Can the City Save Civic Life?

In 1995, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam sounded the alarm. Americans were withdrawing from one another; the social and fraternal organizations that formed the bedrock of the American middle-class were slowly drying up. Americans had once prided themselves on their membership in local churches, Parent-Teacher Associations, and civic-minded organizations like the Elks, the American Legion, the Rotary Club, and the League of Women Voters. But Putnam observed that participation in these groups had plummeted, and warned that the social capital they once helped generate could be lost. Since then, the reasons to fret about our civic health have stacked up. Renewed racial conflicts, opioids ravaging the heartland, political dysfunction at every level — the litany of ills is familiar and terrifying at the same time. To be sure, our nation has always had problems, and there has never been a shortage of doomsday prophets. However, when a reality-television-star-turned-president is delivering an address about “American carnage” on the steps of the Capitol, it’s hard not to suspect that something has gone awry.

Experts in a certain field are always convinced that the solution to all of society’s big problems lies in their exact area of expertise. So, it’s no surprise that the growing class of people concerned with the built environment — architects, urban planners, various “urbanists” — believe that our present social breakdown is the result of the kinds of places we live in. In their telling, the birth of post-war suburbia becomes the creation myth of our American dysfunction. Our social isolation is simply the natural result of the physically isolating places we built.  The suburban pattern of development – endless fields of single-family homes, connected to distant office parks and shopping centers by acres of asphalt — has been eroding our civic culture for decades. All that’s happened since is icing on the cake they baked in Levittown.

According to suburbia’s detractors, the antidote to our suburban malaise is a hefty dose of traditional urban life. Pre-suburban cities exemplified all the traits our suburbs lack: where the suburbs put distance between us, cities brought thousands of people into shared space; where suburbs gave us demographic sorting, cities created a melting pot. In the long run, perhaps our revived inner-cities will create the kind of future America deserves.

Of course, the idea that city life would provide a balm for civic dysfunction would have been unthinkable when American cities were at their peak. As modern cities mushroomed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, benevolent experts directed their energy toward dispersing the huddled masses. Cities were crowded cauldrons of neuropathy and vice — what people needed was a return to nature. At first, this transition occurred slowly. The city planning movement advocated for generous green spaces within cities and the building of tidy suburban communities on their outskirts. But the end of World War II signaled the start of something new. Cars were affordable, demand for housing was booming, and the government had the resources for building and re-building on an unprecedented scale. The American pattern of suburban growth was born, and soon, the American city would be on its deathbed.

While this new form of life was enthusiastically received by millions, not everyone was on board. As automobile and homeownership skyrocketed, and the wrecking ball plowed through aging neighborhoods across the country, a few people were taking note of what was being destroyed. In an unlikely turn of events, the most important chronicler of American city life was an uneducated housewife named Jane Jacobs. In her masterwork The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs flipped the popular narrative about cities and suburbs on its head. While professional urban planners were marking crowded city blocks for demolition, Jacobs pointed out that these places were the strength, not the weakness, of cities. According to Jacobs, dense city neighborhoods were safe, interesting, good for children, and able to facilitate a complex web of human relationships that led to innovation and economic prosperity. The growing suburbs were new, spread-out, and made up of single-use residential areas and commercial developments. Faced with decaying inner-city neighborhoods, government officials and developers were attempting to remake cities in this new suburban image. In sharp contrast, Jacobs asserted that a vibrant city needed neighborhoods with a high population density, and a fine-grained mix of building types and ages – the very things that homogeneous suburbs and urban redevelopment projects lacked.

In the midst of the automobile’s triumph, Jacobs’ ideas slowly gained a following. For people dissatisfied with ample parking and sprawling lawns, her defense of traditional urban neighborhoods was revelatory. And those people got organized. Beginning in the early 1990s, The Congress for the New Urbanism took the principles identified by Jacobs and turned them into a concrete program for implementation in real places. New Urbanist architects and developers designed and built new neighborhoods that looked a lot like the old neighborhoods — more like them, anyway, than the subdivisions of the 1950s. At the same time, downtowns in cities across the country started to experience in unprecedented residential boom. Even the Great Recession was unable to significantly dampen the fortunes of old-fashioned, dense urban neighborhoods.

For those, like Jacobs, inclined to sing the praises of the old city, this has been a remarkable change. If the suburbs robbed Americans of genuine public life, could the resurgence of our oldest neighborhoods gradually build up our atrophied civic muscles?

On a nation-wide — or even metropolitan-area-wide — scale, the answer is likely “no.” Even if all the assumed benefits of traditional city neighborhoods were a given, urban life is unlikely to be a social panacea for a simple reason: it only works if we all return to the city together. The mere existence of vast suburbs is enough to prevent the rebirth of the pre-suburban status quo. As wealthier consumers shift their preferences closer to the center, homes in far-flung neighborhoods become less expensive — and more attractive to the poor and middle-class. The result is a new, more complicated, form of physical segregation. Rather than a series of concentric circles, with the poor in the middle, and the wealthiest at the edges, the emerging metropolitan order is a crazy quilt of racial, economic, and political groups.

The persistence of this fragmented order will prevent the urban renaissance from patching up the largest divides in our society. But it’s still worth exploring the benefits that could be derived from a more modest urban renaissance — the type we seem to be experiencing. At the very least, we can say that more people who can choose where they live are choosing traditional urban neighborhoods. If there are real social dividends to living in these places, we should at least expect some positive effects on a local level. However, it’s important to separate benefits that are directly related to the physical form of traditional urban neighborhoods and those that are merely cultural markers often associated with them. Many of the supposed advantages of city neighborhoods are nebulous and can be easily found in sprawling, car-dependent areas. For example, while dense cities may be “open-minded” and “full of creative people,” you can find plenty of neighborhoods in Atlanta or Los Angeles that fit that bill, even if the residents all drive to offices 20 miles away in the morning.

Although there are certainly others, it’s easy to immediately identify two attributes that differentiate the social environment of dense city neighborhoods from their more suburban counterparts: proximity and visibility. To put it another way: people live close to one another, and they see people — including many people they don’t know — in unmediated space.

Visibility seems like a rather mundane trait. Of course you see many strangers on crowded city streets. But in our sprawling context, this is actually quite remarkable. In an automobile-centric environment, you have a great deal of control over who you encounter during the course of your daily life. We may share space with strangers in settings like restaurants and retail stores, but we often choose those places based on which one is full of strangers like us. (That Walmart’s pretty sketchy — let’s go to Target instead). Even in relatively wealthy city neighborhoods, it’s almost impossible to avoid sharing visible space with someone who is different — sometimes very different — from you. This can be uncomfortable, to be sure. If you were constructing an ideal street scene in your mind, it probably wouldn’t include that homeless person loudly singing to himself on the corner. But there’s no denying the leveling effect that this relatively minimal level of contact can have. It’s no surprise that places where people can see all sorts of classes, races, and religions on display, are often the most tolerant of those differences.

That doesn’t mean that visibility is an ace-in-the-hole for bridging social divides An obvious shortcoming of visibility is that it’s inherently ineffective at exposing you to invisible groups. A diverse public space may make you acknowledge the humanity of a woman wearing a hijab, or a transgender individual — but it does nothing to break down the divide between say, Trump supporters and Trump resisters. Diversity continues to exist beneath the surface.

Another problem is that whether or not visibility increases acceptance depends on whose eyes you look through. The fact that African-Americans were quite visible in the cities of the Jim Crow South did little to bring their white neighbors around to the idea of their full humanity. Familiarity can breed respect, but it can also breed contempt. One citizen may see a woman in a burka pushing a stroller, and feel a flutter of pride for our nation’s culture of acceptance. Another may see the same woman and feel that the country’s values are under attack. Being forced to interact with panhandlers on the street may cause one person to volunteer at a local shelter, and another to support draconian measures aimed at locking up vagrants. There’s no question that visibility can increase tolerance, but it can’t be assumed in every case.

While visibility deals with being exposed to people from outside our tribe, proximity is what makes dense cities so effective as a setting for life within tribes. The power of proximity as a social force can be illustrated by taking a small detour from the city, and into the realm of higher-education. For many middle-class Americans, the most functional built environment they ever experience is a college campus. On a physical level, college campuses are often quite beautiful, sporting a mixture of architectural styles, ample green space, and a density of people and activities that puts many American cities to shame. But it’s the way that the social and physical realms interact that make it a noteworthy experience for so many.

First of all, virtually everyone on a college campus — regardless of political and philosophical convictions — shares a substantial common foundation. Every student’s well-being is inextricably tied up in the well-being of the institution for the four (or more) years they reside there. Most will also share some basic ideas of what it means to be a student, such as the primacy of learning, and the importance of free expression. On top of this shared foundation, college campuses facilitate the formation of smaller affinity groups, including political organizations, sports teams, and greek houses. In the context of these organized groups, leaders can facilitate inter-group interactions that might not occur otherwise — debates with groups on the other side, mixers with like-minded groups, public events that draw outsiders, and so on.

But none of this sort of involvement would be possible if all the students lived 30 miles apart. Meeting up with a study group or attending a club meeting is never terribly inconvenient for students because everyone is in such close proximity. The social, academic, and work lives of students are powerfully integrated in a meaningful space. This profound integration is inarguably a large part of why so many people consider college to have been the best years of their life — and proximity is the special ingredient that makes it all possible.

In many ways, this mirrors the way that traditional cities functioned. In dense cities, everyone, regardless of political viewpoints, had a common interest in the well-being of the city. When thousands of people cluster in close proximity, social problems are difficult to escape — especially when escaping to a nearby suburb is not an option. Within cities, ethnic and religious groups formed close-knit enclaves, which in turn spawned a myriad of mediating institutions — churches, clubs, labor unions, and so forth. These institutions then provided conduits to engage with the power structure of the city as a whole, as well as other enclaves. In this way, cities were able to facilitate the existence of coherent communities, and the vital mixing of cultures and ideas, at the same time.

Proximity undeniably made the old life of urban neighborhoods possible. But without common interests, and thriving social organizations, the power of proximity is not capable of creating healthy communities out of whole cloth. It is a necessary condition for the most profound experience of community, but not a sufficient one. Just as we saw with visibility, the benefit we receive from the urban form is highly dependent on the mindset we bring to it.

Jane Jacobs is rightly remembered for her glittering defense of the messy joys of urban life. But while Jacobs’ paeans to the “street ballet” of Greenwich Village are endlessly cited, a highly prescient passage from The Death and Life deserves more attention. In this passage, she described an incident that occurred on her street: a man appeared to be coercing a distraught little girl to come with him. Fearing the worst, her neighbors immediately emerged from the surrounding buildings to confront the would-be abductor.

The man turned out to be the girl’s father. For Jacobs, this humorous misunderstanding served to illustrate the principle of “eyes on the street” — the informal surveillance that dense city neighborhoods can provide. But Jacobs also noted that one part of the street behaved differently:

Throughout the duration of the little drama, perhaps five minutes in all, no eyes appeared in the windows of the high-rent, small-apartment building. It was the only building of which this was true. When we first moved to our block, I used to anticipate happily that perhaps soon all the buildings would be rehabilitated like that one. I know better now, and can only anticipate with gloom and foreboding the recent news that exactly this transformation is scheduled for the rest of the block frontage adjoining the high-rent building. The high-rent tenants, most of whom are so transient we cannot even keep track of their faces, have not the remotest idea of who takes care of their street, or how.

This passage poses an implicit question to those who have joined the migration back to the city: are you more like the old residents of Jacobs’ neighborhood, or the silent inhabitants of the high-rent apartment building? The answer may not be a happy one. At its best, the traditional city provides a superb — perhaps even the best — stage for human life. But the grandest stage can still be devoid of true life and beauty, and the greatest drama ever created could be performed in a shabby school auditorium. The stage is important; what you fill it with is more so. Those who look to the city for a better version of American society may find what they seek, but only if they actively work to bring it about. Otherwise, we may simply find ourselves graced with a number of blandly pleasant shopping malls that happen to have people living in the stories above.

After all, the fault was never just in our suburbs, but in ourselves.

Abram Lueders is a graduate of Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning. During his time at Georgia Tech, Abram completed his master’s reseach on Jane Jacobs’ theories of urban design and authored a paper on concentrated poverty in the Southeast for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. He currently lives in Memphis, and works as a staff planner for the Downtown Memphis Commission.