New Urbanism and Virtue

There is an outstanding article on the blog Public Discourse about how “walkable communities” are more conducive to building virtue.  (Hat tip to A Dei in the Life for this reference.)  Many have argued for some time now about the merits of living in a community that does not require driving on a day-to-day basis, but Raymond Hain (the author) finds the popular arguments inadequate: controversial environmental issues, tacky architecture, and vague descriptions about the value of “community.”  Instead, utilizing the work of Philip Bess, Mr. Hain seeks to establish an argument for walkable communities that is grounded in solid Thomistic virtue.  His arguments are three:

 

1.  We need others to help us to identify what is good for us.

2.  True virtuous action demands that we treat others justly, charitably and with kindness, but such action is always with regards to a particular situation, not abstract generalities.

3.  When our lives are fragmented in the way suburbia makes possible, it is much easier for us to act badly, and it is much harder to learn from the bad actions we do perform (and so to become someone who eventually acts well).

 

Regarding the first point, Thomas insists that training in virtue must be done in community (he says “in conference among several”).  The demands of the moral life are not always simple, and prudence is required to sort through all the various aspects of a dilemma, but these various aspects are often disclosed to us in consultation with those in our lives.

Regarding the second point, virtue is a habit, and as such it needs practiced in order to develop.  Practice means encountering real, concrete situations, not merely working our solutions in abstract.  We need frequent interaction with others in order to prudently judge the merits of various moral solutions.

Finally, with respect to the third point, personal encounters provide the impetus for virtuous behavior.  In the words of the author, “It becomes much easier for us to treat someone poorly, to violate the demands of true virtue, when that person shares only a small fragment of our lives.”

Mr. Hain is onto something here.  Our lives are rapidly becoming both private and segmented.  Both of these tendencies tend away from seeing man as made in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God.  First, God consists of three Persons, which means that God is inherently relationship.  When John claims that God is love, he does not say God loves or God has love, but rather discloses that God, in his essence, is the act of love.  As such, God is immanent (which is not to discount his transcendence), and as beings mades in his image and likeness, we are called to be in relationship with one another.  The increasingly mobile society, together with the Cartesian turn towards the subject, promotes quite the opposite.  However, God is not merely plurality, but is also unity: there is but one God.  In other words, even in his multiplicity God is perfectly integrated.  As an image of God, while we have different aspects to our beings and our lives, we are called to integrate them into our person.  This goes first and foremost for our body and soul – our body needs trained in the ways of the soul, for a strict dualism is impossible.  But it also goes for the various arenas in which we live out our vocation.  Our jobs, our family, our friends, our faith … all must be oriented ad Dominum, and in doing so we come to understand a life whose singular purpose is holiness.

I would add two marginal observations to Mr. Hain’s argument.  The first involves the use of communication technology.  As communication became possible without physical proximity, man began to rethink the meaning of knowledge, discourse, and relationship.  In the 1980’s, Neil Postman observed that this began with the invention of the telegraph: for the first time in human history, communication was not limited by geography.  (Letter writing was always a possibility, but inherent to letter writing is the lack of instantaneousness, something absent from telegraphic communication.)  Once the telegraph became utilized by the news agencies, it introduced three problems into rational discourse: irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.  It accomplished this by decontextualizing information and presented it as a series of disconnected (and disappearing) facts.

But the telegraph was only the beginning, for later came the telephone and the television, and the whole thing has seen a great culmination with the advent of the internet.  (Postman sees the culmination, but his work was published before the internet became widespread.  In this sense, he was an man ahead of his time.)  Personal communication is being replaced with rapid transmission of zeros and ones, and relationships are being replaced with Facebook “friendship.”  Whether this is a cause or result of the suburban sprawl is a bit of a chicken-egg phenomenon, but the correlation is obvious.

My second marginal observation is the strange juxtaposition of proximity and isolation found in the act of driving on the highway.  When a driver is on the road, he is surrounded by hundreds of other individuals who are in relative close proximity, yet he is isolated in his own world.  This all seems contrary to the way in which human relationships were intended to work.  By this I mean that man is an embodied soul, and as such he can best relate to his fellow man when the person is physically present.  (Such is the very principle of sacramentality.)  True, some methods of communication can provide a substitute for the lack of proximity (such as the telephone), but they will always be substitutes.  (This, indeed, is the very heart of the problem – people are coming the see the substitute as the real thing, as can be seen when today’s youth would rather send a text message than actually dial the phone or meet the person face to face.)  Human relationships are intended to involve the body and physical proximity.  This is why Confession must be done in the presence of a priest, and more importantly explains the reason and power of the Incarnation.

The problem with extended time in a car is that is separates relationship from proximity.  It is actually the flip side of the telegraph-telephone-internet problem.  Communication technology attempts to preserve the personal encounter without a corresponding physical encounter.  Driving in a car presents us with a situation where we have a physical encounter but one the is completely void of anything personal.  In falsely separating these two things, it is no surprise that people are less prone to virtue in their communications.  On the internet, when the face-to-face encounter has been eliminated, people are more likely to behave in vicious ways because they perceive those actions as lacking consequence.  Likewise, in a vehicle there is an absence of personal relationship (due to the physical isolation and confinement) and therefore people are more likely to exhibit rage and other vicious emotions.  Again, a perceived lack of consequences plays a role here.  The whole thing seems to separate what God has joined: relationship and physical proximity.

While marginal, these two observations are intimately bound up with the problem of suburban sprawl.  Of course the second example of the car is a direct consequence of suburbia.

I would add as a final observation that both communication and transportation technology provide the one necessary ingredient for destroying virtue and human relationship: anonymity.  When one is able to dissociate his personal identity from his actions, virtue becomes virtually impossible.  It is telling the Scripture presents a life of virtue as tied to personal identity, or rather it presents the lack of identity as a key characteristic of evil, which is why the demons Christ encounters often refer to themselves in the plural (“We” or “legion”).

Mr. Hain ends his article with the following:

[S]uburbia represents a turning away from public life towards private life. Front porches have become back decks, and public squares have disappeared. Suppose we were to rebuild those public squares, and all of us spent our evenings on our front porches. We might discover, to our dismay, that we had almost nothing to talk about.

The last bit reminds me of a quotation from Henry David Thorough, written on the eve of  the development of a transcontinental telegraph line:

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Main to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. … We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

But as usual, Postman synthesizes all of this best:

A man in Main and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about.  The telegraph may have made the country into ‘one neighborhood,’ but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.

30 Responses to New Urbanism and Virtue

  • It sounds very nice and logical and all, but it doesn’t work.

    I’ve lived in places where I could walk to the store, the mall, my doctor’s, etc, and there were tons of folks in the same complex. The only time I had a friendly conversation with someone was when I complemented her cat…after some drunk kids set a man’s pickup on fire, because isn’t it funny to burn a vehicle with a fire fighter’s uniform in it?
    I tried to be helpful and friendly, and it was most assuredly rebuffed.

    Compare to where we live now– not walkable at all, unless you count the bread distributor’s next door, but if I offer someone a hand because they’ve got a ton of groceries and a little kid they say thank you and accept, or do the no thanks I got it response. I know the gal who shares a wall with me, and we chat if she’s out smoking and I happen to walk out. If I knock on folks’ doors to ask if the lovely orange cat trying to come in my back window is theirs, they answer with a smile and we both worry about whose it could be. (still no idea, but the conclusion is that he’s sneaking out of folks’ houses, and the desk ladies all know he comes to “visit” my cat so they can tell whoever looks for him)

    The main difference? Sense of safe community– there’s a daycare on site, so everyone has to pass a basic security check, there’s a gate that you need a code to drive through, there’s green open space on either side and the population is mostly military or associated.
    The other “complex” we shared a rec house, but the place was wide open– people could and did walk there, cause trouble (that was NOT the only vehicle that was torched), the YMCA was plopped down nearby (which I think bussed in “troubled youth” regularly), and if someone knocked on your door it was probably to run that blanking magazine scam for the fiftieth time.

    The guy wants community– that means you’ve got to have a shared culture. Being able to walk to places has nothing to do with it, having shared values that are enforced in some manner does.

    Think about it– why are we reading a site called “The American Catholic”? Because the really important values are shared here. We know we’re not going to open the page one day and see something along the lines of that attack on poor little Trig, because everyone here agrees that all toddlers are people, and attacking a child because of who they’re related to is wrong.

    Frankly, I don’t want to adopt the culture of those around me– I’m Catholic, and the culture is frankly incompatible with that, as evidenced when I went to my St. Francis network OBGYN and on the first appointment they wanted to know if I wanted to get my tubes tied, since this was the second child.
    When I politely said it was against my religion (and, when asked, said I’m Catholic) they were shocked and said they’d never had someone turn it down on religious grounds before. Every one of their clients that they know are Catholic ignores “that stuff.”

  • I’ve lived in small towns in Central Illinois virtually my entire life. Almost everyone drives here, either to a job, or to go shopping or to get to the county seat to take care of some matter with the county government. The sense of community is normally pretty strong, although new comers can sometimes take a while to fit in. Additionally squabbles can ensue when neighbors get too close, so I have always followed a policy of waving to neighbors when I see them, and leaving it at that. People do tend to watch out for each other, and it is normally fairly easy to know who is trustworthy and who is not. Some people can find it all stifling, but it has suited me and my family fairly well.

  • I think that the concerns with community in the referenced work are overanalyzed. Communities develop first through families that inculcate the virtues. Then those virtues are fostered through the life of the cult (religion). In the end this community can exist even when there are great distances.

    Having lived in the West, where farmers and ranches often lived miles apart, one is impressed with the community that existed in local churches or other organizations such as the Grange.

    The I’ve lived in cities where the population of the block was higher than the local town five miles aways. No sense of community at all.

    I think in part Aquinas’ noting that virtue is lived in community in part takes in Aristotle’s view that a virtuous life is lived in friendship. Though it probably gets much more complex than that, I think that is the place where analysis should begin. The lack of true friendship, in spite of geographic barriers at times, that is a reality in our post-cultic society.

  • I like the way St.Thomas puts us in the action track with mandates to work in context with our fellows. This morning while busing to work, I was imagining St.John of the Cross walking from place to place in Segovia in 1589. From a tourist’s viewpoint one could admire the path he took from the cathedral to hospitals to convents and home to his monastery. I got of the bus and it occurred to me that my path is no less special, if I am thinking like St.Thomas had advised.

    We do create virtue from habit. But it is hard work.

  • Philip- I think you’re on to something, and a question came to mind: could the way we’re taught in school be helping to kill off friendship?

    As a lot of wags have commented, they haven’t been forced to socialize with a group entirely their own age and mostly the same background since leaving school….

  • Philip: “I’ve lived in cities where the population of the block was higher than the local town five miles away. No sense of community at all.”

    Foxfier: “The main difference? Sense of safe community…”

    Yeah… points which perennially come to my mind whenever I read these types of suburb critiques. The assertions totally go against my experience and that of many others, explaining why these ideas have trouble catching on. Even Rod Dreher has admitted that even though suburbs are–in theory–depraved dens of iniquity and non-community, they are much friendlier, safer and convivial than cities are in reality. That’s where I live. Reality.

    As for the critique of internal combustion engines, the crowd of people passing each other on many urban sidewalks may as well have cars built around them for the lack of notice they pay one another. Automobiles only reinforce a sort of individualism that is already there. People who drive the most, commonly called “truckers”, have more sense of community belonging than, say, people in Starbucks listening to iPods with headphones thinking grandiose thoughts about an imaginary world without fossil fuels. BTW, you can still get a CB for less than many iPod models.

  • *little lightbulb*
    Japan’s high population means that they HAVE to interact, and HAVE to live in walking distance of most everything, etc.
    They respond by building mental and cultural walls.

    Maybe stress has a lot to do with it? I know the #1 stress in my life is people, and that the best way to keep people from hurting you is not to be vulnerable to them. Friendly is vulnerable. (Ask any high school outcast.)

  • I might add, that while the suburbs traditionally have been cut off from urban areas in terms of communities, that the internet has the potential to transcend those barriers. We live in an era where humans have the capability to communicate in more ways than ever before imagined. Can we use them to form greater communities of well-being and break down the social barriers of “The Lonely Crowd”?

    For a good (and challenging) book on some of the philosophy behind the concern over barriers and mixing, see Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times.

  • It seems like the original article is assuming that overlapping connections automatically create community. I disagree. The strongest bonds in my life come from church and family, neither of which overlap with my work or social life.

    The article forgets about the sense of duty. Integration can encourage duty to the extent that, for example, it’s embarrassing to go to the grocery store and see the deacon of the church you haven’t been attending. But integration doesn’t necessarily produce a sense of duty. Duty inspires you to do something you don’t want to do, and without that, it’s impossible to live a moral life.

    It’s worth noting that both Japanese culture and midwest farming culture involve a sense of duty. Trucking does as well, at least partially due to the large investment of money or time. Internet sites don’t promote duty. Anyone can show up or drop out at any time. I don’t think they encourage virtue, unless the person does feel an obligation to them.

  • New Urbanism often doesn’t have much place for churches. I do believe encouraging more people to live within walking distance of their church would have very positive effects. This kind of encouragement is easier than ever in the Facebook age – just let your church friends know that so-and-so is moving, and his house is just down the block from St. Mary’s.

    The Public Discourse essayist risks confusing *building* patterns with *residency* patterns. It’s the people who matter, clearly.

    The safety issue is also an important political question. Why should someone feel unsafe in a functioning modern city? “Lack of safety” is sometimes just another phrase for “lack of effective police protection.” (And often police incapacity results from political or judicial intervention.)

  • Why should someone feel unsafe in a functioning modern city?

    Because the majority of modern folks aren’t fighters and aren’t armed. The defense an unarmed noncom has is numbers, and if you don’t have a strong community you can’t be sure you’ll have sufficient numbers to counter an armed gang.

  • It seems to me that Mr. Tawney’s article is trying to hit at a reality of modern life that we all face: increasing individualism and increasing social dis-integration, with a consequent individualistic ethos. That, in my opinion, is a reality none can ignore and very much worth thinking about. I would like to hear some of the commentators at this blog offer some thoughts about the roots of this problem.

    On the other hand, I am fairly disappointed with the way the argument was constructed. It seems like a cake thrown together which hasn’t had enough time to bake. On the one hand, one must admit that Thoreau and co.’s arguments concerning the telegraph have some validity to them. The fact of being able to communicate is not yet a judgment of the value of the communications that are now possible. In other words, I think Mr. Tawney correctly identified the pith of the problem: a substitution for real, inter-personal communication is taken as the norm. None of the commentators so far, on this Catholic blog, have taken seriously enough his points about theological anthropology and the incarnational aspect of man as made for communion. The fact that communities are now designed to isolate is something worth noting and considering. To ignore this argument and to say that design has nothing to do with it is to deny the effect/influence of man’s surroundings. In other words, it is to deny that he is really an incarnate spirit and to give into the Cartesian “ghost-in-the-machine” (or thinking thing/extended thing dualism, as he termed it).

    On the other hand, a few commentator’s got it right when they said (basically) that these arguments have culpably overlooked the family as the real basic building block of virtue and when they said that friendship is the first context about which Thomas was writing (of course, he also had other communities in mind, for example, religious communities). As long as these things are not looked to first, the further arguments will lack a suitable foundation.

    Finally, I must say that Mr. Tawney’s explanation of the nature of God needs a bit of tightening. That is, it is inaccurate in comparison to the Catholic faith, and on two points. First, Mr. Tawney writes, “…but rather discloses that God, in his essence, is the act of love. As such, God is immanent (which is not to discount his transcendence), and as beings mades in his image and likeness, we are called to be in relationship with one another.” As to the first part, it is true that God is the act of love (but more accurate to say that the three divine Persons are constituted by their mutual and perichoretic act of love). As to the second, it does not follow that God is immanent. God is a Creator, but it does not follow that He is “immanent” as Person in creation. This is not a logical necessity, otherwise, God would be constrained by something other than His nature. The reason for this has to do with the fact that God is love in and of Himself, that is, within the eternal communion of Persons. He has no need of creation to love and therefore it is not a logical necessity. The fact that He is present to His creation (in His Incarnation), is a further sign of the infinitude of His love.

    As to the second point, Mr. Tawney writes, “However, God is not merely plurality, but is also unity: there is but one God. In other words, even in his multiplicity God is perfectly integrated. As an image of God, while we have different aspects to our beings and our lives, we are called to integrate them into our person.” It is simply false to say that God is “integrated.” The word integrated applies to complex/composed beings. God’s being is utterly simple; it is simplicity. God is not integrated because, quite simply, there are no parts which require integration. His one act of being is also His essence. Perhaps Mr. Tawney was trying to point to the aspect of divine simplicity (we will give the benefit of the doubt), but it bears saying that God cannot be said to be “integrated.”

    Mr. Tawney, thank you for your thought provoking article.

    Pax,
    Ben

  • Due to Triduum happenings, I have not yet had a chance to get to many of the comments, and needless to say, it is a bit overwhelming. I think the most surprising thing is not necessarily the number of comments, but rather their length. If I (or the original article) have cause people to think deeply about simple things, then I suppose this is in someway a success.

    I think their is a temptation in many of the comments to present anecdotal evidence as contrary to the original thesis, which, as I read it, is that life in suburbia is not conducive to the development of virtue, but rather seems more conducive to fragmentation and a Cartesian sort of subjectivism. While anecdotal evidence can be helpful, it always remains just that. For instance, if I live in an urban setting that still maintains a since of social isolation, this does not necessarily mean that the thesis is incorrect. Likewise, a very tight knit community within suburbia does not contradict the thesis. The question still remains: what type of social setting is more conducive to building virtue? There will always be those that can live virtuously even in environments that don’t promote it, and there will always be those that live viscously despite an environment that promotes virtue. But the question remains: does a walkable community better allow for the type of community needed to build virtue. I think this is Mr. Hain’s point.

    I think there has been too much emphasis on “walkability.” While this is certainly part of the thesis, it remains just that: only part. The idea was to produce a comparison of a small, walkable community in which most everything one needs is within a relatively short distance. In such a community, an individual knows the grocer, knows the mayor, knows the bank officer, etc. Everything is personal because everything is small. Suburbia is very different, for the only thing in the immediate community is the house and other similarly built houses. The church can be quite a bit a away, the workplace is often deliberately a lengthy drive, and the list goes on. Suburbia is set up to foster fragmentation – or perhaps fragmentation led to the desire for suburbia. “Walkability” is only a side aspect – the main thing here, from my perspective, is smallness and simplicity.

    I appreciate Phillip’s comment about farm communities, and this may be worthy of its own post. While there is not space here to develop this idea fully, it seems to me that the rural communities can somehow maintain a sense of smallness, simplicity, and non-fragmentation in their lives. In this way, they seem closer to the small town community of which I am speaking than they do to suburbia.

    That being said, “walkability” is not totally separate from all of this. There is something about walking (perhaps it is the slower pace, the physical movements, who knows?) over driving that better allows one to take in the surroundings. I tried to hint at some of this in the description of the social isolation that occurs int he act of driving, but perhaps I didn’t do a very good job. Of course, this is not meant to be a blanket statement, for I readily concede the point about people walking with iPods, cell phones, and various other objects that remove them from the world. But neither does this negate the point: that walking is more conducive to communicating with those who are also walking than does driving.

    That brings me to Ben’s comment, one that was very much appreciated. It seems to get at the main crux of the article. Perhaps my argument was a bit scattered. These are conversations I have been having with various individuals for some time, and often things make more sense in my head than they come across on paper. “The fact that communities are now designed to isolate is something worth noting and considering.” Indeed. Postman’s main argument was that the form of communication is not separable from the content being communicated. In other words, at the same time that one is receiving information, one is also receiving information on how information is to be received. Likewise with social organization. Design has everything to do with it. One cannot separate the manner in which a community is designed from the objective values that are inherent to that design, and some designs by their nature (if not their intent) promote isolation and fragmentation. While one is taking in information and habits about living a virtuous life, one is doing os in a particular social setting, and that will inevitably impact the manner in which these habit are formed.

    If I ignored the importance of the family, it was not because of a lack of importance I actually attribute to it. It is clear to both me and the readers of this article that the family is the basic building block of society, which is precisely why a family can live virtuously even in an organization that promotes otherwise. However, it still begs the original question: what type of community design/organization is more conducive to family values and virtue building? In other words, are small walkable towns or suburbia more helpful in allowing a family to function as a family?

    Finally, I appreciate Ben’s last two critiques. I disagree with nothing he writes, and anything to the contrary in the original article is merely a lack of clarity on my own part, and I humbly accept his correction. I agree that God-as-love does no logically necessitate immanence. Rather, what I intended was that God’s immanence happens through the fact that he is the act of love. Being “present to another” (which as I take it is a pretty good, albeit simple, definition of immanence) happens by being “gift” to the other, and the act of being gift is one in the same as the act of love. Never did I meant to suggest that God’s act of creation was necessary. It was not, as is clear from Catholic teaching on the nature of God. “The fact that He is present to His creation (in His Incarnation), is a further sign of the infinitude of His love.” This is a perfect way of describing what I indented to say. Perhaps change my original “As such” to “In such” would have been clearer. But I am afraid that the clearest way would have been to allow Ben to speak for me!

    On the second point, I regret the use of the word “integrated.” Ben is correct is assuming that I meant “simple.” Actually, “unity” is what I was really after .. the idea that God, while three Persons, is in fact one God. Even in his plurality, he is unity. We are the analogy, and the manner in which we are called to integrate those aspects of our lives and beings into our singular person is a shadow of the Trinitarian reality. Perhaps putting it that way is more or less clear .. I cannot say … but I think I will quit now before I stumble into more heresy, something very easy to do when trying to contemplate the nature of the Blessed Trinity.

    Blessings to all this Good Friday. A thunderstorm is brewing at the moment in Delaware, Ohio, so apparently even the weather knows that the Lord is in the tomb.

  • I welcome Mr. Hain’s analysis. As a social conservative who has been a land use and transportation planner in a very liberal community I have been involved in working with developers to design and construct new urbanist communities. The appeal of the new urbanist concept is based on my personal experience. I spent the first 9 years of my life living in a Chicago neighborhood, sitting with my parents on our front porch in the summer, talking to the neighbors who walked past. As a child I walked to Catholic school, to the park and rode my bike throughout that part of the city. In the summer my family walked to church on Sundays. When I was 10 we moved to what was at that time the distant northwestern suburbs. Everthing changed…you could not walk to anything other than other houses and every riding a bike was more dangerous than in the city. There were certain advantages to be sure but unlike my younger siblings I had could compare the advantages and disadvantages of both.

    When I was in graduate school I argued in a planning class that urban neighborhoods and small rural towns were much more alike than suburban subdivisions. . .the point the Mr. McClarey makes about his experience. My continued interest in new urbanism is not driven by the environmental benefits of less driving but by my intuitive sense that there is a huge benefit to living in a community where you know your neighbor due to your proximity and take ownership of your neighborhood because you know your neighbors. I’m surprised no one has mentioned Ave Maria outside of Naples Florida. I think the the concept that Monahan has tried to instill in his vision for Ave Maria is based on this same concept. As far as the comment that churches don’t seem to be part of these new communities, we do require developers to set aside land for “civic” uses, including schools and churches. In the first project we worked on I encouraged the local Catholic church to consider relocating to the village center but unfortunately they had a more “suburban” vision. A Methodist church ended up in the space and they have received much publicity for the church’s design and the vitality of their congregation, many of whom live within walking distance of the church. Another missed opporunity.

    The challenge I face is that some economic conservatives and libertarians tend to want to throw the new urbanist concept, along with those things that support it like public transportation, out as part of liberal social engineering. I have argued with many of them that there is nothing inherently incompatible between conservative social beliefs and recognizing the value of community in promoting those beliefs.

  • Mr. Bonk,

    Thank you for your addition to this conversation, especially in light of your professional background. You have once again illustrated my observation that people’s comment on this topic are quite lengthy! I think that is probably a good thing – at the very least it is a refreshing change from the sound-byte conversations that often surround the blogosphere.

    I a curious on one point, though no in disagreement. Quite the opposite, I sense you are correct, but I am not sure why. You mentioned that many social conservatives and libertarians are opposed to this sort of idea. As a social conservative with a mild libertarian streak, I find myself wondering why this is true. The whole idea of small communities seems to support the idea of subsidiarity and self governance. Why do you think others in the same political camp tend to veer away from a new urbanization?

    Pax,

    Jake

  • “I think their is a temptation in many of the comments to present anecdotal evidence as contrary to the original thesis, which, as I read it, is that life in suburbia is not conducive to the development of virtue, but rather seems more conducive to fragmentation and a Cartesian sort of subjectivism. While anecdotal evidence can be helpful, it always remains just that.”

    That is true that the arguments are anecdotal. But a philosophical argument is also not empirical. Thus your argument, nor the original one linked, nor the link to the book, show any empirical evidence. That of course would take sociological methods regarding measuring community, studies including surveys, statistical analysis etc. Until that time, your arguments are as non-empirical as others. This lack of empirical evidence is shown in this statement;

    “Suburbia is set up to foster fragmentation – or perhaps fragmentation led to the desire for suburbia.”

    Where is your evidence that planners, or people moving to suburbs, desired fragmentation or were designed to foster fragmentation?

    There may be such a body of literature. I am unaware of any however. The best that I can think quickly of is “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action.” This seems to more adequately, and from an empirical basis, address the issues related to the breakdown of the African-American family (the basic unit of society.) Most notably the issues were single parent families, usually headed by women. There also seems to be evidence for the breakdown of communities when planners designed “the projects” which were to foster better living but ultimately shattered previous relations. This even though people were living in closer proximitiy to each other.

    More anecdotes however. I am old enough now to have heard of the fragmenting of community in a number of different decades. Most pre-date the internet. As noted, the analysis linked fails not solely from a lakc of, as noted, empirical evidence. But also from a proper anthropology. Humans are designed for community. They in fact make community in a number of ways even when separated. This most simply, through the family. Then the Church and other institutions. This because an authentic antrhopology also considers God and grace. Both of which are supplied in abundance to overcome natural barriers. Barriers which have been, as noted, overcome in the past and which will, considering that God so wills, be overcome in the future.

  • Twice in my lifetime, including right now, I have lived within walking distance of my parish church. I find that most of the time, walking to and from Mass actually helps me be better disposed than driving; it almost feels like a pilgrimage of sorts.

    The same with walking to and from work (which I do occasionally now) — although more physically demanding, in my case that’s a good thing because I could use the exercise. Plus driving is fraught with all kinds of anxieties which one really doesn’t notice unless one stops to think about them — will the car start? Should I stop and get gas? What was that funny noise I just heard? Why is my seatbelt stuck again? How do I get into the proper turn lane without getting hit by those cars coming up behind me? Will this light ever change? WHO TOOK MY PARKING SPACE?

  • To my mind, the anecdotes are very important in this discussion. It is apparent to me from these discussion that some people have had horrible experiences in the suburbs with unfriendliness and others have had the exact same experiences in the super-urbs, i.e., the city. The problem I’ve always had with the new urban supremacists is their superiority complex about the city. I believe this goes back to the Tower of Babel, which was not built in the suburbs. Those people needed a dose of humility and so do the new urban supremacists.

    I just keep getting hung up on what our Lord saying about the rich have a hard time getting to heaven. You’ve got to be detached from your worldly goods no matter where you live.

  • “Plus driving is fraught with all kinds of anxieties which one really doesn’t notice unless one stops to think about them — will the car start? Should I stop and get gas? What was that funny noise I just heard? Why is my seatbelt stuck again? How do I get into the proper turn lane without getting hit by those cars coming up behind me? Will this light ever change? WHO TOOK MY PARKING SPACE?”

    All of which pale Elaine in comparison to the greatest fear involved in driving; teaching a teenager how to drive! I am going through this process with my daughter right now who actually isn’t a bad driver. She does complain sometimes that my obvious occasional fear makes her somewhat nervous. I mollify her by allowing her to play the random caucophonous sounds which she calls “music” and I call “animal killing music”.

  • It isn’t that anecdotes are not important – they are, for they are reflective of the human experience. It is just that any one particular anecdote neither supports nor contradicts a thesis. While I readily concede the point that I offered no sociological evidence that is in any way better than anecdotal evidence, I would challenge the point that philosophical arguments are no better. In fact, philosophical arguments are not only stronger than anecdotes, but are stronger than empirical evidence, because philosophy attempts to get at the root of the issue. Note that this in no way devalues either anecdotes or statistics, but it simply presents a hierarchy of evidence.

    The argument, as I stated ism “Suburbia is set up to foster fragmentation.” Philip asks for evidence of this, to which I concede I have not, though with him I would find such studies fascinating. My argument is much more fundamental than sociological data. It is in the very nature, the very design, or suburbia to foster fragmentation. Suburbs are set up quite literally to have houses in isolation from the rest of society. In many ways it is what defines a suburb. They are deliberately designed to have shopping centers outside of a certain radius, while still remaining within driving distance of course. Further, suburbs are designed to be away from the place of work. The very nature of the set up fosters a “home life”, a “work life”, and a “commerce life”, all separate from one another. “Church life” is a bit harder to diagnose, because the geographic parish is a persistent support for local community. While I am not fully prepared to make a cohesive argument, I sense that in many cases, community that might be established among Catholics living in such a disintegrated world is due to the local parish.

    It is important to note here that the large urban environment is not what I am upholding as a “better” solution to this problem. From what I can tell, it suffers many of the same problems as the suburbs, but the manifestation is often different. Rather, I am upholding the small walkable town and the rural communities as much more conducive to an integrated life.

    Finally, at the risk of beating a dead horse into the ground, I recognize that (1) no matter what the set up, this side of heaven man will have to struggle with re-integrating what original sin has dis-integrated, and no social set up is a panacea for this problem, and (2) even in the most non-conducive environments, there will be those who thrive virtuously and achieve some semblance of integration in their lives. Neither of these two points, however, dismisses the original question, that forms of organization are either more or less conducive to battling the problem of fragmentation that plagues our society.

  • Pauli,

    I agree one-hundred-percent, and perhaps from the beginning I should have done more to separate myself from the “new urban supremacists” who have a “superiority complex about the city.” I in no way uphold the modern urban environment as a haven of virtue – in many cases it is quite the opposite. I have no desire, for example, to raise my kids in Las Vegas simply because it is a city. The model I am defending is the small town. However, I also think that the rural community in its own way shares many of the same advantages.

    Thank you for allowing this clarification. I appreciate your comments.

  • If you want to really start at the root, you need to define terms. Otherwise you are beating down strawmen. I have never heard anyone define the difference between a city and a suburb—philosophically, that is. My contention is that suburbia does not exist in the real world, so condemning it as a soulless wasteland doesn’t condemn any actual suburb in which one might actually live.

  • “It is in the very nature, the very design, or suburbia to foster fragmentation. ”

    That is a premise which I don’t think you have proven.

    That goes to the crux of the discussion. Philosophical arguments are able to settle questions of the meaning of what is human and the role of community etc. But other disciplines have their own methods which are valid in proving their varied domains of knowledge. Mathematical, physical and sociological methods are valid to their given discipline and, in regard to the specific questions they answer, superior to philosophical methods. Otherwise we would have Aristotelean physics trumping modern cosmology. But it doesn’t. Nor can it.

    Now what philosophy can do, is take sociological data and give a deeper meaning to it. Thus if there was empirical sociological data which “proved” your premise above, then one can apply philosophical methods to mine the deeper interpretation.

    This in part becomes the problem of disciplines like philosophy or theology where modern problems become interpreted without regard to underlying issues. Issues to which modern sciences (limited in the certitude to be sure but nonetheless valid in the degree that they can know) can provide the guide to the nature of the problem. This is part of the problem of social justice crowds that interpret all issues in light of theological positions but without regard to the historical, economic, sociological, etc. issues. That is not to say that you are doing that. Its just that I don’t believe you have the scientific basis to make the argument you are.

    “The very nature of the set up fosters a “home life”, a “work life”, and a “commerce life”, all separate from one another.”

    But that ultimately is a spiritual question. One of integrating all of one’s life – home, work and community – into a coherent whole. This is done regardless of place and time – limits that will always be with us to some degree. It is done through recognizing the total dimension of what is human in all areas that one is called to be and wherever one is. To sanctify those dimensions by bringing them all to God.

  • Phillip,

    “‘The very nature of the set up fosters a “home life”, a “work life”, and a “commerce life”, all separate from one another.’ But that ultimately is a spiritual question.”

    I agree. It is ultimately a spiritual question. However, it doesn’t mean that the “set up” is irrelevant. Take for example the methods of communication of which I spoke in the main body of the post. Authentic communication is ultimately on the level of the Person, and there are those who can foster authentic communication in a variety of media. This does not, however, contradict the thesis that various forms of communication make authentic communication more or less challenging. Twitter and text messaging, for example, makes real communication rather difficult if for the sole reason that they limit the amount of characters one can send. It is possible, of course, but it requires a sound grounding in Christian anthropology and virtue. Without that grounding, the medium itself (Twitter) makes it rather difficult to develop, and overtime runs the risk of actually forming one’s sense of the human person, communication, and relationship. While it is ultimately spiritual, it is dangerous to think that the medium is irrelevant. We are spiritual beings, yes, but we are also incarnate beings living in a material world.

    Why can the same not be said for structures of living? While it is ultimately spiritual, while we are called to form community regardless of structures, and while those who are solidly grounded in virtuous principles can find ways of doing so, it doesn’t follow that such structures are irrelevant. “Limits will always be with us …” True, but again it doesn’t make the question irrelevant – such risks ignoring the material aspect of our being, yes?

    “To sanctify those dimensions by bringing them all to God.” Yes. Yes. and Yes. This is precisely correct – I don’t, however, see how it is incompatible with anything I have said.

    Finally, please know that I appreciate your comments, as well as Pauli’s and others. One of the challenges inherent to the “blog” medium is the lack of face to face communication, implied intonation, and other issues that go along with it. I myself am often guilty of not properly indicating a tone of voice, and I know from experience that I can come off as trite, argumentative, and stubborn. I assure you that such is a deficiency in my ability to communicate, not in my attitude towards fellow commentators. Thank you for your thoughts, and I read them with the utmost respect and genuinely consider them in forming my own thought.

  • Jake, I appreciate the tone of this discussion. I think it is probably one of the more balanced and thoughtful discussions in which I’ve participated on this topic. I get the feeling that people are listening to the different sides and responding rather than “talking past one another” as I’ve experienced on other forums.

  • Jake: “Twitter and text messaging, for example, makes real communication rather difficult if for the sole reason that they limit the amount of characters one can send.”

    These forms of communication have to be used in accord with their nature. If my wife texts me to buy milk, flour and diapers while I’m out, she has more time to cook dinner and help the kids with homework. But it would be silly to have a discussion about tight finances or discipline problems via text messages. Not that there aren’t people doing things that crazy with technology. But I knew a guy who lost two fingers because he and his dad were using a lawn mower as a hedge trimmer, circa 1986. Stupidity predates the internet.

  • Pauli,

    Not to be too off topic here, but your comment reminds me of a comment I heard once. (I want to say it was Peter Kreeft, but don’t quote me on that.) It was said that the key to Christian unity is simple. If everyone were to simply abandon all preconceptions and give themselves over to the will of God. We simply need to ask God what he wants and follow him unreservedly. (Easier said than done, perhaps?). At any rate, I try to follow the same mantra in these everyday sorts of conversations.

    At the very least, our common ground seems to be that these things are worth talking about.

    *****

    “Stupidity predates the internet.” Somehow I think this should go on a quote wall of fame somewhere.

    Yes, forms of communication must be used in accord with their nature, and your examples are perfect illustrations. Here is the question, though. For someone who is well grounded in Christian personalism, is it often fairly easy to discern both the nature and its proper use. What concerns me is that those who are not can easily begin to substitute non-authentic communication for the real thing. Neil Postman, whom I referenced, made the case that the telegraph, photograph, and finally the television forever changed the nature of public discourse, changing the culture from a typographic one to a culture of entertainment. I think there is no doubt that this transition has occurred, and I thing it is clear that the television played a prominent role in the transition. Was it inevitable? I don’t know. But I do know that it is inherent to the television medium.

    The same sorts of things can be said about text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. I worry very little about people who are well grounded in Christina personalism. After all, here I am communicating with others via a blog. It would be hypocritical of me to offer a wholesale dismissal of internet communication. On the other hand, I see the impact that text messaging and the like is having on my high school students. They are coming to related to one another via a screen, and I have a feeling that decades from now psychologists are going to have a field day with this generation that has learned to communicate through these devices. Of course, perhaps this generation will not seek a psychologist but rather advice on the Psychologist Facebook Fan Page.

    A final thought. Perhaps what separates the hedge-trimmer example from technological communication is the subtleness of the dangers in the later. The dangers of succumbing to the formation inherent in the device are only dangers in so far as we are unaware enough to use the irresponsibly. The percentage of people trimmer hedges with a lawnmower is surely less than the percentage of people using Facebook to have “real” relationships.

  • “subtleness of the dangers in the later.” Sure, I can agree with that. But someone unschooled with regard to Christian personalism may use common sense and a sort of natural prudence to come to the conclusion which I did about forms of communication.

    I think that Facebook is the most deceptive of the social sites because it uses the term “Friend” for basically the sharing of information. I’ve said on my blog before that there are people whom I’m happy to call friends and meet for coffee but I don’t want them perusing my information. This is why I prefer LinkedIn and Twitter to Facebook. You simply don’t share as much and there is less pretension of “realness”.

  • Jake,

    Thank-you also for the respectful discussion. Will read your reply post more thoroughly after the Easter Vigil.

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