Wednesday, July 23, 2014

There was a Time When Even the Royal Society May Have Been Considered Zealots

A challenging comment was made in response to the post I wrote about Petaluma Urban Chat looking at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  Although his tone was somewhat aggressive, the commenter raised a thoughtful question.

The comment was made on one of the several sites on which I co-publish and the comment is now several weeks old.  Rather than responding under a post that is retreating in the rearview mirror of time, I copied the comment below so the concern and my response can reach a wider audience.

(I’ve edited the comment slightly to remove extraneous material, while preserving the commenter`s key issue.)

“I love to bellyache about your blog and the beginning of this one capsulizes it perfectly.  Your urbanist group acts like a book club in which members select different urbanist books to read?!  How limiting.  How zealous.  How closed.  I have an idea.  Let's all study only our own religious texts of choice and then try to have a discussion about the nature of God and the universe with everybody else.  Are you so tied to the concept of urbanism that you have no need to consider anything else? . . . Or worse, that you ignore or discount its ill effects? Religious zealotry!”

Obviously, I disagree with him.  More importantly, I believe that he’s working under several fundamental misunderstandings.  However, I can understand how he and I have failed to communicate.  I also suspect that how I’ve written this blog may have been complicit in his misunderstandings.

I’ll expand below, but the key points of my response will be that urbanism as a topic of study is far broader than the commenter understands, that there is no credible alternative side to the discussion, and that those on cutting edge are often described as zealots.

To begin, this blog has often used two definitions of “urbanism”.  Both definitions below are from my head, not from a dictionary or other reference source, but I believe that most students of land-use would accept both.

The first definition of urbanism is “(1) the study of the land-use patterns of human civilization, considering the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the alternatives”.

The second is “(2) the advocacy of the insights and conclusions that result from (1).”

This blog moves between the two definitions, sometimes studying our current land-use paradigm, along with the implications of possible alternatives, and sometimes arguing for actions that are identified by that study.   I believe my use of both definitions is an effective, perhaps essential, form of communication, but appreciate how some readers might not understand the different but related topics of analysis and advocacy.

The commenter, if I correctly interpret his perspective, fails to understand the all-encompassing nature of (1).  He assumes that any study is restricted to a limited number of sources and that advocacy of (2) thereby becomes faith-based advocacy based on those limited texts.

But he’s wrong.  Under the first definition, urbanism is the study of the totality of human land-use, from the city layout of Babylonia to the configuration of the cities of the Roman Empire to the grid of Mexico City under the Aztecs to the city, suburbs, and rural towns of today.  I can’t claim exhaustive expertise in any of those eras, but have bumped against all of them during my urbanist reading and am proud to be part of a group whose vision is so all-encompassing.

The commenter also seems to believe that there are alternative resources that offer equally persuasive arguments and conclusions that run counter to the solutions usually advocated under the second definition.

I concur with him to the extent that we should be open to multiple perspectives on any issue.  On my reading table right now are books that take very different views on climate change.  I consider it the obligation of a citizen to research alternative perspectives   before engaging in public discussion.

But when I turn to land-use, there is an astounding paucity of credible material that defends suburbia as currently configured in most places.

That isn’t to say that there is no material at all that supports suburbia.  Indeed, there are a great many documents, but none of them reach the analytical standards of good urbanist study.  Instead, I’d put the suburbia documents into three classes.

There are paeans to suburbia extolling the freedom of the motorist and the family fun of the expansive backyard among other supposed suburban virtues.

There are how-to manuals on inducing folks to visit the latest strip mall or to buy a home in a new low-density subdivision.

And there are the financial analyses that argue, against seventy years of counter-examples, that one more big-box retailer or one more sprawling subdivision will assure prosperity.  (StrongTowns is particularly astute at exploding the flawed and often laughable assumptions of these analyses.)

But when it comes to serious analysis of the long-term sustainability and resilience of land-use, the defenders of suburbia all retreat to the sidelines, leaving the field to the proponents of walkable urbanism and similar solutions.

Indeed, the field of urbanism is filled with folks who began their study with considerations of how to make suburbia work better, only to realize that much of suburbia is a dead-end.  Author Leigh Gallagher, who began to write a book about how quickly the suburbs would rebound from the economic slump and ended up writing “The End of the Suburbs”, is only one recent example.

Readers of a logical bent may raise an objection here, suggesting that I’m engaging in circular logic.  If I reject as insufficiently rigorous every argument that defends suburbia and then reject suburbia because there are no good defenses of it, I might seem to be chasing my logical tail.

Unfortunately, in this short space, I can’t make an effective rebuttal to that argument.  I can only suggest that anyone who wishes to effectively engage in land-use discussions devote themselves to a dedicated program of open-minded reading and pondering.  Read Jane Jacobs, suburban general plans, StrongTowns, municipal budgets, James Howard Kunstler, the financial justifications put forth by mail developers, and Jeff Speck.  At the end of six months, you will not only understand that my argument isn’t circular, you’ll also be an urbanist.

(Nor should it be assumed that the analyses done under urbanist study result in groupthink.  Diligent students of land-use may identify different answers and advocate for their own solutions, although most answers would contain some elements of walkable urbanism.  All of these students would be engaged in urbanism and would capable of having meaningful conversations about their alternative conclusions.  Indeed, Petaluma Urban Chat often consists of exactly that type of exchange.)

Which brings us back to the question of zealotry.  Allow me to offer a parallel.  Someone who lived in England in the middle of the 17th century may well have had a lingering belief in alchemy.  Some people today believe that Isaac Newton dabbled with alchemical experiments between his scientific discoveries.  And if Newton retained an interest in alchemy, it’s likely that much of the population felt the same.

Against that background, the Royal Society, in their decision to focus on scientific work to the exclusion of alchemy, might well have been accused of zealotry.  And from the perspective of a contemporary non-scientific layperson, the charge may have seemed reasonable.  The scientific revolution and the lingering faith in turning lead into gold may have seemed alternative hypotheses, equally worthy of consideration.

It was only from the rigorous perspective of the Royal Society that the falsehoods of alchemy were evident.  And posterity has judged their perspective valid.  I suggest that posterity will similarly judge the false contest that some may propose between urbanism and the alchemy of drivable suburbia.

(I’m not suggesting that I belong anywhere near Sir Newton or even the Royal Society.  I may occasionally hang out in the same room with folks who might reasonably be called the Royal Society of land use, but I remain a lowly, back-row acolyte.)

Lest anyone think that I’m calling much of the population alchemists, I should clarify.  Instead, most of the population believes in suburbia mostly because it is the land-use paradigm with which they grew up and remain most comfortable.  That doesn’t make them alchemists.

But there are alchemists among us.  They are the developers, economists, and economic development directors who have spent enough time in their field that the flaws of suburbia should be fully evident and yet they continue to push their failed philosophy in order to keep the paychecks rolling.

I’m confident that the truths now being expounded by urbanists will form the basis of land-use planning a century from now, much as the 17th century efforts of Newton, Halley, Hook, and Leibnitz formed the basis of much of the science that was to come.  Perhaps there will be missteps, but the general direction will be proven valid.

And if I must be occasionally accused of zealotry to order to point the way toward a more informed future, so be it.

(P.S.  As a footnote of irony, it’s yet remains conceivable that contemporary suburbia has a sustainable and resilient future.  That future may well include deliveries by drones as suggested by Amazon, driverless cars as pioneered by Google, and improved tax structures so that suburbia doesn’t rely on subsidies from the general population, downtown residents, or future generations.  And that new configuration of suburbia, if it is to exist, will likely be found by those building on the urbanist studies of today, which is yet more proof that my first definition of “urbanism” is all-encompassing.)

(P.P.S. Also, diligent urbanists may be wondering where Ebenezer Howard, the urbanist who laid a key step in the path to suburbia, fits within the discussion.  Coincidentally, Howard was a frequent topic of conversation at CNU 22.  I’ll be writing about him in the near future.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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