Rod Dreher has written an article about Philip Bess, professor of architecture at Notre Dame and author of the 2006 book TILL WE HAVE BUILT JERUSALEM: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred. Mr. Bess evangelizes for a blend of New Urbanism (a trendy progressive notion) and social conservatism, as Dreher explains:
Bess has long served as an unlikely apostle to New Urbanists and conservatives alike, neither of whom seem to get the other. He tells New Urbanists that building good neighborhoods is a necessary condition for building good communities, but not a sufficient one: they must integrate their architectural vision with a broader vision of the good life. To put it in an Augustinian way, you can’t build a city fit for man without a vision of the city of God.
“Urbanism is about human flourishing, and human flourishing requires virtues, which are character dispositions that lead toward certain goods. People aren’t passive receivers of urbanism,” he says. “New Urbanists do a lot of things right, but good urbanism is more than bioswales”—environmentally friendly alternatives to storm sewers—“bike lanes, good coffee, and olive oil.”
Man does not live by bioswales alone.
Dreher’s article continues:
In a 2005 address presenting New Urbanism to the right, Bess made the familiar Aristotelian claim that “the best life for human beings is the life of moral and intellectual excellence lived in community with others.” The built environment is an indispensable foundation for that.
The history of human settlement, he argues, shows that an ordered and just urban environment, the kind that resonates the best with human nature, is one in which the needs of daily life—commercial, recreational, religious, and so forth—are within easy walking distance. Postwar suburban sprawl, by contrast, separates communities by race and income and dissolves the idea of community as a coherent, organic entity. When the automobile freed modern people from geographical limits, it not only bound those without cars to their homes but also caused a moral dimension of social life that had been with us since time immemorial to fade from view.
At the risk of sounding like Al Gore, the automobile has done far more to unsettle traditional ways of life and traditional morality than any ten secular humanist intellectuals you care to name.
Moreover, when we ceased to design and construct buildings in a pattern-language tradition based on human nature, we created places that were harder to love. James Howard Kunstler calls this “the geography of nowhere.” New Urbanism aims to recover the lost art of urban design as a way to reverse these conditions. What traditionalist conservatives are trying to do in politics, New Urbanists—even those who consider themselves progressives—are attempting in urban design.
Anyone who criticizes the post-war suburbanization of America, urban sprawl, and the destruction wrought by the automobile is alright with me. Philip Bess sounds like someone worth reading and worth listening to.