Urban planning community

  • The Continuing Search for Community

    By Perry Norton, FAICP

    In connection with the PBS TV series "Power of Myth" Joseph Campbell wrote, "The rise and fall of civilizations can be seen to have been largely a function of the integrity and cogency of their supporting canons of myth...when the mythology of a culture no longer works, there follows a sense of both disassociation and a quest for new meaning."

    In his notes of introduction to his powerful play "The Kentucky Cycle", Robert Schenkkan wrote, "The Myth of the Frontier is a fascinating construct, an extremely seductive and ultimately very dangerous myth, composed of two lesser myths. The first of these is the Myth of Abundance, which says, 'These resources are so vast that they will never end, You cannot possibly use them up.' The other half of the Myth of the Frontier might be called the Myth of Escape. It says, 'Only today matters, The past? Who cares? If you don't like where you are, literally or metaphorically, well, pick up stakes and move. Change your address, change your name, change your history.'."

    Continuing the figure of such speech, I would suggest that there is yet another myth, one that has touched, and continues to touch, seminal thinking about land use planning. One that has, alas, created a wall between planners and society in general. I would call it the Myth of Community.

    Since the early part of the 20th century, the bete noir of the American urban planning movement has been "suburban sprawl", the "slurbs." And for all this time we have constantly had an appeal on the drawing boards of our professional psyche for a return to that sense of community which has been, we insist, lost with the advent of the affordable automobile. Never mind that people rejoiced at that advent and seized upon this new mode of transportation which would take them where they wanted to go, and when.

    There has been a Rockwellian character to our professional planning appeals, as though somehow we might reconstruct the nation so that it may be composed of small towns with homes, shops, work places, and open spaces, mixed together in an imagery of days long past - of the time of small town America, when people walked the quiet sidewalks, conversed with their neighbors who were their friends, shopped at the neighborhood grocery, and rode their bicycles to work.

    It is a powerful imagery embedded deep in our cultural genes. A mere 150 years ago the entire population of the United States was just 23 million. And 90 percent of those people lived on farms or in small villages where most workers were engaged in the extractive industries: farming, mining, fishing, lumbering. And for centuries before Europeans began to settle this continent, their forebears lived in small villages. It was over those many centuries of small town experience that there grew the myth of community.

    As a result, we presently find it almost impossible to think of "community" on a scale larger than a neighborhood of 5,000 people. And planners play upon this, and convince people that they are working hard bring "community" back into peoples' lives. Yet every index we can imagine: political, economic, social, environmental, the labor market, all tell us that the "community" we live in is, at the very least, the metropolis we live in - and more than 75 percent of us DO live in a metropolitan area.

    Are there those for whom this metropolitan community is a vital reality? Of course. Developers, employers, environmentalists, politicians, law enforcers, social workers, all such people are acutely aware of the larger community, but only as it affects the viability of their particular interests. They rarely see their unique interests as being one of several interests all integrally bound together in the whole, larger, community. Thus they tend to exploit the resources and strengths (or weaknesses) of the larger community rather than work with their "neighbors" in other segments of the society, to build the whole community.

    We try to imagine speaking our voice such that it might be heard and respected, in a scenario so vast. And our imaginations fail us. There is no supporting canon of myth that underwrites a community so large, so diverse, so inclusive of homeless and underemployed people, people who are hungry, angry and without hope.

    Certainly there is that sense of disassociation of which Campbell spoke. But is there a quest for "new meaning"? If there is, it doesn't come from professional planners who, one might think from the lofty title alone. should be engaged in leading the quest for new meaning. Instead we have quests for new forms to sustain the old meaning. And these quests, these recurring quests, define the iconography of our profession: garden cities, new towns, greenbelts, neighborhoods, neo traditionalism, sustainability and new urbanism.

    This is not to find absolute fault with such quests, per se. Many of the experiments are working out new technologies for ultimately reducing the sheer costs of shelter and related land uses. Many of my city planner friends and colleagues are active in and vocal about the good things that are happening here and there as they attempt to design that super neighborhood of the good life.

    I could only wish that they would devote equal cerebration and energy to addressing the larger reality of which we all are inexorably a part. The problem is that to address the larger reality is to address precisely those concerns which planners would rather avoid, thank you very much. At the National Planning Conference of the American Planning Association in San Diego, in 1997, Michael Moore, who combines satire with humor (see his book "Downsize This" - Harper Perennial 1997), spoke of the devastating effect of downsizing on our communities, and planners cheered him on. And he and other speakers spoke of the devastating effect of those welfare-to-jobs programs launched in the absence of jobs. And planners applaud.

    But somehow these assaults on real community vitality are not considered to be part of the planning portfolio. Somehow these don't package up very neatly in the world of ordinances and codes and permits, the world which professional planning has accepted as its niche, in the world of niches. But there was a time when planners dared to think about, speak of, and plan for, the whole community. Perhaps there will be a reprise of such audacity. Perhaps.

    "The Continuing Search for Community" was originally published on Cyburbia on March 2, 1996.