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. 



Post a Comment