A Realist Philosophical Case For Urbanism and Against Sprawl: Part One


Arguments for traditional urbanism are de facto truth claims about nature and human nature, and point to and are supported by the natural law. Why we can and should think normatively about our building patterns. Part one of two.

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For many years, I have lectured and written that post-1945 sprawl suburbs are a peculiarly modern mistake, one both long aborning and now itself a cause of further significant and unhappy environmental and cultural consequences. I have argued that human beings should not make sprawl and that, as a hypothetical natural law precept and as we did always and everywhere prior to about 1950, human beings should make walkable mixed-use settlements. In the course of defending these propositions, I also have defended the metaphysical realism and natural law implications that follow from considered employment of the words should and should not.

Except for the references to natural law, traditional urbanists (including but not limited to New Urbanists) generally concur with these propositions. Across political and religious lines, the propositions themselves have been affirmed by both liberal humanists and social conservatives, and been found objectionable by both environmentalists and avant gardists on the left and by libertarians on the right. Today’s generally leftist environmental regulations and modernist design orthodoxies would make it impossible and unthinkable to build pre-1930 Washington, D.C., or Boston or Savannah or Cooperstown; but so, too, would a Libertarian regime make it impossible to build pre-1930 Washington, D.C., or Boston or Savannah or Cooperstown, all of which would be decried by many on the right as “planning.”

Following are some questions and objections that these propositions have elicited, and my attempt to answer and address them.

Are you saying that one can’t live in sprawl and be moral?

Emphatically, No: I am not saying that. Morality has to do largely though not exclusively with character virtues. Character virtues originate in the context of what Alasdair MacIntyre has characterized as practices, which are  a certain kind of community existing in time and sometimes across many generations: a group of human beings who share a common telos, such as  football or music or theater or architecture, necessarily pursued through institutions such as a football team or an orchestra or a theater company or a classical school of architecture. Clearly, such communities can and do exist both in traditional towns and neighborhoods and in contemporary sprawl suburbs. Moreover, both the inclination to selfishness that is the very essence of sin, as well as specific sins themselves—the usual suspects: pride, avarice, envy, despair, sloth, gluttony, lust, etc.—appear pretty evenly distributed across human populations, rural, urban, and suburban. So the answer is: No, one doesn’t have to live in a traditional town or urban neighborhood in order to acquire habits of moral virtue.

Are you saying that most people should live in a traditional town or urban neighborhood?

Yes, I am saying that: certainly for all the environmental and health and justice and sustainability reasons I have cited elsewhere, but also for reasons of good character formation and for the sake of an integrated life, which I will take up at greater length below. It is quite another matter, however, if, owing to one’s life circumstances (not least a dearth of traditional urban environments), one is unable to live in a traditional town or an urban neighborhood. One cannot be held morally culpable for not doing what it is not possible to do. Indeed, this is why I phrase my hypothetical natural law precept to say  human beings should make walkable mixed-use settlements.

The proposition  human beings should make walkable mixed-use settlements ascribes moral obligation to what many think is properly a matter of moral indifference. Does not such a proposition—implicit, for example, in New Urbanism’s founding documents—represent an attempt by one group of people to “impose their morality” on others? Why is it not more correct to understand the mixed-use, walkable human settlement as, at best, just one morally viable option among many?

To these two questions, I have a complex answer surrounding another question and answer. Questions of morality have to do with what is genuinely good for all human beings, which traditional urbanists declare traditional urbanism to be. So with regard to the matter of urbanists “imposing our morality,” note again that my hypothetical natural law precept is that human beings should make walkable mixed-use settlements. Note as well that our modern culture of building and development simply does not allow everyone to live in walkable mixed-use settlements at this time. As I’ve said, this inability cannot count as a moral failing to those who would live in traditional urbanism if they were able. Nevertheless, this fact does not change the obligatory status of the hypothetical natural law precept, if indeed it is a natural law precept. To take another example by way of illustration: It is not a moral failing that persons ruled by a totalitarian government are unable to freely and safely participate in subsidiary social institutions; but this fact does not make subsidiarity any less a natural law principle, nor remove from human beings the obligation to promote, participate in, and acknowledge the rightful authority of subsidiary social institutions.

In my view—and this is an issue about which I disagree with some of my progressive New Urbanist friends—one political implication of the shortage of walkable mixed-use settlements in the context of a democracy is that, as a matter of prudential judgment, traditional urbanists should not try to abolish sprawl by legislative or bureaucratic fiat, but rather fight first to make it legal to build traditional towns and urban neighborhoods as-of-right: to level the legal playing field, as it were. If, on a level legal playing field, there eventually develops a cultural consensus about the goods of traditional urbanism across a Rural-to-Urban Transect, traditional urbanists (and New Urbanists) might hope and expect that, in a democracy, laws and policies incentivizing traditional urbanism across a Transect will follow.

This raises an intermediate question: What is a Rural-to-Urban Transect? At the risk of simplifying a sophisticated body of ideas, a Transect is a diagram illustrating gradations of natural and/or man-made environments; and a Rural-to-Urban Transect is a diagram that illustrates gradations of both. (Think of it as a “reality sausage,” which theoretically can be cut into an infinite number of slices, but which for practical purposes is cut into only a few.) Rural-to-Urban Transect diagrams are employed by some members of the Congress for the New Urbanism to represent general patterns of historic land use and human settlement. One such diagram is illustrated here:

The Rural-to-Urban Transect
(with modified T-3 zone by Andrew von Maur)

BessTransect Diagram

Diagram courtesy of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company
and Andrew von Maur.

This particular Rural-to-Urban Transect diagram depicts six distinct Transect Zones (T-1 through T-6), and a separate Special District Zone. Zones T-1 and T-2 refer to Rural Transect zones in the most general way, insofar as these relate to the development of human habitat. The Urban Transect is constituted by zones T-3 through T-6, and together with the Rural Transect zones T-1 and T-2 makes a Rural-to-Urban Transect proper. A Rural-to-Urban Transect describes some general conditions of good human settlements in nature, and can itself be used as the basis for form-based zoning law rather than today’s more common (and sprawl-producing) use-based zoning law; and, at the most basic level, each Urban Transect-zone denotes a walkable and mixed-use human environment wherein, within each Urban T-zone, many if not most of the necessities and activities of daily life are within a five-to-ten-minute walk for persons of differing ages and economic classes.

To the second original question—whether there is not a moral equivalence between sprawl and walkable mixed-use settlements, such that both may be considered “morally viable options”—I reply No. The primary arguments against sprawl are 1) that sprawl is unjust; 2) that sprawl is culturally and environmentally unsustainable; and 3) that sprawl is aesthetically problematic, even (dare I say it?) ugly. Specifically, simply as a physical pattern of development:

  • sprawl makes it impossible for people of different generations and different incomes, even in the same (extended) family, to live in proximity to one another, and to work, shop, play, learn, and worship in the same neighborhood;
  • sprawl injures the common good in three inter-related ways: as the primary means by which both wealth and poverty are physically concentrated and isolated; by separating people according to income, age, and race; and, perhaps most importantly, by failing to provide a genuinely public realm shared by all;
  • sprawl, by separating housing settlements according to class, promotes extreme inequalities of educational opportunity;
  • sprawl effectively de-mobilizes and deprives of their independence persons without cars and those unable to drive, most notably the poor, children, and the elderly;
  • sprawl, by its auto-dependent lifestyle, contributes to unprecedented obesity and its attendant personal and public health consequences;
  • sprawl, by its auto-dependent lifestyle, increases our reliance on unstable political regimes and discourages national energy self-sufficiency in a period of global political conflict;
  • sprawl hastens the loss of agricultural lands and wilderness in exchange for a bad combination of ephemeral buildings and inflexible infrastructure;
  • sprawl, as the physical embodiment of a suburban cultural ideal, contradicts that ideal, because it consumes the landscape that is a key element of the suburban promise;
  • sprawl, as the physical embodiment of an individualist cultural ideal, promotes the unjust and politically unsustainable phenomenon of NIMBYism, uncompensated by a genuine and decent public realm; and finally,
  • sprawl, consistent with the fact that nothing in an individualist culture properly can be deemed either ugly or beautiful, produces nothing in the public realm that prompts or warrants sustained, shared aesthetic contemplation.

Sprawl, therefore, is only “justifiable” as the physical form of a Tocquevillian individualist culture, and is only “viable” if one has a car (in which case, as Flannery O’Connor wryly observed, one has no need to be justified). Sprawl undoubtedly possesses popular appeal. It embodies prominent cultural aspirations, most notably the appeal to choice and personal freedom and private property and home ownership—goods which can also be accommodated, but more justly, in an Urban Transect. But sprawl does not currently compete with traditional urbanism on a level legal playing field. Rather, sprawl is the beneficiary of various historic governmental policies that have favored and promoted it, an irony often lost on both libertarian defenders of post-1945 suburbs and progressive New Urbanist defenders of increased governmental activism. The principle for the proper relationship between good law and a good culture of building, therefore, is neither that there should be no governmental regulation, nor that there should be extensive governmental regulation. It is rather that there should be good governmental regulation, the determination of which is a matter of prudential judgment that includes acknowledgement and respect for the authority of subsidiary private and public social institutions.

Does living in a traditional town or neighborhood mean I have to give up my car or despise automobiles?

No. A traditional town or urban neighborhood is by definition a walkable and mixed-use environment. “Walkable” necessarily implies walkability, but it does not necessarily imply no cars. Living in a traditional town or neighborhood simply means that 1) you do not need a car for every task or destination of your daily life; 2) if you have a car, you possess a great convenience; and 3) the formal order of human settlements should be designed for pedestrians, may be designed to accommodate cars, but should not be designed for cars alone. In short, owning a car should be a convenience rather than a necessity.

Some say that living in a traditional urban environment means having to live in a high-rise or to give up having a yard. Is this true?

This is an assertion frequently heard from Libertarian critics of New Urbanism (e.g., Joel Kotkin and Stephen Greenhut); but nobody who understands traditional urbanism, New Urbanism, or the idea of a Rural-to-Urban Transect can possibly make such a claim in good faith. The short answer, therefore, is No. Living in a traditional urban environment may but does not have to mean, either necessarily or commonly, living in a high-rise. In some Urban Transect zones, it may mean some residents will have only a small yard, and in some cases no yard at all. But the precise point of an Urban Transect as both diagram and idea is that walkable mixed-use settlements come in a variety of densities, and can give residents a variety of sustainable urban residential choices subject to their means: with yards large or small, or without yards; but also, and critically, with access to a shared public spatial realm of streets and squares and parks, regardless of their means.

Aren’t suburbs more family and child-friendly than cities and small towns? And aren’t suburbs safer, with better school systems?

Some suburbs are safer than some city neighborhoods and small towns, and some aren’t; and this almost always depends upon the presence or absence of strong, virtue-inculcating, mediating structures and associations, especially strong families and religious institutions. Likewise, the availability of good schools—including school choice, especially for poor families—is critical for any healthy small town or urban neighborhood. But is there something inherent in the physical organization of suburbia that makes single-use zoned suburbs safer for children than small town and city mixed-use neighborhood networks of streets and blocks? Perhaps, but not necessarily: and probably not. What we know is that in sprawl suburbs, unlike small towns and city neighborhoods, children must be driven virtually everywhere, and lead a more dependent if not more sheltered life. Is this better for the well-being of children in the long run? Again: conservatively, and accounting for any number of pertinent variables, not necessarily.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

Part one of this essay has addressed some objections to and questions about traditional urbanism, and identified some practical problems associated with post-1945 sprawl development. In part two, I will address some questions about urbanism, modernity, and human nature.

Philip Bess is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, and a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. He is the author of several books, including Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred.

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