Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Philip Bess's Pizza

Last week, Philip Bess - the noted Notre Dame University scholar of architecture - delivered a lecture in Washington under the auspice of the group "Conservatism on Tap." Bess's lecture was a first-rate summation of his book, Til We have Built Jerusalem, a remarkable and persuasive effort to relate the principles of new urbanism to natural law.

In one arresting metaphor, he compared our current living arrangements to that of a disassembled pizza, in which we have separated out the various parts of the "pie" - residential, retail, work, school, worship, and so on - and thus rendered the delectable assemblage of life's goods into tasteless and boring ingredients.

citypizzaHe argues instead on behalf of the integration of life's activities - for the "whole pie" - as a living arrangement that accords best with our nature as human creatures that aspire to integration, to the achievement of wholeness of our many parts. As he writes in his book, discussing this specific metaphor,

A neighborhood is to the larger city what a slice of pizza is to the whole pie: a part that contains within itself the essential qualities and elements of the whole. In the case of a city made of neighborhoods, this means that a neighborhood contains within walkable proximity to one another places to live, work, play, learn and worship. Within the legal boundaries of a postwar suburb, by contrast, the elements of the “pizza” are physically separated and at some distance from one another — as if the crust is here, the sauce over there, the cheese someplace else, and the pepperoni way out yonder.

Bess's argument, to my mind, was superb and utterly persuasive (just as his indictment of the suburbs was devastating). What was lacking - and cannot at this point be wholly provided by a professor of architecture, nor, for that matter, a professor of anything else - was a corresponding argument that living in conditions akin to "the whole pie" fosters and sustains the moral environment. That is, the next step to be taken is an investigation into the relationship of objectively good built environments and objectively good moral human communities - ones that support the good lives of families, neighborhoods, communities; that reinforce good behaviors in our economic and social lives; ones that aspire to preserve and transmit traditions and memory from the past and thoughtful regard for the future; ones that neither treat the "environment" nor other humans as mere means to our narrow ends of personal satisfaction. Bess's argument - which all should read and consider - takes us a considerable distance in establishing that there are objectively true reasons for preferring a certain built environment. More conversations need to be had anywhere and everywhere - whether town, city, or even suburb - exploring the connection between where we live and how we live.


Oz Ozzie said...

So... if it's such a good idea, why don't people choose to live like that? At the least, they could move to a country town, which more approximates your vision. Though it's not at all clear that country towns are any more "moral" (unless you count social regression as 'moral'). However, people generally choose not to do so. Why? Is it as simple as co-location to job opportunities? Obviously that's part of it, but I think that there's a lot of other opportunities that are all in the end derived from the economies of scale created by your pizza-ingredient suburbs

Patrick Deneen said...

Of course you raise an important, vexing, but finally not dispositive argument. We do many things that are bad for us - some because we think they are good for us and find out later that they are not good (e.g., processed food, over-use of antibiotics, "new math"), others because we are fallen and easily tempted creatures (too much sugar and carbs, unsafe sex, lack of exercise, etc.). Some of those actions are easy for us to acknowledge as being bad for us. Others only become clear with hindsight. Some are likely to be so complex and difficult to ascertain, that it can be a challenge to conclusively say (e.g., is the continued fossil fuel bonanza finally better or worse for us as a species?).

So, I posed this question as a genuine question: if living in integrated communities is in accordance with the natural law, then it would be objectively better for us as creatures; would this mean that we would live objectively better lives, particularly in the moral realm? There seems to me to be ample evidence that we live in times of considerable and widespread moral depravity (whether in the economic or "personal" domains). Could this have something fundamental to do not only with a set of personal choices or mass media or lax financial regulation (and so on), but the nature of our built environment? An interesting question.

Oz Ozzie said...

In spite of "processed food, over-use of antibiotics, new math, too much sugar and carbs, unsafe sex, lack of exercise, etc", we still have the longest lifespan in history (excluding Genesis!), and live the most affluent lives ever. So maybe those things aren't so bad after all? (Not that they're good, but they come as part of parcel with a bunch of things that are very beneficial for our health)

I certainly agree that we live in times of widespread depravity, but I remain extremely doubtful that there has ever been a time where this is not true. You ask, what would objectively be good for us. Measures of mortality, morbidity, and standard of living are objective, but do not address your point. I don't know any objective measurement that doesn't.

Patrick Deneen said...

It is precisely those things that cannot be measured by quantity (unlike lifespan) that become for us difficult to measure, and hence - by the canons of empiricism - unmeasurable. Thus, as a result, the only way to categorize the objectively true is quantity. But this is clearly an insufficient, and even degraded form of measurement. This gets us "No Child Left Behind" and very poor education, among other things.

Of course depravity has always been with us, but whether it is always or necessarily must be widespread (or, even promoted as a desirable lifestyle choice) is another matter. Sin is permanent; its adulation is a temporary and self-destructive condition, I suspect.

Anonymous said...

I deliberately moved to a small town (<5000) with all my necessities within walking distance, ample parks and recreational activities, a school that doesn't need to bus because everyone can walk.

All those things are great, but small town life comes with lots of people who know your business and a very large rumor mill.

I grew up in a small town where I was related to someone on every street. It can be claustrophobic. Oh well.

Elliott said...

I currently live in a prime example of an "integrated community:" a college campus. There are literally dozens of places to work, eat, sleep, visit friends, worship, and have fun all within a small area that's easy to travel. I love it, and I would like to live somewhere similar after I graduate, but there aren't many places where one can do that without paying a fortune in rent.

I heard of a developer in Florida who designed a community like this. I can't remember what its name was or else I'd tell it to you all. Anyway, this developer sold all of the home/business/etc. plots in record time and at higher prices than he expected. There's evidently a great deal of demand for communities like this because people realize that there's something missing from the "segregated" or "zoned" model. I think we'll see more integrated communities in the future.