Friday, January 28

Michael Sandel on public places

                                                            Source: Harvard Gazette
I was pleased to see Michael Sandel’s name show up as a keynote speaker at this year’s American Planning Association conference. He’s a well-known Harvard political philosopher who has made a career out of pushing the boundaries of how we talk about right and wrong toward the notion of the common good. But what does high-minded ethical reasoning have to do with planning the places we live in? As I would find out, quite a bit.

I turned to Sandel’s most recent book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, based on a course he’s taught for the last two decades (which happens to also be a hit on Japanese TV, oddly enough). It’s jam packed with those thorny moral dilemmas that are great fun to subject your friends to. After running through the answers given by the usual suspects throughout history, he finishes out the book with his own position. Here’s one salient point:
An earlier generation made a massive investment in the federal highway program, which gave Americans unprecedented mobility and freedom, but also contributed to a reliance on the private automobile, suburban sprawl, environmental degradation, and living patterns corrosive to community. This generation could commit itself to an equally consequential investment in an infrastructure for civic renewal: public schools for which rich and poor alike would want to send their children, public transportation systems reliable enough to attract upscale commuters; public health clinics, playgrounds, parks, recreation centers, libraries, and museums that would, ideally at least, draw people out of their gated communities and into the common spaces of a shared democratic citizenship.”
To see how he lands here, we’ll have to back up a little to grasp the underlying principles. Sandel calls into the question the modern notion of grounding all of ethics in the consent of individuals, instead reaching back to Aristotle and the notion of a civic order that encourages a strong character that looks outward from itself. Asking anyone today to honor the public good seems even a little quaint, and cynics are ever looking for the angle, but Sandel is serious about reviving the calling of citizenship.

He notes that our public discourse has come to revolve almost entirely around personal rights and personal demands. On the right, this means defending the economic decisions to buy and sell as you wish. On the left, it means breaking away from the shackles of traditional social mores and leveling inequalities. Your choices are: either let everyone keep the resources they earn in the marketplace or redistribute resources to the individuals who have more of a need. But both sides seem to agree that we are essentially individuals. We may engage in relationships or associate ourselves with certain groups, but only as long as our personal goals are achieved in the process.

How does this philosophy translate into our physical places? It means big private homes and small public spaces, many yards and few parks, lots of driving alone and little public transportation, gated communities with or without the literal gates – basically a whole place arranged so that we will never have to see a neighbor or a stranger unless we specifically choose to. We could say all sorts of things about the fairness or sustainability of this arrangement, but Sandel raises another point. This kind of place makes it harder for us to build the character traits we look up to: courage, solidarity to a community, mutual respect, sacrifice for the good of others. You can’t just read about being a good person. It takes some training and a practice field.

To pluck a story from the Christian tradition, when an injured Jewish traveler was lying along the side of a road, it was the Samaritan, his sworn ethnic enemy, who decided to lend a hand. This scene was Jesus’ response to the question “who is your neighbor?” We may like to think of ourselves as similarly generous, but we forget that the Samaritan had to actually walk past the injured man in the first place just to be presented with the dilemma.

This might be what Sandel means by an “infrastructure of civic renewal,” a full-bodied public realm that may be more challenging – alas, we don’t all agree about what the good life should be – but one that will strengthen us through the give and take of a wider community. And this can’t happen if we don’t build places to facilitate these interactions.

Monday, January 3

Framing the Ethics of Metropolitan Growth

Source: Continuum
I'll come right out and say that Ethics of Metropolitan Growth is a wonderful resource. Robert Kirkman is a philosopher employed in the realm of public policy by Georgia Tech, and he has obviously poured significant amounts of experience and reflection into this relatively short book. Without an ounce of jargon and very little academic name-dropping, it really is refreshing to read. He drills down to the basic questions of what we want out of the place we live in.

[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
So how do we do that? The framework he presents is better than anything out there. I've been taught a technique called the triangle of sustainability, otherwise known in business terms as the triple bottom line, for making planning decisions. I've always found it to be awkward. You're suppose to balance between economic development, environmental protection, and social equity, all under the banner of "sustainability" which then immediately buckles under the weight and collapses into utter meaninglessness. The terms are not well matched up to each other, and there's no real advice for actually making the trade-off (which is really the whole source of conflict). The triangle also doesn't touch on the important question of who should be making the decision anyway.

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
Consider the suburban ideal of living in a private, detached house halfway between nature and culture, possessing the best of both worlds. Those who embrace this as their preferred lifestyle could check off each item on the well-being list, but moving to justice and sustainability reveals some difficulties. If others were to follow suit and move into the neighborhood, the balance is upset toward density and it no longer feels so natural. Therefore, you impose regulations to exclude others, which should be problematic if you consider yourself a person who values fairness. And given that land and energy is finite and human population keeps growing, it's not at all clear that this arrangement will last. Do you want your grand-children to also enjoy this life? Here is the underlying contradiction behind the old joke: sprawl and density are the two things people hate most. The point of the framework is to force a resolution between these competing personal goals.

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.

One of the more intriguing discussions is over the legitimacy category, especially the scale of the decision. We don't act only as individuals, but also as groups. Even the most ardent libertarian will accept that sometimes decisions should be collectively made, even if he'll insist that this be voluntarily entered into (i.e. marriage, joining a Homeowners Association) and an eject button is readily available (i.e. divorce, leaving the HOA). The rest of us are even more comfortable with power vested in a range of organizations, as long as we are represented fairly in decisions the group makes.

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.