Friday, January 18

Book: The Good City and the Good Life

For Daniel Kemmis' The Good City and the Good Life, I'll have to digress from my usual linear overview style. While the book has straightforward themes that recur throughout, these are nestled together with numerous personal anecdotes from his experience as mayor of Missoula, classical references, urbanist theory, and journalistic accounts from other cities. The book was really a joy to read, especially as a Missoula resident looking back from a decade later.

The best single statement of purpose is hidden in the middle of a paragraph toward the end,

"The refocusing of human energy around the organic wholeness of cities or city-states promises a profound rehumanizing of the shape and condition of our lives. By attending to the health of the body politic, for example, we are reminding ourselves of the ancient wisdom that individuals cannot be fully healthy, physically and mentally, in isolation, but only as meaningful players in meaningful community."

This general intent is exemplified in a number of specific ways. Kemmis discusses the difference between considering oneself a "taxpayer" (a person exchanging a certain degree of money for a certain level public services) and a "citizen" (a member of the community). This subtle shift in self-identity can make the difference between a fractured collection of individuals intensely defending their own rights and a holistic community working together. Communities, more like bodies than like machines, take time to heal through specific overtures of civility. The actual physical space within cites, whether its the grounds for a farmer's market or a place for teenagers to safely hang out, figures into the process of healing as well.

It may be tempting to cast Kemmis as a starry-eyed idealist at this point (hold hands and sing kum-ba-ya, etc.), but a few key points he makes bring his proposals back toward the realm of possibility, in my opinion. First, he takes a position that priority of the nation-state is waning and will ultimately be replaced by more autonomous city-states, urban hubs working symbiotically with the surrounding rural area. If something like this decentralization of power does happen, it is at least conceivable that these smaller political entities could operate less on the level of abstract ideologies and more on the level of interpersonal relationships. "Politics" ought to be rooted in the polis; "civility" is truly a function of the civitas. His hope is that if cities can be organically-formed for the common good, politicians will be inclined to share their "entrepreneurship of power" with the city as a whole.

I don't think The Good City, and the Good Life is meant to be read as a technical manual for running cities. No deluge of statistics and fine-tuned policy prescriptions. More than anything it's an application of classical wisdom for contemporary cities, meant to inspire readers to become active members of the body politic.


Seth said...

Thanks for visiting thisplaceis. I confess that my knowledge of Missoula just increased from nothing to "beginner". I share your thoughts (and some books you reviewed) that the large trends of urban development are a reflection of us as a culture and our values. It's funny that while a person's individual choice to live in a certain place with a certain lifestyle doesn't seem all that bad, when summed up collectively we see our society's ills of self-absorption, disengagement, and prejudice. It speaks to our spiritual condition. I wish you the best and I'll subscribe to this.

JFW said...

Thanks for this blog. I make a point to read your reviews of things Missoula and urban. I may not post, but you are being read and appreciated.