Saturday, August 27

Harlan Douglass: The Little Town

I've decided to resume reviews of books from the the first wave of City Planning in the early 20th century. I'm reading them because a) they're free (copyright expired) and b) there might be something to learn from this period that still applies. Here's the list so far:

  1. Garden City - Ebenezer Howard
  2. Town Planning in Practice - Raymond Unwin
  3. City Planning with Special Reference to Planning of Streets and Lots - Charles Robinson
  4. New Ideals in Planning - John Nolen
  5. The Little Town - Harlan Douglass
  6. Cities in Evolution - Patrick Geddes (upcoming)
All of these reviews are truthful, but they are also selective and editorial. I'm not a trained historian; I only play one on TV. In other words, don't steal this for your class paper. I don't care, but you're professor probably will.

The Small Town Ideal

Americans, today, have a schizophrenic relationship with small towns. We consistently tell pollsters that we want to live in one above any other kind of place, yet we just as consistently choose not to. The Atlantic just ran a story about an idyllic small town in Missouri that, like many around the county, can not attract enough doctors. They've determined that it's not the economic incentives, but the lifestyle that's deterring them. Even small towns that have been engulfed by expanding metro areas tend to receive a scant share of the new arrivals compared to the exurbs around them. Yet the ideal lives on and we like imagine ourselves on the inside of a tight community as we enjoy, at the same time, our freedom from its responsibilities and constraints.

The small town ideal did not exist in 1921. Harlan Paul Douglass wrote The Little Town especially in its rural relationships as a heartfelt defense of what was, in the eyes of many, a pitiable character. He quotes the president of the American Civic Association: "God made the country, man the city, but the devil the little town." From the urban perspective, the townsfolk were unsophisticated, incurious, and many steps behind the moving edge of history. At the same time, rural areas were being lauded by the "county life movement," which had made substantial inroads into the federal government. The farmer was the hero, and the townsfolk were, at best, parasitic middlemen and, at worst, emissaries of corruption from the big city. Farmers were beginning to pull their kids out of town schools and look for a nice field to start their own.

Those who lived in little towns were no easier on themselves. They wanted nothing more than to be the next Chicago, and this overwrought ambition led many to foolishly invest in lavish infrastructure only to be bypassed by the railroad company and left with a dusty, wide main street. Douglass wanted to study and plan for the little town, along with its connected rural areas, as a kind of place that deserved its own category. His aim was to "make it the centre alike of inspiration and administration in the reconstruction of rural civilization."

The Walkable Town

Douglass noted that the maximum size of a town was a function of the walking radius from a single core, enough room for about 5000 people at most. This was the threshold before investment in streetcar lines would have to be justified, creating a natural plateau. With public buildings and business operations at the core and residences surrounding it, every person remained connected to the same sphere. Even the women busy tending their homes could still make it downtown several times a day. The outer ring of the town he calls the "black belt." These were the slum-farms that invariably popped up just outside of a comfortable walking distance but not far enough away to require a motorcar or a team of horses. The farms were small and their buildings created a depressing entrance corridor into the town.

The scale and common center of a town created a unique physical space for diverse interactions. According to Douglass, "no other community enjoys such close daily fellowship with men of so wide a range of vocation or calling." Professional classes in the larger cities would cluster in distinct social groups and neighborhoods, but the size of the small town forced interactions across these lines. Yet there were also physical features of many towns that did create an impediment to interaction. Groups lived on the "other side of the tracks" or "across the river." In these cases mere physical access was directly translated into economic and social access. Douglass believed that,
"a well-planned town with its civic centre is both a means and impulse to social integration, and to the realization of the common life of its people. The physical plan to a town is this as fundamental as the skeleton to the human organism."
This is a notable stance to take, considering that some other planning advocates were, at the time, considering how zoning could be used to properly separate social classes from one another.

The Natural Political Unit

The primary aim of Little Towns is to depict individual towns and their surrounding countryside as interdependent units making up a single "natural community." Despite the significant differences in lifestyle - rural areas were still without electricity - and cultural outlook, the two kinds of places relied on each other economically and socially. Proving that tacky neologisms have always been with us, Douglass liked to use the work Rurban to describe this synthesis.

A central problem consisted in the mismatch between these natural communities and existing political boundaries. So, for example, a farmer would need to travel into town to sell crops, buy goods, and attend church, yet the incorporation of town limits precluded him from the political sphere. The farmer was not expected to pay taxes for the town's function, and he did not have a voice in town matters. Towns compensated for this imbalance by taxing trade, which Douglass believed was underscoring an antagonistic relationship. The farmer then viewed the town as a miniature fiefdom funneling away a portion of his labor, rather than as his own community. For their part, townsfolk considered their rural counterparts to be outsiders.

Douglass believed this could be remedied by a simple exercise. Conduct a scientific town survey to determine the trade area, the availability and use of roadways, and the social identification people declare. Once a map has been made empirically showing the use of services and town identity, the arbitrary political boundaries should be replaced with new ones that match reality. If necessary, multiple zones drawn concentrically from the core outward could be created to define classes with different service needs and different funding responsibilities. Interestingly, Douglass' approach is very similar to later regionalists like Louis Mumford or, much later, Myron Orfield, only at the much smaller rural scale.

As enticing as this solution appears, there remains the challenge of geographical change to deal with. The boundaries of the natural community are always shifting, yet institutions are much stickier. Not only must local governments deal with the transaction costs of redrawing jurisdictions on a regular basis, vested interests start to accrue over time that eventually solidify the boundaries as they are. Annexation was the tool used to deal with spatial change for many years, but this has become politically impossible in most regions. There has yet to emerge another tool that effectively accomplishes what Douglass set out to achieve.