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Cities without hearts

What comes to mind when you think of environmental issues? Resplendent rainforests? Beautiful Beaches? How about sensational cities? Roger Scruton, writing recently in his piece “A Plea for Beauty: A Manifesto for a New Urbanism” argues with some audacity that the degradation of cities—the historical crucibles of social, cultural and economic vitality and “heart of the modern nation state”—is the most important environmental issue we face.

Quite a claim, especially considering all the chatter regarding “green” everything these days, but is there any substance behind it? Sheer numbers alone paint a compelling picture about why this is something worth—at the very least—thinking about. In the past 50 years, the proportion of people living in cities worldwide has risen from one-third to one-half, a figure that is predicted to reach an astonishing two-thirds in the next 50 years. In alignment with kiwis’ general penchant for innovation, but contrary to our image as good country folk, nearly three-quarters of us already live in main cities today. Auckland’s burgeoning urban population continues to rise, contributing to over half the growth of the north island from 2010 to 2011 according to Statistics NZ.

As populations increase, so do the challenges facing cities. One of the main problems, argues Scruton, is disaggregation of function; the cultural and social are torn into the “downtown plus suburbs” sprawling model of a city. Instead of flourishing like Paris, New York and Rome where “workshops, apartments, offices, schools, churches, and theatres all stand side by side, with houses borrowing walls from whatever building has a boundary to spare”, they become places “where people will work or conduct business, but not live or play.”It is this division of function that Scruton laments, linking the decline of cities to the decline of the city centre. “Nothing is more important to a city than its center”, he says, “and when the center decays, the result is an ecological disaster.”

Two factors are identified as being responsible for things “falling apart”: the “surrender of downtown to business and the flight of residents to the suburbs.” While Scruton wisely eschews causation, it seems clear to me that these factors are linked and mutually reinforce one another to produce the kind of soulless, centrifugal cities he bemoans. People are often attracted to developing industrial cities for short-term economic benefits, but stay and settle for that which is permanent: the “institutions, schools, hospitals, universities, and recreational facilities” that give them a sense of belonging and compel them to call the place home. As businesses move in to the centre to partake in the spoils of market proximity and efficiency, so the theory goes, people retreat to the suburbs due to rising costs, leaving it bereft of the institutions and relationships that made it great to begin with.

If people are merely working and consuming in bleak cities during the day and fleeing to their warm homes at night, the outcome,Scruton remarks in characteristic eloquence, is “a conurbation without a heart” which cannot perform “many of the most important cultural and social functions of the city.”The city “therefore cannot bring people together in activities of citizenship…Public lectures, clubs and colleges, theaters and concerts, festive meals and the ordinary mingling of strangers in bars and restaurants”. Relationships give way to isolation. An efficient isolation perhaps, but isolation nonetheless. Scruton links this with Robert Putnam’s work on the decline of local associations, institutions where, as Alexis de Tocqueville lauded in his seminal work ‘Democracy in America’: “[f]eelings and opinions are recruited, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal influence of men upon one another.”

So what does all of this mean for us? As with most policy questions, tensions exist between competing visions of the common good, both in what a successful city ought to look like, and what means we use to reach this end.

One vision is that urban sprawl is simply the “market solution” to the issue of growing urban populations, a kind of Hayekian Spontaneous Order wherefree individuals possessing inalienable property rights acting in their self interest afford the best outcome. Any form of central planning or intervention is frowned upon, particularly because they can lead to unintended consequences, examples of which are legion in all aspects of society and tend to worsen as the scale of reform increases. The centrally planned British town of Milton Keynes gets the nod in this respect, memorably described by Scruton as “eighty-eight miles of aesthetic pollution, absorbing and extinguishing villages, towns, and farms in a tangle of thruways and roundabouts, with the population trapped in little globules between streams of fast moving automobiles.”

However, as Scruton notes, “when many people individually get what they want, the result may be something they collectively dislike,” a tragedy of the commons scenario which is of course, undesirable. This leads to the opposing vision, that urban sprawl is “unsustainable, and in any case, leads to the death of the city,” a forceful argument that has a considerable pedigree stretching from nineteenth century protests against industrialisation to more recent pleas to fix city boundaries in Britain. The US city of Chicago is used as an example of what might happen given no intervention, a city sprawling over nearly six thousand square kilometres. It is hard to imagine, Scruton suggests, people being brought together from both ends of Chicago for a weekly meeting or get-together.

So if we’ve established that cities without hearts are both a serious environmental and relational concern, one that has a significant impact on human flourishing no less, the next question that ought to be asked is: what can be done? Should we operate? And if so, how? Neither market solutions nor centralised planning seem to have worked in revitalising or growing successful cities, with success defined by Scruton as “the attraction to the center” – a centripetal city if you will. To plan, or not to plan, Scruton suggests, is a false choice. In the midst of strident and ideological arguments, of Order versus Liberty, perhaps in reality the answer is more nuanced.

Ultimately, Scruton’s answer lies in addressing the cause instead of the symptoms, arguing that people desert city centres because they “they are alienating, ugly, and without a human face.” He surprisingly advocates that for a city to be successful there must be “side constraints that endow [it] with its aesthetic identity;” limits on “height and scale, materials, and architectural details” like those administered in Europe to ensure new buildings or changes to existing buildings “share a language of form” and fit in with the old. He is nervous, and rightly so I think, about who should conceive and apply these, and how property rights might be protected from them. The devil once again, is in the details.

In this rationalist age of “sophists, economists, and calculators” we find ourselves in, it is refreshing to see someone boldly advocate policies that recognise the role of aesthetics and relationships; aspects intrinsic to our shared humanity and therefore to the problems that face us. I am left with the sense however, that while Scruton’s plea for beauty is a noble one that I dearly want to be true; it is not the panacea he purports it to be. As there are remnants of Scruton’s philosophy in Auckland Council’s lofty plan “to create the world’s most liveable city”, perhaps we might even be lucky enough to find out first-hand. Paris, New York, Rome… Auckland? Time will tell. 

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