Wendell Berry and the New Urbanism: Agrarian Remedies, Urban Prospects

Front Porch Republic

…we would do well to turn our attention to the revitalization of our cities and towns. If we hope to create a context within which human lives can be lived with dignity and joy, then we must turn our attention to preserving local culture, local customs, local beauty, local economies, families, and memories.

The decline of community is a theme taken up by many today both on the right and the left. The solitary bowler, a memorable image from Robert Putman’s book Bowling Alone, represents the loss that many feel and confirms the intuition that, despite the many advantages the modern world provides, something has indeed been lost. But what exactly is a community? Does any group of individuals living in close proximity to each other constitute a community? Does a healthy community exist more easily in an urban, suburban, or rural environment? Although he does not argue that a good life is only possible on the farm, Wendell Berry writes out of the agrarian tradition, and his vision of community is articulated in a rural context centered around a small town. Berry’s work is useful in developing a sense of the various ingredients necessary for a viable community. However, it is necessary to ask if and how this vision of community, if indeed it is compelling, can be translated into urban and sub-urban contexts. Ultimately, the discussion of community is rooted in the question of human flourishing, and, interestingly, both Berry as well as certain urban designers point to the modern affinity for specialization as a prime culprit in the destruction of modern communities.

Wendell Berry’s Agrarian Vision

For Berry, the ascent of the specialist (or what in later writings he calls the “professional”) represents culturally the victory of narrow analysis over holistic knowledge. The difference between the two approaches to reality is striking: the former reduces complexity in an effort to control all variables and thereby completely circumscribe the object or problem; the latter is open to the experience at hand, seeking to understand but content with untidy remainders. The former is characterized by a desire to dominate a problem and ultimately reality itself, while the latter is characterized by humility and love.

According to Berry, “the corruption of community has its source in the corruption of character.” And this corruption of character is the result of the inability or unwillingness to understand the complex and often messy whole. It follows, then, that “the disease of the modern character is specialization.” Specialization fragments tasks, fragments competencies, fragments individual character, and ultimately fragments the idea of community.

The first, and best known, hazard of the specialist system is that it produces specialists—people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing. We get into absurdity very quickly here. There are, for instance, educators who have nothing to teach, communicators who have nothing to say, medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest, in preventing. More common, and more damaging, are the inventors, manufacturers, and salesmen of devices who have no concern for the possible effects of those devices. Specialization is thus seen to be a way of institutionalizing, justifying, and paying highly for a calamitous disintegration and scattering-out of the various functions of character: workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility.

This modern specialist tends to be consumed by the idea of progress. He is not only alienated by the narrowness of his focus from an understanding of the whole, he is, because of his singular concern for the future, alienated from the present as well as the past. For anyone infatuated with progress, the past was, by definition, a backward place peopled by benighted, miserable wretches. On the other hand, the future is bright. The Enlightenment dream of autonomy eventually severed the limiting ties to a transcendent order to which men were obligated. But the Christian vision of a perfect future, which for the Christian was achievable only outside of history, remained. With the transcendent realm sacrificed on the altar of autonomy, the dream of perfection necessarily had to be reconfigured. Its realization must now be in time. It must be achieved by human effort. But since we are smarter than any of our race who have come before, we are surely up to the task. In this cult of the future the past is denigrated, traditions are eschewed, as this modern man, unencumbered by the barnacles of the past strides boldly to claim his prize. Heaven has been forced into time, and that time is the future. As Berry puts it, “the modern mind longs for the future as the medieval mind longed for Heaven.”

The problem of specialization manifests itself in the way we have envisioned our communities. Berry argues that a healthy community, and ultimately a healthy culture, is one in which people live where they work and work where they live.

Nowhere is the destructive influence of the modern home so great as in its remoteness from work. When people do not live where they work, they do not feel the effects of what they do. The people who make wars do not fight them. The people responsible for strip-mining, clear cutting of forests, and other ruinations do not live where their senses will be offended or their homes or livelihoods or lives immediately threatened by the consequences. The people responsible for the various depredations of ‘agribusiness’ do not live on farms. They—like many others of less wealth and power—live in ghettos of their own kind in homes full of ‘conveniences’ which signify that all is well. In an automated kitchen, in a gleaming, odorless bathroom, in year-round air-conditioning, in color TV, in an easy chair, the world is redeemed.

Here we can see the radical nature of Berry’s vision. Our entire economy, our very culture of work, leisure, and home is constructed around the idea of easy mobility and the disintegration of various aspects of our lives. We live in one place, work in another, shop in another, worship in another, and take our leisure somewhere else. According to Berry, an integrated life, a life of integrity, is one characterized by membership in a community in which one lives, works, worships, and conducts the vast majority of other human activities. The choice is stark: “If we do not live where we work, and when we work, we are wasting our lives, and our work too.”

Urban and Suburban Communities

Berry’s vision for healthy communities, and in turn, a healthy culture informed by such ideals as hard work, neighborliness, thrift, and love is presented in the context of a rural agrarian setting. And while his description of the possibilities latent in such a community are attractive and often even inspiring, it is a simple fact that the vast majority of Americans no longer live on farms, and for practical as well as personal reasons, the vast majority of American are not going to move to rural agrarian communities regardless of how taken they are by Berry’s work. In reality, most Americans today reside in urban and suburban areas and are quite content to purchase their pasteurized milk from the grocery store and their chickens nicely cleaned and plucked. But this fact raises an important question: does something about the modern, urbanized world militates against the formation and sustenance of robust local communities? And if so, are there ways healthy communities can be realized apart from an agrarian context? If not, then it would seem that, given current demographic realities and trends, the possibility for cultivating strong local communities is correspondingly dim. If, on the other hand, there are possibilities latent in the fundamental structure of urban life itself, then the kind of community that humans naturally seek may be possible without abandoning the cities in favor of the farm. Indeed, far from denigrating cities as less suitable for human flourishing, Aristotle, for instance, argues that the best kind of human life is only possible in the context of a city. The city is the proper end (telos) of humans and to flee the city signals something either seriously wrong with the person or the city. Perhaps, then, the present maladies of our cities are not intrinsic to cities but, rather, are the result of modern notions of cities that have seriously misunderstood the purpose and possibilities of urban existence.

In the same way that Berry identifies specialization–and the attendant urge to establish control by imposing an artificial simplification upon reality–as the core of the modern fragmentation of agrarian life, so too we can find the same kind of destructive impulse at work in urban and suburban contexts. In her classic work on urban design, The Death and Life of the Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argues that healthy cities 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. According to Jacobs, safe streets are a necessary condition for a healthy neighborhood, and streets can be made safe only by the attentive presence of residents who feel a sense of ownership of the street and are willing to take action if necessary. Jacobs calls this “eyes upon the street.” Effective monitoring of the streets requires knowledge of the sorts of activities that take place on a particular street, and that knowledge requires time and commitment. Transient residents feel no ownership of the public realm and thus feel little responsibility to monitor it. Instead they rely on the policemen, whose presence can, to be sure, deter crime, but who all too often are involved only after the fact. Thus, effective eyes on the street requires residents who are committed to the health and welfare of the street and who, as a result, take a lively interest in monitoring the street and thereby keeping it safe.

Jacobs argues that the very methodology employed by city planners has contributed to the problems facing the city. City planners are too often trained to analyze various aspects of a city, separating the component parts of a city by use, after which they attempt to reassemble the various parts into a coherent whole. This approach, though, fails to deal with cities on their own terms, for cities are complex organisms, and to understand them properly one must treat the various moving parts concurrently as parts of a living whole rather than separate elements that can be understood in isolation from each other. As Jacobs puts it, “to understand cities, we have to deal outright with combinations of mixtures of uses, not separate uses, as the essential phenomena.”

Jacobs attempts to show how diversity of use is necessary for a safe and healthy neighborhood. In terms of safety, diversity of uses ensures an active and interesting street life, and that activity facilitates the eyes on the street that is necessary for safe sidewalks. For example, if a district is devoted exclusively to retail stores, then that district will be virtually devoid of people after regular business hours. The absence of people creates a breeding ground of crime and mischief, which further discourages people from even passing through on the way to another neighborhood. On the other hand, a district comprised of a mixture of uses, including residential, retail, restaurants, entertainment, and perhaps even light industry, will experience a constant influx of people. Active streets, for Jacobs, are safe streets, but they are also more interesting, and humans are naturally drawn to diversity and shun the “great blight of dullness.” Thus, mixed-use districts tend to attract people, and because these areas are more interesting than single-use areas, people enjoy them more. When the opportunity is available, many people choose to live in such diverse and interesting neighborhoods. For Jacobs, then, a healthy city is composed of healthy districts and neighborhoods, and these must include a mixture of uses that provides the safety, diversity, and interest that attract people and generate a sense of loyalty and ownership that creates a stable population of residents committed to the health and well-being of the neighborhood. And all of this is possible only if those charged with planning the city are willing to countenance the complexity and even messiness that a diverse and successful neighborhood requires.

But it is not merely the cities that must be re-imagined in order to create the context within which vibrant communities can come to life and persist. Early 21st century America is increasingly neither urban nor rural but a curious mix of the two that has come to be called suburban. Unfortunately, rather than securing the benefits of both city and country, the modern suburb often partakes of the disadvantages of both. 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. Individuals connected by little more than coincidental proximity find themselves brushing shoulders with strangers as they variously pursue their private interests. But the interaction is only perfunctory and accidental. Any conception of the common good is reduced merely to creating a situation in which the most individual consumption can take place with the least amount of friction. In such a context, community of any meaningful sort is sorely hampered. A public realm, the health of which requires the investment of both time and financial resources (not to mention affection) is a necessary condition for a robust community. Thus, a successful community requires attention to more than individual desires. James Howard Kunstler recognizes that community is not a commodity that can be marketed and sold in a neatly packaged bundle of accessories.

The small town life that Americans long for when they are depressed by their city apartments or their suburban bunkers is really a conceptual substitute for the idea of community. But a community is not something you have, like a pizza. Nor is it something you can buy, as visitors to Disneyland and Williamsburg discover. It is a living organism based on a web of interdependencies—which is to say, a local economy. It expresses itself physically as connectedness, as buildings actively relating to one another, and to whatever public space exists, be it the street, or the courthouse square, or the village green.

At this point, Kunstler turns to Wendell Berry for a definition of community. “Most important, Wendell Berry writes, ‘“it must be generally loved and competently cared for by its people, who, individually, identify their own interest with the interest of their neighbors.”’ Urban critics such as Jane Jacobs and those like Kunstler who promote the so-called New Urbanism recognize that single-use districts, wherein residences are intentionally separated from other types of buildings, are the result of the specialization that deforms its subject matter as it attempts to simplify it. The result of this simplifying process is neither lovely nor lovable.

This predilection for specialization has infected those disciples that traditionally concern themselves with city design. Town planning, for example, “until 1930 considered a humanistic discipline based upon history, aesthetics, and culture, became a technical profession based upon numbers. As a result, the American city was reduced into the simplistic categories and quantities of sprawl.” Sprawl represents the culmination of this specialization which, in fact, represents the rejection of traditional urban design that had for centuries recognized the conditions necessary for vibrant and healthy human existence. Thus, the ideal sought by the New Urbanists is not new at all, for by championing mixed-use walkable neighborhoods, they are merely attempting to recover a simple truth long known and only recently forgotten: cities, towns, and neighborhoods should be constructed to facilitate human flourishing and not to simplify the job of urban designers.

Here we encounter an irony: the success of specialization leads to the demise of healthy communities, but the destruction of local communities leaves a cultural vacuum that is filled with a homogeneous culture that is as bland as it is broad. Specialization, then, leads to homogenization, and homogenization leads to boredom, apathy, and a diminished sense of care or responsibility.

In such a context, we would do well to turn our attention to the revitalization of our cities and towns. If we hope to create a context within which human lives can be lived with dignity and joy, then we must turn our attention to preserving local culture, local customs, local beauty, local economies, families, and memories. This, obviously, cannot be accomplished primarily by political action at the national level; although, local zoning laws and ordinances are often impediments that need to be changed. Ultimately, healthy communities will only be realized when individuals commit to a particular place and to particular neighbors in the long-term work of making a place, of recognizing and enjoying the responsibilities and pleasures of membership in a local community. These good things are not the unique provenance of agrarian or rural settings. They can and have been achieved in urban and town settings. The means to this end are clear. What is needed is the energy and creativity to bring it into existence and the will to sustain it.