Dear Mr. Mitchell,
I read your article “Wendell Berry and the New Urbanism: Agrarian Remedies, Urban Prospects” with great interest and as a lover of cities I thought I would write with a few thoughts. The first is that I’m not sure what Wendell Berry has to do with New Urbanism or why you didn’t title your article “Learning from the Wisdom of Jane Jacobs”. Obviously, you wanted to highlight some of Berry’s ideas, especially his notion that “the disease of the modern character is specialization” and that this “problem of specialization manifests itself in the way we have envisioned our communities.” You go on to quote him suggesting that if “we do not live where we work, and when we work, we are wasting our lives, and our work too.” Now this is all very strange, because the rest of your excellent essay goes on to basically ignore Berry’s advice and implicitly argue he is the sort of utopian thinker whose ideas have no place in the real world – the practical lived reality of most Americans (and I would argue all modern, industrial societies) and therefore we are better off learning from that great critic of mid-20th century urban planning, Jane Jacobs, whose seminal work The Death and Life of the Great American Cities you cite approvingly.
Indeed, before I move on to the second, better half of your essay, let me pause and just note that Berry’s criticism of specialization is not just a criticism of cities and place – he is really criticizing capitalism and the very basic human effort to help fill honorable human needs. Anyone who can haughtily denounce “medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest, in preventing” (how is he such an expert, writing from his farm, on the American medical system?) or the modern home’s “conveniences”, including “an automated kitchen”, “a gleaming, odorless bathroom” and “year-round air-conditioning” does not deserve to be taken seriously. Why yes, Mr. Berry, I’m quite sure there was something noble and virtuous about those old-fashioned bathrooms with odors, but at the moment nothing comes to mind.
Why bother with Berry in the first place if you yourself concede his vision is “radical” (i.e. not conservative) and could only be implemented by uprooting millions and destroying our entire modern capitalist economy? The much more interesting author for your purposes is Jane Jacobs, whose thoughts on how healthy cities thrive you want to consider a model for suburban living. Indeed, I too admire Jacobs and her famous vision for “healthy cities”, which you correctly note “are characterized by districts and neighborhoods that exhibit a diversity of uses that makes for vibrant and safe streets and the possibility of satisfying many of one’s daily tasks in a single place.” It is this vision that you thoughtfully wonder whether or not should be applied more rigorously to the suburbs and you extol the efforts of the New Urbanists who you rightly note are trying to apply the design principals of Jacobs to suburban settings.
I’ll come back to the New Urbanists (but not the odious James Howard Kunstler, who needs to have his mouth washed with soap before he sits down at a keyboard again and who also needs to learn basic economic theory – but I digress) later, but for now I want to quote a long passage from your essay criticizing the suburbs, as I don’t think you are quite fair to suburban reality:
The mixed-use neighborhoods extolled by Jacobs are typically replaced by isolated single-use pods of homes connected to the rest of the world by feeder roads. Shopping, schools, employment of any kind are absent, generally rendered illegal by zoning laws and home-owner associations that operate under the assumption that the best neighborhoods are those uncontaminated by non-residential buildings and uses. The automobile makes such an arrangement possible, but there are consequences. For instance, suburbs create a situation in which access to a car is necessary to participate in the wide variety of human activities not included or allowed in the suburban development. In such a context, those without access to cars, namely children and the elderly, find themselves virtual prisoners in a residential bubble devoid of many facets of human life.
The separation is a result of the underlying specialization—not of people but of places—for what could be more specialized than designing a town according to discrete zones designated by use? Of course, single use areas are simple to comprehend, and they look good on paper, for they are clean and unambiguous and easy to grasp. But such an approach often fails in practice, for it does not reflect the complexity of the human creature. Fragmentation becomes a necessity, for generally one cannot live and work in a suburban neighborhood. One cannot shop or worship or recreate. One can, we are assured live, but when these vital activities are removed, one is left wondering what, exactly, constitutes living.
This radically specialized and individualized conception of life turns the focus of citizens inward to themselves and their own private concerns. This translates into a diminished public realm as investment of time and money is directed primarily to private homes and often only on the interior of those structures. But such an inward orientation divests the public realm of the attention that it requires. Indeed, the public realm comes to be seen as little more than the space in which we move from one private space to another.
The italics are mine. So is it really true that “shopping, schools, employment” of any kind are absent in suburban neighborhoods? I suppose it depends on how you define a neighborhood, but in Glenview, IL, where I grew up, the elementary school was down the block and there were a few shops (admittedly not many), including a Baskin Robbins I frequented regularly as a kid, just a short bike ride away. I suspect my experience in the north suburbs of Chicago isn’t that unusual – the schools and shops have to go somewhere. Now I agree that it is often the case that larger stores, especially grocery stores and now big box retail as well as office parks will be found in their own separate areas, apart from homes and will require a car. But back in the day, in the crowded cities that Jane Jacobs and I love, my grandparents rode the bus or drove to work and while they did shop at many local stores, they also went downtown on the weekends to shop at bigger stores that required a car trip – Sears or Wards or maybe a downtown excursion to Marshall Field’s or Carson Pirie Scott & Company.
Meanwhile, back in Glenview, there were plenty of churches that were within walking distance or a short bike ride, although Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where I was baptized and confirmed, was in downtown Glenview and we usually took the car there. Glenview also had plenty of excellent parks, good schools, and decent public services. In fact many suburban communities, especially communities with resources, spend plenty of money on their schools and parks – why you think that you find a “diminished public realm” in the suburbs is beyond me (you want a diminished public realm, take a trip to Detroit). If anything, some of these communities spend too much of their taxpayers money on lavish schools and parks which has led to high property taxes that help make these places unaffordable for young families who in turn must go seek cheaper housing in even newer suburbs that are even further out from the central cities (i.e. the exurb phenomenon).
I’ll conclude my letter on a mild note of agreement – after all, I fell in love with the hustle and bustle of the city at an early age and I never looked back. Certainly, surveys have shown that people do express a preference for neighborhoods that have a diversity of uses and more and more people like the idea of being able to walk to shop, to take the kids to school, to go to church, etc. In fact, in Glenview itself, which was once host to a large Naval Air Base (where as kids we would watch naval air planes take off and land in awe), the Base was decommissioned and turned into an award-winning New Urbanist community called The Glen that has attracted many new families and pumped new life into Glenview. So I agree that it might make sense to encourage suburban communities to think about development in the way Jacobs encouraged city planners to think about what makes city neighborhoods successful.
Ultimately, I just wonder if our personal preferences should be heralded as some sort of solution to a “problem” that may or may not exist in the suburbs and whether or not people who live in suburban communities are suffering in unhealthy communities in the first place.