[By the way, please don't confuse my effusive praise for any compensated endorsement. That wouldn't be very ethical, would it?]
The book tours through many of the planning and design decisions we make in our communities, revealing the tangled knot of values and intentions that will be immediately recognizable to anyone who's been to more than a few public hearings or read through comment threads from the whole spectrum of websites. Complicated? Sure, yet he neither leaves us awash in moral ambiguity nor sets up any side in particular on the moral high ground, from which grenades of judgment can be lobbed on the opponents below. He simply builds a framework to help anyone sort through their own goals and compare them with the goals of others.
Kirkman's outlook on ethics, in general, is very modest. He accepts that every decision is uniquely determined by the situation it's embedded in, so no single rule can be applied across the boards to supply the right answer to a question. By extension, this means that blame (or praise) is often very difficult to discern. He also refuses to take sides on any of the perennial debates philosophers engage in over ethics. Is it the consequences of the action that counts? Is it the motivation behind the action that counts? Is it the character of the person acting that counts? All of the above, Kirkman says. He can do this, because he isn't really looking for a way to splice right from wrong but simply a way to think about right and wrong.
"The point is to ask critical questions about each view, to examine its scope and its limits. to test whether it holds together and whether it can be put into practice."To be honest, this does come across as too modest for many topics. Most of us want to be able to conclude that raids on innocent villagers in the Darfur region of Sudan are flat-out evil, rather than suggest that the raider engage in some serious reflection over whether his intentions are internally consistent or not. But the book isn't about genocide. It's about zoning. And how to get to the store. The hushed, cerebral tone is completely appropriate. To the neighbor shouting down a greedy developer or the dude waiving a shotgun at anyone who will meddle with his property, Kirkman says: relax, let's think it through.
|Source: Encyclopedia of Earth|
Kirkman's framework starts with a place-based spin on Aristotle's classic quest for the good life. Since our lives are necessarily shaped by the environment that surrounds us, the issue becomes whether a place either constrains us or enables us to seek the good. We won't all agree on what the good life is, but at least we can have some clarity on how the built environment overlaps with these personal goals. The second consideration is how the identified good is distributed among people. Is it fair? The third consideration is how the identified good is distributed through time. Will it last? Finally, there's the question of process.
|Source: Ethics of the Built Environment|
He doesn't let New Urbanists off the hook either, pointing out how often they present a false choice between an idealized traditional town and the most chaotic of modern suburbs. This is unnecessarily limiting. One of the points of engaging in the ethical exercise is to hunt for new possibilities that had previously been ruled out or missed entirely. It should spur creativity and reveal win-win solutions that meet the unstated preferences lurking beneath some of the stubborn public positions we take.
This is a good list, but I can't pass up griping about including mobility as basic to well-being. Most of us value getting to the place we want to go (accessibility), not just moving from one place to another (mobility). Achieving access usually includes mobility, but it also includes proximity, or not having to move very far to get to where you want to go. Although this seems like splitting hairs, setting access as the ultimate goal of a transportation system completely changes how performance is measured and projects are selected. Just had to throw that in.
As in the example to the left (my own), a similar inquiry can be broken down across different scales, typically matched with different ranges of time as well. Each expression exerts cause and effect on the rest, making it hard to pin-point any one as the ultimate reason for the way things are. Kirkman writes,
"To the extent all of the different ranges of government pull against one another, each asserting its own rights and prerogatives, there is less likely to be an effective response to problems in the built environment. Perhaps most important, there is often a mismatch between the scale of problems and the scale of government authority with the power to address them."This leads him to point out the lack of effective regional bodies in American politics, not because a region is the optimal vantage point for all planning decisions but simply because it happens to be underrepresented. The issue of affordable housing is a classic regional problem. Almost everyone values a sufficient amount of housing affordable to residents with the range of incomes somewhere in their region, but the same people start having reservations about putting it in their own neighborhood, and few homeowners want to see their own home become more affordable. Approaching this problem with too small a scale, and you get inefficient fragmentation; too large a scale, and you're apt to be insulated from what citizens actually want for their own community. For this particular question, the region seems just about right.
Kirkman is not so much of a philosopher to insist on subjecting every single decision to this level of scrutiny. He acknowledges that even stepping off the front porch, "I could find myself paralyzed, my foot poised eternally above the pavement, unable to take a single step while the deliberation goes on." Practically, we need to use reflexive behaviors and snap-judgments about the built environment. But the reader of this volume is treated to at least of a few hours of time to stand back and reflect on these habits of thought about the places we live in. It's a worthwhile exercise for any of us.