This land is your land

The question of how to build a city is too often posed simply as a question of consumer desire and technical feasibility: what kinds of snazzy urban landscapes could we build for those who can afford to pay for them? To this concern a solicitous attitude towards sustainability has recently been added, in a manner which hardly disrupts the logic of the former concern: how can these snazzy landscapes also facilitate a low-carbon lifestyle?

That’s why Daniel Aldana Cohen’s article “Seize the Hamptons” in this month’s Jacobin is so important. Cohen drives two incisive points directly through the heart of trendy sustainable-lifestyle urbanism. First, although there are indeed considerable benefits in energy efficiency that accrue from living closer together, these benefits are very often cancelled out by the city’s role as a consumption driver. The wealthy apartment-dweller, though he or she may use less natural gas to stay warm in the winter, still lays a heavy footprint on the planet when eating out many times a week, buying expensive furniture, or jetting around to resort getaways or business conferences. The most important index of carbon consumption isn’t density; it’s wealth. Second, the single-minded focus on “densification” in city planning ignores the fact that a dense city is not actually a very pleasant place to live for people who can’t afford to live in its attractive neighborhoods or escape its machinelike oppression on regular vacations.

To the first point, Cohen suggests that we ought to turn increasingly to forms of leisure that are not based on individual consumption. “We can organize our lives less around the exchange of objects,” he writes, “and more around the exchange of meanings.” I’m not sure if agree with him that theater is the right place to start convincing the American people of this proposition—I’d say parks, playgrounds, and libraries, all of which are already widely beloved as civic instituions, are a better place to start. Either way, Cohen is right that environmentalism cannot just be about what we buy, but must ask deeper questions about why we buy. Reorganizing our lives towards living rather than buying things is necessary if we want to keep the planet habitable (and, not coincidentally, if we want to keep our minds lively and our relationships strong).

Meanwhile, Cohen suggests, we need to democratize access to leisure spaces outside of the city, and make it possible for working-class people to get out into wide-open recreational venues. Why did Americans move en masse to the suburbs in the first place? Of course, part of the answer involves a search for class and race-delimited spaces tightly controlled by real estate interests. But part of it has to do with the fact that most people, when they’re asked to choose, like having a bit of nature in their dooryards. American suburbia ended up becoming something of a morbid parody of this desire, but the genuine human longing for naturalness is not purely mythical. Some evidence even suggests that patients recover better when they can see a tree out their window.

Fishing around for examples in history for these kinds of reforms, Cohen settles on Blum-era Popular Front France, when the country made significant strides towards the recognition of leisure time as a fundamental right for workers. I’m surprised, though, that he missed two important examples from the English-speaking world of this kind of thinking. One is the U.S. national parks system, conceived from its start as a national guarantee for the urban poor to claim ownership over the country’s most astounding natural spaces. Frederick Law Olmsted, writing the first document on the management of such parks for Yosemite in 1865, noted that:

It is the folly of laws which have permitted and favored the monopoly by privileged classes of many of the means supplied in nature for the gratification, exercise and education of the esthetic faculties that has caused the appearance of dullness and weakness and disease of these faculties in the mass of the subjects of kings. And it is against a limitation of the means of such education to the rich that the wise legislation of free governments must be directed. … It was in accordance with these views of the destiny of the New World and the duty of a Republican Government that Congress enacted that the Yosemite should be held, guarded and managed for the free use of the whole body of the people forever.

Noting that the wealthy had, since the beginning of civilization, been able to provide seats of country recreation for themselves, Olmsted concluded of Yosemite that “it is necessary that they should be laid open to the use of the body of the people. The establishment by government of great public grounds for the free enjoyment of the people under certain circumstances, is thus justified and enforced as a political duty.”

The second example is Ebenezer Howard’s garden city concept. Howard was in many ways the original critic of densification and urban sprawl, and his garden city concept became perhaps the most influential case for urban landscape planning in the twentieth century. Though Howards is often remembered as the accidental godfather of the suburbs, the garden city was in fact a thoroughgoing critique of capitalist society. The title “garden cities” only appeared in the second edition of his influential book, which was originally titled To-morrow: A Peaceful Path To Real Reform in its 1898 edition. And the “garden city” itself, often misunderstood as a template for consumerist antiurbanism, was in fact a vision of a distributed city, consisting of a polycentric region knit together by public investment in modern transportation infrastructure. At the very heart of Howard’s plan was a radical reinvention of capitalist landownership, which he saw at the root of nineteenth-century inequality. The garden cities were not an aesthetic suggestion for architects and builders; instead, they were intended to be both the scaffolding as well as the consequence of wisely improved human-human and human-environment relationships.

Neither Olmsted nor Howard knew anything about climate change. But, as Cohen points out, the move to new forms of urban settlement must take into account more than just a basic carbon calculator; we must be imaginative in the way that we conceive the cultural and social possibilities which are structured by our mutual act of living together.