My theory about the “back to the city” movement is that it’s another cultural manifestation of postmodernism. I contrast the focus we see in movements like the New Urbanism with the modernist planning paradigm (skyscrapers in garden parks separated from residential areas and strip commercial corridors by spaghetti junction limited access highways). I haven’t finished sifting through the literature on this topic, so maybe someone has already spotted this link (still going through Dr. Sonya Hirt’s publications, among others).
In this post I want to explore the pschology for a second, though. People in my generation recoil in horror from those all too common scenes of American life: wide highways, vast building setbacks, menageries of pylon signs (in the commercial areas); and treeless savannahs of mass produced pastiche-style McMansions (in the residential areas). We think, Why on earth would our parents and grandparents have chosen this? On the other hand, when we see narrow, pedestrian-oriented streetscapes with human-scaled buildings pulled to the street featuring an eclectic mix of commercial uses below and housing above, we feel warm and fuzzy.
My question is, Indeed, why DID our parents choose the former over the latter? I’m not going to address the issue of White flight and racial tension. Of course that played a role, but I’d really like to zero in on what cultural logic (informed by philosophy) bred this kind of attitude toward urban space that is all but dead today.
Modernism, the Enlightenment: whatever you want to call that philosophical movement that came with the Reformation, as variegated as it is, has one common thread running through it: the trust it places in the rationality of the subject. The cultural impulse it led to, especially by the first half of the twentieth century, was one of unbounded confidence in science and human reason. We really believed that, with the scientific method and unbiased reason, we could finally solve mankind’s problems and usher in utopia.
This attitude led to modernist urban planning. A key figure here is Robert Moses, who any planner would know as the antagonist in the Jane Jacobs story. Moses was for the logical, the expedient, the streamlined in planning. Tear down those old tenements and build a superhighway over top of them. And tear and build we did, often with consequences most people lament today.
Anyway, back to the psychology. I think this modernism taught people to “silo” their habitat needs.
So, almost anyone today would admit that humans need to have places to walk. Taking a walk is one of the most pleasurable activities there is. Why then did we build our cities in ways that make walking almost impossible (i.e., no sidewalks, vast distances, murderously busy highways)?
It’s the siloing idea. With Euclidean zoning we “siloed” off the different spheres of life: shopping’s over here, living over there, work and business out there. You get in your personal transportation pod and zip from one silo to the next. Why? This is efficient. This is clean and tidy. No messiness in modernism. It makes perfect sense, right?
The point is that siloing is highly rational. It keeps things organzied and in their place. Nevermind that for all of human history, cities had been built exactly the opposite way. In fact, the beauty of the city was its synergy between uses, its activity and dynamism. And keeping everything together allowed things to be close enough to allow walking.
But modern people thought that was part of the bad old world that wasn’t scientific, like the new one they were creating. Why, if they wanted to “walk,” (which, why would they, unless they needed to go somewhere?), they could get in their car and drive over to the nature preserve. And so forth for all their other needs.
Siloing was a great idea on paper, but a disaster in real life. It turns out that the way cities used to organically develop was for a reason: it suited us and our subconscious needs. Interposing great stretches of highway between us and the park makes going to the park feel like an appointment, or in some way artificial. It’s like the “play date” I mentioned in my last post.
In the post- and meta-modern world, where we no longer have blind confidence in those big narratives of scientific utopia and progress, we’ve finally accepted that we can’t manhandle our needs and desires into a rationally tidy little package. We’ve turned to organic food, organic health care, and organic cities. And like so many other things these days, we revel in the fact that they’re “messy.”