get put on hold when they leave the four walls of the domicile and go out into the street. People are programmed in their central nervous systems to strongly prefer a feeling of community when they go out into the streets and neighborhoods of their communities (as always, it goes without saying that there are exceptions of course—some individuals have no innate spiritual hunger for the feeling of community in this sense, so let no one attack this by saying, “Hey—but I don’t feel that way!”). There’s no escaping that to have happiness for the largest number there has to be a dominant culture that exists both inside people’s homes and outside them permeating the community at large. This in no way excludes minorities or of course full guarantees for minorities. No one doubts for one second that minorities contribute extremely valuable cultural enrichment and are a very desirable part of the organic whole. But an ethno-cultural world is by definition a community-wide thing which minorities must respect and to which they must defer in the absolute assurance and knowledge that they will always be welcomed and wished well. The solution to minorities’ dislike of minority status (feelings of alienation, etc.) is *not* the Bill & Hillary Clinton/George Bush/Karl Rove one of deliberately changing the whole country’s demographics (against the will of the people, incidentally) so as to force every group into minority status. That solves strictly NOTHING and only causes vastly GREATER problems. No one knows what the solution to minorityhood is. (There may not be a solution, which would mean that minorities would have to adjust to the fact that minority status carries with it certain unavoidable drawbacks, and nothing can be done about that.) Communities that are agreeable to live in are ones embedded in a dominant ethno-cultural matrix. (Within such communities the happiest inhabitants may be the members of that dominant ethno-culture and the next happiest may be the communities’ minorities.) This fact is so fundamental that detailed considerations of optimum architecture are almost redundant, since they can be expected to largely sort themselves out spontaneously according to ordinary people’s esthetic preferences and common sense.

Mr. Laurence Aurbach writes:

“Carl’s critique of new urban developments - that they are merely “themed” environments - is remarkably similar to those made by the radical left wing and self-avowed Marxists. I’m sure Carl can appreciate the irony of keeping such company.”

Its not that they are ‘merely’ what I suggest as if that is the totality of what I suggest they are, its that they are productions of the same Liberal ‘religion = social engineering’ milieu. Its like the scrap of engineering drawing the monks find in Miller’s “A Canticle for Liebowicz.” The post nuclear monks who find it have no clue to how to get back to the scrap’s original function. They ‘encase’ and venerate it as a religious relic. Its like our culture trying to reground the virtues which Christendom was the foundation for, 400 years after the Enlightenment rooted it up. We want back what what was the civic architectural ‘body’ of a living religious tradition without the Life that called forth that body into existence. We want to analyze the bodies that these places are without realizing they had a soul.

Its that new urbanist developments are symbolic of first principles which generate them and label them Good. They are the production of designers who have looked back to a time of architectural history, one where the automobile’s influence was not yet pervasive, one where zoning had not created single use enclaves, extracted principles from the urban environments they’ve studied, reduced these principles to rationalist formulas, new urbanist ‘codes’…albeit supposedly more ‘loose’ than traditional zoning in some aspects and tighter that traditional zoning in other aspects, and put them forward as a means to make more humane environments. This is American style pragmatism. If pragmatism is our tradition, these designs are traditional in that sense.

They are symbolic of our pragmatic liberalism and modernism in the same way the outerbelt condo development is. They will be an alternative way to live, added to the many alternatives a mature modernist milieu makes possible…and living there will be a matter of aesthetic choice, of the expectation of increasing resale value, of convenience and of market savvy.

The streetcar suburb time they seek to recreate itself did not possess the spiritual resources to say NO to the automobile, because its standards were the same as ours today…technology is good, and the bad created by any technology we adopt today will be fixed by another technology we discover tomorrow.

What happens when the ‘mixed uses’ it designs for fail to materialize because to compete with big box retailers within driving distance of the new urbanist development, the retail space below the walk up flats remains unleased? Will there be ‘subsidized shops’ to make sure the retail mix designed for occurs?

Mr. Aurbach writes:

“There are efforts to define and appraise new urban projects. I think you’d be interested in that debate, because it goes to the heart of what makes a good place. In order to prevail against the status quo, new urbanism often must resort to technocratic arguments. A completely objective appraisal system would be most effective, and some measures can indeed be objective (compactness, connectivity, mixed use, etc.) although some subtlety and judgement is lost. However, on critical measures such as quality of the architecture, streetscape or civic space, total objectivity is probably impossible. The best we might be able to achieve is firm, clear standards like those used to rate the artistic merits of an ice skating performance.”

In order to ‘prevail’ against the status quo? Of big box and outerbelt condo megachurch anomie? These uses are market driven and zoning codes are
varied to accommodate them or revenue starved cities annex their sites and extend water and sewer to them to secure more tax base.

A completely ‘objective’ appraisal system? Objective by whose first principles? Compactness, connectivity and mixed use are terms laden with subjectivity…as MacIntyre said, and when he asks ‘Whose rationality?’ for the word rationality substitute any of these three objective words.

Mr Auerbach writes:

“It may be that the DNA of modernist planning will inevitably leak into the pores of new urbanist neighborhoods. At the same time, those that have been built are serving as models and inspiration for reform. Developers, planners and architects visit the mature new urbanist neighborhoods in droves and take away a sense of possibility in the context of contemporary development practice.”

I think new urbanism itself has ‘modernist DNA’. I’m inspired by these places, too. But I suspect they’ll work like modern developments do…they go after specific markets and the people who do the more undesirable maintenance jobs will commute from another ‘community’.

Mr. Aurbach reports on the varied nature of new urbanist projects and that many of them are allied with preservation efforts, main street programs, and downtown redevelopment efforts. The motives he reports inspiring their development is both for profit and for a personal committment to doing good design, so defined.

Mr. Aurbach writes:

“Most new urbanist developments built on greenfields (previously undeveloped land) control their space to a greater degree than older urban centers. This isn’t Volvo socialism, but rather an absolutely capitalistic response to the free market. Most new developments throughout the nation have an extra layer of privatized government, and home buyers and retailers demand the control and high-quality management afforded by these associations. I wish it was not so, but competition forces this situation. Even older downtowns are adopting the suburban model, with BIDs taking on the role of mall manager. On the positive side, new urbanist developers have created some good model homeowner associations that are far more democratic than the run of the mill.”

My use of the word ‘apparatchiks’ to refer to activist condo owners in homeowners’ associations relates to freedoms I surrender in order to own a property within a development ruled by the association. The ‘community’ created is different than a traditional community, where restraints are voluntarily practiced in relation to the use of one’s own property (I don’t paint my siding purple, for example) whose source is acceptance of common asethetic and moral norms integral to the history of the community.

The ‘private government’ created for these developments is constructed by modernist means, which often brings forth officials who police its strictures out of envy, levelling down violators of deed restrictions…often felt externally and not internally… in the same way socialist ‘equality’ is maintained…by envy. I purchase my way in…and I do so often for the sake of maintaining ‘resale’ value. Only having enough money to buy in is what ‘discriminates’ against my entering.

Older downtowns are learning from malls…that it is good to compete for customers *after* you attract them to your downtown. But the fact is, how can you keep ‘em downtown after they’ve seen Easton? How does downtown compete with Wal Mart? Good fortune for us, people are starting to tire of malls, but it appears the big box is with us for a while, because we *want* what it has for sale.

Mr Aurbach concludes:

“I’m extremely interested in the antagonism between community and inclusivity that Jim has pointed out, and I hope he will continue discussing the topic. It’s one that is central to new urbanism, and new urbanists have not yet faced it comprehensively.”

If new urbanism is ‘market driven’, how can it subsidize the shops that would fail on their own, but which must be included to maintain the contention that the development is more than an artifical consumer choice…that it is and can be a real community?

Mr Aurbach writes:

“I’m extremely interested in the antagonism between community and inclusivity that Jim has pointed out, and I hope he will continue discussing the topic. It’s one that is central to new urbanism, and new urbanists have not yet faced it comprehensively.”

Why would new urbanism and new urbanists feel the need to ‘face comprehensively’ the antagonism between community and inclusivity?

In response to some of Mr. Jahnes’ numerous questions and statements:

1) New urbanists are indeed rediscovering earlier traditions of urban design and adapting them to contemporary conditions. They also incorporate recent practices and stay abreast of the current state of the art. I agree this is American pragmatism in action, but I disagree that the product will necessarily be soulless. Urban design is both an art and a science; new urbanism uses rationalist formulas but it also uses esthetic judgement, respect for local traditions and vernacular practice, and concern for genius loci and everyday quality of life.

2) The streetcar lines in many streetcar suburbs were shut down after WWII. However, those suburbs today are some of the most desirable and highly valued properties in urban America. Also, they are well positioned to benefit from the resurgence of interest in mass transit now happening across the U.S. Was the demise of streetcars a moral failure? Only if you regard automobiles as morally harmful. That’s not the new urbanist position, and new urbanists strive for a mix of transportation options.

3) Can retail in new urban towns and neighborhoods thrive and prosper? Yes, certainly. New urban retail proves itself every day. A few developers have, in the preliminary phases of their projects, subsidized retail to provide services, establish shopping habits and reinforce overall project viability. As the later phases are completed and population increases, the subsidies end. This happened recently in Celebration, Fla. when Disney sold its town center. As for handling big box competition, it’s a topic of sharp debate. Some new urbanists incorporate big boxes into neotraditional patterns; others work to limit them in ways direct and indirect. There are ongoing discussions, conferences and publications about new urban retail.

4) By “prevailing against the status quo,” I refer to the regulatory regimes and institutional inertia that prevent new urbanist projects from being constructed. Traffic engineers, bankers, environmental regulators, etc., tend to focus on technocratic arguments when denying new urbanists the means or permission to build.

5) By “objective,” I simply mean facts without personal interpretation. In the example of connectivity, we can agree there are a certain number of intersections and a certain number of street segments linking those intersections. We can agree there is a ratio of these elements. That’s all. The meaning and importance of that ratio, of course, is based on shared values which are ultimately subjective.

6) On community and inclusivity, some new urbanists are looking into ethnic identity and its connection to urban form. I’ll soon be posting on my website an editorial by Jaime Correa on this subject. Personally, I believe these are important moral and political questions - what degree, if any, of ethnic exclusivity is desirable, how does it affect the functioning of a community and its expression in built form, and how do we reconcile it with equal housing opportunity?

New urbanists tend to be left-wing ‘smart growth’ advocates who despise the surburbs and want to create denser communities with cost-ineffective design. That’s the reality. Anybody who proclaims it as an effort to promote conservative design is either ignorant, or being dishonest.

I’m sorry to be so blunt, but this is an issue I’ve dealt with frequently. The same people who support zoning, growth boundaries, onerous building restrictings, and light rail are also those people who want same-sex partner benefits, abortion-on-demand, and John Kerry for President. The enemy is always low-density suburbs, and those suburbs are where conservatives live.

Owen Courreges wrote,

“Anybody who proclaims [New Urbanism] is an effort to promote conservative design is either ignorant or being dishonest.”

Maybe they’re not being dishonest, Owen … maybe they just mean conservative as in the statements “Bill Maher is a conservative,” “John Podhoretz is a conservative,” and “President Bush is a conservative”?

Mr. Courreges may be right sociologically, Mr. Jahnes may be right about modernism seeping into pores, and in something like real estate that has tons of money and marketing involved the talk and the substance aren’t always going to match up. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to consider what things associated with the “New Urbanism” may be of value. It seems worthwhile for example to study the conditions on which a system—like a city—takes on qualities of life like the ability to integrate functions and accommodate new uses. It seems believable that building and zoning codes and transportation planning etc. should relate to that kind of consideration rather than (the obvious alternative) standardizing things so you know just how much you’re going to have of what and you can plan for it. Also, some of the particular ideas mentioned in these comments seem very suggestive.

If that kind of approach is bad what’s the superior approach?


We have in small cities across Ohio *exactly* what new urbanists say they want to recreate in greenfield (gobbling up farmland…) developments, but don’t. We have in my home city a courthouse square with retail on the first floor of 3 to 5 story buildings all built from the mid 1800’s to now. We have a Louis Sullivan masterpiece leased to a beautician and an ice cream vendor. The top floors are mostly vacant, pigeon infested, but that is changing.

Building Codes are a problem. In an historic building, say 75 years old, stairs were built narrower, and steeper, and not enclosed with fire rated construction. Buildings are not accessible. Typically, having been slummed since the destructive winds of ‘urban renewal’ blew through and beautiful (and poorly maintained) Italianate facades were covered over with sheets of expanded metal or with broad expanses of stucco, a marginal business would come to the fore, secure a lease, move in and begin business, and then be visited by the Dreaded Building Code Inspector, who would inform them they had to tear out their 2’-6” wide stair, build a 3’-0” wide stair, and enclose it in 1 hour walls (5/8” drywall on each side of a 2x4 stud). Then, needing exit lights, fire extinguishers, fresh air added to their ventilation system, emergency lights, new bathrooms, accessible, a ramp outside destroying the historic entry detailing…well, the price to stay open just became prohibitive. Ma and Pa pack up the inventory and put it in boxes in the garage. The pigeons and feral cats are happy. The code authorities believe by maintaining *vacancy* they have furthered *public safety*.

I argued with them that if the woodenheaded enforcement of the code creates *vacancy* its practical effect creates ill maintainence, because it empties a space of people who will care about it…and it violates its purpose to further the general welfare.

Now, we have the ‘alternate building code’ which is a point scoring system. Old buildings have foot to two foot thick solid brick party walls, which are not required for such buildings by the modern code. So, you might get 100 points for this wall when you only get 50 for the modern wall. This balances your exit stair made substandard by a building code. So you get 50 points for this stair and you’d have gotten 100 for the modern one. Easy, huh? Maybe, but not a lot cheaper.

Code officials are given authority in the code to use their professional judgement to determine what is compliance. However, most field inspectors are dunderheads, and I was even told by one that any ‘suggestions’ or ‘interpretations’ offered in the field result in them exposing themselves to having ‘sovereign immunity’ pierced and to having unacceptable liabilities keeping them from sleeping at night. Just imagine the poor inspector who signed off on the building permit where the Newport Fire occurred a year or 2 ago.

So, instead of getting people INTO these spaces where they’ll clean them up, paint them, heat them, fix the roof, drive off the vermin, we set up rationalistic measures of ‘safety’ which create financial hurdles which can’t be jumped, and which maintain *vacancy*, and a financial drain on a city. It’s Black/White. We actually see this and it doesn’t register that we drive out people who want to be in EXISTING spaces like ones the new urbanists want to create!

This is a State mandated code. I asked the economic development director of our city what legal right the state had by adopting its building code to lower property values in the center of town, a new urbanist almost paradise, and to empty the upper floors, create vacancy, and drive off the people who would frequent our restaurants, our theater, our museums, our square, our retail establishments, who would be eyes on the street, a deterrent against crime, and who would, having ‘greater humanity (grin,I’m being a bit sarcastic)’ infused in them by the human scale architecture, would pick up the trash voluntarily because they *care* for their place.

Our town has 65,000 population, and 150,000 or so in the county.

STEP 1 in ‘how do it better?’

City, *abolish* the building code, or make ‘occupancy’ the first priority. If people trade some ‘safety’ away by accepting more risk, there are legal instruments which can insure that they bear the risks they agree to.

But if what you say is good about your town is exactly what New Urbanists say is good why not say that you agree with them and want to change building codes so they don’t require the destruction of what both they and you say is good? Why not try to make your cause their cause as well? Developers who think of New Urbanism as a gimmick might not be interested, they wouldn’t like the competition, but theoreticians and civic-minded types ought to be on your side.

Turnabout is fair play

Very interesting post and comments at title=”Turnabout” href=”“>City of God and city of man, take II.

I can see the ad campaign now:

Come to beautiful Downtown Akron. You’re only somewhat more likely to die in a fire!

That’ll pull people out of the mall.

I’m an architect in an old Rust Belt city, and I don’t recognize the code conditions Mr. Jahnes describes. It’s certainly true that upper floor occupancy of single-bay buildings is made very difficult by modern building codes (one set of unprotected egress stairs makes surviving a fire just as difficult), but the suggestion that codes include no grandfathering, or that a simple storefront opccupancy requires onerous reconstruction is, frankly, absurd. It is absolutely true that modern building codes make rehab more difficult than greenfield construction (with all its subsidies). Maintaining critical mass of density makes provision of ample parking difficult. Parallel parking is difficult. There are many, many reasons that historic downtowns struggle to compete economically with exurbia. To single out building codes is disingenuous and counterproductive. Disingenuous, because it suggests that the lone (or prime) culprit just happens to be the one that your politics abhor. Counterproductive because it offers a silver bullet solution for a problem that has been 60 (or 400, by someone’s count) years in the making.

The trick of New Urbanism is that, by building new, you can put in (well-hidden) all the free parking you need. You can provide houses with a full bath to go with every bedroom. You can keep out the minorities (except the nice, professional ones). Planners & designers like NU because it does suggest ways to build communities, not just anonymous, anti-communal sprawl. But developers and buyers like it for the reasons I just outlined above. And building codes don’t address any of those issues.

By Mr. Roth’s opening comments, I suppose he believes that a rustbelt city’s downtown, built for upper floor occupancy, cleaned up as it is and reoccupied is more dangerous than if it is left vacant. Sure. Right. If a building is occupied continuously since its creation, and built with 1890’s safety standards, with unenclosed stairs and fire escapes, the building code does not require ‘upgrades’ of the building unless additions or alterations are proposed, or the type of use changes. So are these buildings not safe? Does Mr. Roth imply that every building occupant or owner is unwilling to incrementally upgrade a building unless forced to by a building code?

I didn’t suggest the codes don’t include ‘grandfathering’, nor did I say codes are the only problem, or the lone or prime culprit. ‘Step 1’ implies something that follows. What I said about ‘simple storefront occupancy’ is not absurd, because I sat on a local board of building appeals, and heard appeals by folks seeking variances from just such code requirements as I listed which made their goal of occupancy too costly.

I thank Mr. Roth for his comments which open with the statement “It is absolutely true…”

Yes, and he notes that ‘inclusiveness’ (you can keep out minorities) is a problem for new urbanist developments. Those who would fill out the quota can’t afford the ticket in. Inclusiveness is not a problem in historic downtowns. The homeless camp out in these buildings with pigeons standing sentinel while trash and rotten foot attract vermin, and while a small fire might be built to provide momentary warmth…

I *did* say that codes are adopted on a State level and that this act can affect a locality’s built environment’s economic viability. What other reason would there be for the inclusion of ‘the alternative building code’? I *did* suggest local officials resisting such mandates as code adoptions at a state level which have the effect of declaring what was safe in their city yesterday is unsafe today.