Sunday, January 21, 2024

Can New Urbanism Help Restore American Communities?


Since I started my research into America's seemingly unexplainable malady of civic disengagement - or, what I prefer to call, "social hibernation" - I came to the conclusion that this was a mostly internal problem. People will only be able to ameliorate this epidemic of loneliness - I, maybe erroneously, proclaimed - when they undergo a kind of spiritual reawakening: an "Aha!" moment wherein they collectively understand the merits of family cohesion, committed relationships, local civic engagement, and club membership. 

Much of what I read reaffirmed this hypothesis. Marvin Olasky, in his pivotal work, The Tragedy of American Compassion, rejects the idea that environmental change could have a meaningful impact on human social behavior:

The new view saw folks as naturally good and productive, unless they were in a competitive environment that warped finer sensibilities. In the new thinking, change came not through challenge, but through placement in a pleasant environment that would bring out a person's true, benevolent nature... When a major economic crisis emerged in the early 1930s, it seemed not only natural but inevitable to rely on governmental programs run by professionals and to emphasize material transfer rather than individual challenge and spiritual concern. 

To be sure, Olasky's book is a fantastic contribution, especially in the realm of welfare reform in the 1990s. I reviewed his book favorably in the Russell Kirk Center's University Bookman (read here). Recently, however, I have become somewhat dubious of Olasky's offhanded dismissal of external factors and their capacity to influence people's behaviors. 

Olasky's book, of course, is primarily about combating poverty and pauperization, but the overarching principle remains more or less the same: that an individual's ability to change comes from within. Again, there is certainly a strong case to be made here, and Olasky makes it very persuasively. But perhaps there is an equally convincing case to be made for the role of environmental change and government initiatives...

My latest interview with author Alan Ehrenhalt was eye-opening:

Frank Filocomo: You know, I hear a lot of the need for a spiritual renaissance or a spiritual reawakening, but do you think a lot of this is just external impediments to community?

Alan Ehrenhalt: Yes, I think a lot of it is. Good things are happening in cities. Not all good things, but a lot of good things. And they're not based on any spiritual revival on the individual level; they're based on public decisions. Infrastructure determines behavior. I think we've known that for a long time. Transportation determines behavior. I just read in a book about San Francisco and its Ferry Building, and the history of the Ferry Building. In the 1930s, they got rid of the ferry because the Bay Bridge opened. So, people who used to take the ferry into San Francisco from Marin County didn't know quite how to behave because they used to spend twenty minutes with the same people every day for the twenty years they had been commuting, and now they were in their cars and they weren't seeing them. That's a case in which infrastructure is determining human behavior. 

Ehrenhalt is a firm believer that the implementation of New Urbanist principles could help revive atomized American communities. Subscribers to the New Urbanism movement believe that community-friendly city design - verdant walkways, front porches, balconies, and so on - can help restore the Communitarian nature of localities around the country. The more I read thoughtful publications like Governing and Public Square, the more I am convinced of the efficacy of New Urbanism. 

This piece by Robert Steuteville in Public Square is especially good. He writes about The Ember, a small "pocket neighborhood" in Edmond, Oklahoma, that serves as a remarkable case study for community revitalization through urban design. 

Steuteville writes:

Pocket neighborhoods designed around mid-block cottage courts are a notable trend in New Urbanism. They have several advantages, especially on infill sites. The houses are sited on small lots, taking advantage of a high-quality open space serving all residents. They achieve decent density, due to the lot size and efficient parking, which is typically grouped together. Pocket neighborhoods also create a strong sense of community, offering a 'missing middle' living choice often lacking in the larger neighborhood. The mid-block design allows for a cozy urbanism that avoids street design problems that frequently plague existing city blocks.

He explains that the final design of The Ember was "chosen so that every resident would feel connected to a central gathering space at the heart of the project, reinforcing social bonds." 

While I still maintain that it is incumbent on Americans to undergo a kind of spiritual reawakening, I realize now that I was leaving out a crucial component: urban design. 

The realization of these two variables, in tandem, would facilitate a remarkable boon in social connectedness. 


Monday, January 15, 2024

The Civil Rights Movement and the American Communitarian Spirit


Today we remember and celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. 

King, a black man living in a racially segregated America, stood tall in a sea of hate, bigotry, and divisiveness. 

But, while he was no doubt an integral part of the Civil Rights movement's success, nothing would have been accomplished without the laborious and persistent efforts of organized activist groups. 

There is perhaps no better example of this than the case of the Freedom Summer Project. I've blogged about this before (read here), but the lesson bears repeating. 

In the summer of 1964, a group of young Civil Rights activists traveled to heavily segregated Mississippi to stage various demonstrations in the midst of hostile inhabitants and law enforcement. Individuals from these networks of black and white college students were beaten, kidnapped, and, in some cases, killed. 

Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, contributed the defining study of Freedom Summer for the American Journal of Sociology in 1986. In it, McAdam details the high-risk activism that took place during these demonstrations:  

Within days, three project members - Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman - had been kidnapped and killed by a group of segregationists which included several Mississippi law-enforcement officers. That event set the tone for a summer in which the remaining volunteers endured beatings, bombings, and arrests. Moreover, most did so while sharing the grinding poverty and unrelieved fear that were the daily lot of the black families who housed them. 
These young people demonstrated the power of collective action. As I've stated before, isolated individuals could have never effectuated this social change. 

We ought not forget about what these activist networks achieved. It should serve as an important reminder of what social capital can accomplish. 

Now, most problems that we face on a day-to-day basis are not nearly as grave as combating racial segregation in the 1960s. Most things that concern us are, in fact, very micro: a city block that needs to be repaired, a traffic sign that ought to be installed at a dangerous intersection, or other comparatively trivial community services. But the same lessons can be applied here, too. 

In Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein explain, through various case studies, that people engage in social capital, not for the sake of social capital in and of itself, but to accomplish some shared goal:

For the most part, the people and groups we describe here seek better schools, neighborhood improvement, better contracts with their employers, economic advantage, or some other particular good, with social capital a means to those ends and an important fringe benefit but not in itself their main aim.
The late Amitai Etzioni once wrote that America ought to be a "community of communities." We should aspire to this every day. 

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Examining Social Connectedness Abroad


Non-Western countries are known to be more collectivistic and group-oriented, especially when compared to Western countries like Great Britain and America. 

Lawrence Mead, my former professor and thesis supervisor at NYU, articulated this cultural difference in his 2019 book, Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power:

...Western culture is individualist, while non-Western cultures tend to be conformist. Westerners take action largely to fulfill personal goals and values, if necessary, changing the world to do so. In this sense, they live their lives from the inside out. In the non-West, by contrast, most people take their cues largely from without - from their immediate associates, higher authority, or tradition. They adjust to their environment much more than they seek to change it. They live their lives largely from the outside in. 

Professor Mead is easily the most valiant and intellectually honest professor that I ever had the honor of taking. He received an enormous amount of flack for his book, mostly by leftist academics who erroneously accused him of engaging in racist arguments. Mead, however, explicitly states in the book - which, I have to assume, many of his harshest critics did not read in full - that his thesis is a cultural one, having nothing to do with race. All this said, his distinctions between the West and the non-West are instructive. 

While Mead's book is clearly a full-throated defense of the Western individualist ethos, he does remark on some if its drawbacks:

...the West has a relatively weak sense of community. It does have a capacity for collective effort; a moralistic culture, in fact, generates stronger government than the non-West, including social programs for the needy... But the capacity is still limited... By becoming more open and individualized, the West has attained much greater wealth, power, and security, at the risk of greater isolation and meaninglessness for many people. 

The great Samuel Huntington, in his magnum opus, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, makes a similar argument when examining East Asian culture:

For East Asians, East Asian Success is particularly the result of the East Asian cultural stress on the collectivity rather than the individual. 'The more communitarian values and practices of the East Asians - the Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, and the Singaporeans - have proved to be clear assets in the catching up process,' argued Lee Kuan Yew.

While I of course think that individualism is an integral component of America's success, I think that, in large enough doses, it can prove fatal for a civilization. 

Charissa Cheong, in an article for Business Insider, remarks on some non-Western cultures who appear to be unscathed by the current loneliness epidemic. Various TikTokers, she notes, have been documenting the vibrant community life in their respective countries:

Posts about social life in the US's neighboring country of Mexico are particularly common. In May, a user who goes by Anna shared that in the US, she's noticed people often decline her requests to meet up because they already have plans with someone else. She compared this to her experience in Mexico, saying that she always felt welcome at social gatherings regardless of who else was attending: 'I could ask someone to hang out, and they'd be like, oh, I have my friend's friend's tutor's second cousin's wedding, but you can come if you want.'

It is about time that Westerners adopt this non-Western mentality of community and solidarity. It is, as I see it, the most potent remedy to today's plague of social atomization.