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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Urban Form and The Good Life

More often than not, talk of the ethics of metropolitan growth raises eyebrows. For many, ‘ethics’ and ‘metropolitan growth’ go together like ‘feathers’ and ‘bicycle’ . . . or ‘chastity’ and ‘brothel’.

For the moment, I’ll set aside the latter reaction, which seems to be based on the inference that since (1) sprawl is bad, and (2) ethics is a set of rules about what is good, then (3) there can be no such thing as ethical sprawl. As it happens, I am unwilling to assume (1), and (2) strikes me as a profound misunderstanding of ethics as a field of inquiry.

Rather, I’ll focus on the former reaction: the terms of ethics are simply irrelevant to decisions about what to build, and about where and how to live in the landscape. I address some of these matters in the Introduction of the book (p. 2-3). Ordinary residents just want to be left alone to pursue their preferences, and think that no one has the right to judge their preferences based on some (allegedly) rigid code of morals. Professionals in urban planning and policy want to appeal to ‘rational’ methods of decision making based on ‘objective’ measures, which seems to rule out the (allegedly) mushy concerns of ethicists.

In the past, I have responded to these reactions by appealing to a broader conception of ethics, one that has ancient roots. For Aristotle, I have pointed out, the central question of ethics is: What is the best kind of life for a human being?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Climate Change Begins at Home

I am informed that today is Blog Action Day, and that the topic this year is climate change.

For the record, I'm skeptical of the whole premise of the (non-)event.  But, since 9000 other bloggers are holding forth, there's little harm in adding one more voice to the din.

Climate change is in large measure a problem of scalar mismatch [1]: activities at the local scale of households and neighborhoods have spillover effects at much larger scales, which in turn change the configuration of opportunities and constraints at the local scale.  With this come both problems of perception and problems of legitimacy.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Framework

As with the book of the same name, the heart of this blog is a framework intended to help people deliberate and make decisions within and about their built environment. Here's how I introduce the framework in the book (on p.72):
Individuals and groups trying to make decisions about their environment and how to live in it need a clear understanding of what is at stake. Some such decisions are especially difficult because there is quite a lot at stake on all sides: any given option preserves some values and destroys others, meets some obligations and violates others.

The framework [on page 73 of the book] is intended as a tool to help decision makers sort through the complexity of many important decisions regarding the built environment, to identify the values and obligations that may be at stake in a given situation. The framework is organized into four main parts, each of which is defined by an ethical question. The parts are further divided into more specific factors or issues that may play into a particular decision.