Legion. An amalgamated journal.

The not-so-city life*

Over at a newspaper written for the residents of the largest city in America, Ed Glaeser (famous movie star cum economics professor) lashes out at childrens’-book characters:

By building taller and taller buildings, the Once-ler was proving himself to be the real environmentalist.

All told, this is nothing more than a cute little nose-rub between Glaeser and the Times‘s urban identity caucus, along the lines of an article in Ebony on the dynamism of African-American culture or one in O about how taking kids to soccer practice is the bedrock of the American dream. It would be innocent fluff were it not taken seriously by a lot of people yoked into the gospel of New Urbanism.

There’s no disputing that city living, on the margin, demands less resource use than suburban or rural life. A lot of this, though, has to do with the way that cities are set up in relationship to the countryside. Farmers have to drive long distances and practice unsustainable industrial techniques because the city is far away and exacts huge commodity demands. And that’s always going to be the case given the globalized, neoliberal commodity production networks which high-density urban life dictates by its very nature. So while a single urban dweller may produce fewer emissions, the system which he props up produces a lot.

So we do need to think creatively about the way cities work in the national landscape. For the most part, though, New Urbanism is little more than a thinly-varnished attempt to backpedal on a lot of progressive urban democratization by turning the same corporate interests which created suburbs inwards and making them look different. Economically and socially, there’s not a lot of difference between Levittown and Celebration, one of the poster projects of New Urbanism. It astounds me that so many progressives have caught on with it—often, I think, because they live in cities and like to go to Starbucks and live what amounts to an upper-class bourgeois1 life. They’ve then backfilled quantitative analysis to justify this lifestyle. I don’t begrudge them the lifestyle they lead—which at its core is more about theaters and clubs and bars and museums than it is about sustainability—but when you’re talking national policy, you need to talk about what people are actually going to do. And regardless of whether it is a good or a bad thing, urban suspicion remains a deep current of American thought that has a centuries-long history. Rather than just wishing it away, we ought to turn our planning powers to ways of making non-urban places sustainable as well.

Also, whenever I read something like this …

many environmentalists will still prefer to take their cue from Henry David Thoreau, who advocated living alone in the woods.

… I know I’m reading something by somebody who’s never actually read Thoreau.

1 A word which, let’s not forget, means “city dweller.”

* Cf. title

Garrett Dash Nelson

March 11th, 2009 at 4:04 pm

But perhaps you disagree

No responses so far

The room is, as yet, filled with smoke and apprehension.