Friday, July 4, 2014

Urbanism from an Aubrey-Maturin Perspective

Today’s post will be like a big, sweeping curve thrown by a good pitcher.  About the time the batter gives up on it, expecting it to stay a foot outside, it’ll suddenly gain traction, swerve toward the plate, and catch a corner of the urbanist strike zone.  At least that’s the plan.

I expect that some readers are familiar with Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian.  Although perhaps not to everyone’s taste, I find them among the remarkable literary accomplishments of the 20th century.  Over twenty books, O’Brian tells the story of British naval captain, Jack Aubrey, and his shipmate and good friend, Stephan Maturin, who is a naval physician, naturalist, and spy for the British crown, as they navigate the Napoleonic Wars.

Reviewers have likened the books to a cross between the swashbuckling Horatio Hornblower novels by C.S. Forrester and the novels of subtlety and social manners by Jane Austin.  O’Brian moves seamlessly between scenes of naval battle, largely based on actual encounters, and scenes of often constrained and awkward decorum, both afloat and ashore.

(The novels were also the basis for the Russell Crowe movie “Master and Commander – Far Side of the World”.  I haven’t seen the film, but understand that it focused more on swashbuckling than on manners, which means that, like many book-to-movie translations, it missed the subtle successes of the book.)

Perhaps the single greatest strength of the novels is that neither Aubrey nor Maturin emerges as the single leading character.  Even when O’Brian focuses his attention on one or the other, the presence of the missing character retains a palpable claim on the attention of the reader.  Sustained over twenty novels, the balancing act may be unique in literature.

Much of what works in the Aubrey-Maturin pairing is the tension between the characters.  Aubrey is the bold man of action, hearty in appetite and in attitude, often stepping on the toes of those whom he should be trying to please, but capable of creating intense loyalty among his men.

Conversely, Maturin is slight and abstemious, cunning in his ways but sometimes inept in his person, capable of staying awake all night converting a secret message into cipher, but in the next moment capable of falling overboard in a light swell, engendering not loyalty but affection among his shipmates who honor his medical knowledge and pity his landlubber ways.

Also, Aubrey clings aggressively to the past, often citing the ways and traditions of the Royal Navy to justify his decisions and emulating Lord Nelson’s “straight at ‘em” tactics whenever possible.

On the other side, Maturin is dismissive of tradition and eager to gather new knowledge with which to chart his life, fervently seeking new medical knowledge and aggressively collecting and dissecting the flora and fauna which come his way during the long voyages.

Maturin isn’t always correct in the new ways he adopts, such as his use of therapeutic bloodletting, but he never loses his faith in new knowledge.

The dichotomy between Aubrey and Maturin is much like the dichotomy between advocates of car-oriented suburban sprawl and walkable urbanists.

The suburbanists are like Aubrey, bold, brash, and consistently clinging to the rules of the past, unable to see a changing world.

The urbanists are like Maturin, cautiously picking their way into the future, continually looking for new data to aid the transition.  That’s not to say that urbanists have perfect knowledge.  It’s likely that they’re following at least one trail that will look obviously wrong-headed to posterity, such as Maturin’s bloodletting.  But they believe in data more than in tradition and that’s generally a fine thing.

This insight came particularly to mind when I recently perused the stances of a North Bay candidate for public office.  The candidate took two broad positions, that he would hew to an independent path and that he would go where the data led him.  I liked both points and read eagerly on.

And then, the first two points he made, not just two points I cherry-picked, but the very first two points, were support for a new arterial to “relieve traffic congestion” and for continuation of economic development through business attraction.

He took both points despite overwhelming evidence that traffic congestion is a result of how we price car travel and can’t be solved by road-building and that the economic development of the future won’t be driven by business attraction, but by building livable, walkable communities that attract the creative people whom businesses will follow.

The candidate may have claimed to be a Stephen Maturin, but he was a Jack Aubrey underneath.  And as the political season gets underway, he probably won’t be the only one to fly false colors.

And so, as we celebrate Independence Day, perhaps the most important independence we can seek is independence from the false shibboleths of the past.  Let us be Stephen Maturins, constantly open to new information and to carefully picking our way into the future.

Petaluma Urban Chat, which I’ve mentioned many times in the past, will take a different tack for their July meeting.  I’ll explain in my next post, but for now please put Tuesday, July 8, 5:30pm, Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets on your calendars.  The meeting should be worth your time.

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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