The Life and Death of Great American Cities
Friday, May 11, 2012
Roger Scruton on the possibility of renewal in urban America and why China’s urbanization is one of the great ecological disasters of our time.
Editor’s note: Roger Scruton is one of the most influential philosophers alive today. The author of numerous books and articles, his most recent publication is “A Plea for Beauty: A Manifesto for a New Urbanism.” In it, he discusses the ugliness of American cities, the role of markets and central planning, and the potential for renewal. He was recently interviewed by THE AMERICAN’s editor-in-chief Nick Schulz.
Nick Schulz: Conservatives and libertarians are skeptical of central planning when it comes to cities, and point to the disasters of urban renewal projects in the 1960s and 1970s as evidence of the harms of planning. But you argue that some planning is absolutely necessary to ensure successful cities. How do you resolve this tension?
Roger Scruton: I would distinguish two kinds of plans: Those which constrain people’s normal and natural goals, and those which attempt to reconcile those goals by constraining the means of pursuing them.
Thus, American zoning laws typically prevent people from living and working in the same place, or from building their schools, churches, shops, and work places in a single unified settlement. Thus, they defeat the primary goal that is shared by all who migrate to cities, which is to live somewhere, side by side with others.
Aesthetic constraints of the kind familiar in European planning law are directed at creating and maintaining that “somewhere,” so that people get on with their lives side by side and without destroying each other’s basic amenities. American zoning laws have a centrifugal effect, whereas good planning should be centripetal, always bringing people together rather than blowing them apart.
The urban renewal projects of the 1960s and 1970s were massively influenced by socialist conceptions of the city—in other words, they saw the city as a place provided for the masses by benign authorities who take charge of their lives. They were also influenced by an architectural establishment that profited from large scale projects using materials that had been developed without any reference to aesthetic constraints.
NS: In the United States, you cite New York and, to some extent, Washington, D.C., as successful cities from an aesthetic standpoint. Are there any other U.S. cities you celebrate?
RS: I am fond of San Francisco, especially the older parts, and am often agreeably surprised by those towns that have held on to their centers and resisted the mania for constant demolition. I regard the center of Culpeper, Virginia as a model of the unassuming small town where you might actually want to live. And all over America there are similar examples, held in place by residents who actively combine to defend them.
NS: Joel Kotkin has argued that one reason cities will not revive in the way many of their boosters believe is because people like single-family homes of the kind one can get in the suburbs. Americans want space and cities don’t provide enough of it for family life. Is he wrong about this?
RS: He is not wrong, of course. But he overlooks the basic truth, which is that people’s desires conflict, and that satisfying one of your desires may frustrate another. This is especially true when you consider people in aggregate. Each person wants that larger house in the suburb, conveniently placed for the city. But he doesn’t want that larger suburb, whose city is distant, desolate, and dead. If only other people didn’t come to settle in the suburbs, it would be fine. But, insensibly, the sprawl continues. Hence, many Americans, when they take their holidays abroad, go to the cities of Europe, and many of them remember with delight that little apartment in Paris or Florence or Vienna where they were happy beyond anything they had known in the ’burbs.
We all want space, but we also want life, charm, and excitement. The best city is the one that reconciles those goals, offering concentrated and aesthetically pleasing streets with all the amenities, and the parks, open spaces, and public buildings that enable the residents to breathe.
NS: What do you make of the hyper-growth megacities in places like Asia and Latin America–are any of them getting it right?
RS: I consider what is happening in China, for example, to be one of the great ecological disasters of our time: The destruction of old and renewable settlements, and their replacement by vast and un-adaptable megalopolies which will be abandoned within 50 years. In Latin America, I suspect, a measure of human freedom exists, which will ensure that shanty towns gradually transform themselves into settlements.
NS: The aesthetics of place are of great concern to you. Can you tell readers about where you live and why?
RS: I am lucky in that I live in a small farm in rural Wiltshire, where I stare from my window at pasture land. Until a year ago, I lived in rural Virginia, also staring from my window at pasture land. And the window had glazing bars and moldings around the frame.
I guess I made the choice to live like this 20 years ago, when I first moved from London to the country. Of course, not everyone can live as I do, and I apologize for it. In my defense, however, I would point out that I work hard to protect the environment where I live, and to subsidize our farming neighbors. They turn grass into milk and are always on the verge of bankruptcy; I turn grass into ideas and am able to redistribute some of the profit.
FURTHER READING: Roger Scruton writes “Conservatism and Climate,” “Paying the Price,” and “Curioser and Curioser.” Nick Schulz interviews more authors in “America Is Out of Control,” “Want to End Poverty? Legalize Freedom,” and “The Most Important Start-Up.”
Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group