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?

It turns out, on Aristotle’s account, that humans cannot live a good life, cannot even be said to be fully human, outside the context of the polis. The political constitution of the polis, then, ought to be arranged to allow citizens to cultivate excellence of character and so to achieve the highest good, eudaimonia (usually translated “happiness”). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle maintains that politics is “the most sovereign and most comprehensive master science.” By ‘politics,’ of course, he means inquiry into the nature of the polis. He continues:
Since this science uses the rest of the sciences, and since, moreover, it legislates what people are to do and what they are not to do, its end seems to embrace the ends of the other sciences. Thus it follows that the end of politics is the good for man. (1094a27-1094b8)
It seemed reasonable to me to suppose that the physical location and arrangement of the polis itself could contribute to or detract from the individual and community project of living a good human life. So, the ethics of metropolitan growth revolves around a subsidiary question: In what kind of place is it possible to live the best kind of life for a human being? Or, more loosely: What makes a good place to live?

It is only very recently that I discovered, to my delight, that Aristotle himself began to think along these same lines. In Book VII of Politics, he considers the material conditions under which an ideal polis might be founded:
“Let us assume then that the best life, both for individuals and states, is the life of excellence, when excellence has external goods enough for the performance of good actions” (1323b39-40).
He considers a number of factors that might contribute to such a good city, including climate, resources, and transportation (i.e., access to the sea). Concerning “the place itself,” he writes, “the situation should be fortunate in four things”: health (as a function of wind exposure), convenience for political administration, security in wartime (hard to enter but easy to evacuate), and water supply, which is also connected to the health of citizens (1330a35-1330b17).

Then Aristotle turns to urban form itself as either contributing to or detracting from a good human life, calling for a balance between two key values: aesthetics and security.
The arrangement of private houses is considered to be more agreeable and generally more convenient if streets are regularly laid out after the modern fashion which Hippodamus introduced, but for security in war the antiquated mode of building, which made it difficult for strangers to get out of a town and for assailants to find their way in, is preferable. A city should therefore adopt both plans of building: it is possible to arrange the houses irregularly, as farmers plant their vines in what are called ‘clumps’. The whole town should not be laid out in straight lines, but only certain quarters and regions; thus security and beauty will be combined (1330b20-32).
This, of course, suggests a new term for some patterns of suburban development in the United States: "the Clumps."  For example:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald, McMillan, 1962.
Aristotle, The Politics and the Constitution of Athens, ed. Stephen Everson, trans. Benjamin Jowett, Cambridge University Press, 1996.