Cities ≠ Human Flourishing

Dusting off old arguments for urbanism won’t make it any more feasible

I have every reason to think that Marian L. Tupy is a thoughtful fellow, but I stumbled across his recent article (republished by FEE and Cato) and would like to respond. Mr. Tupy’s central assertion is a very simple one: Urban environments are better for humans than rural ones. In support of this thesis, he makes four broad claims.

This argument requires a willing suspension of basic laws of nature that most humans have understood throughout our existence. Unless we’ve discovered a city populated entirely by humans who neither breathe, nor eat, nor poop, cities are decidedly not better for the environment. Very few pieces of ground have the carrying capacity to handle an apartment complex without severe degradation, much less a high rise.

The author observes that cities are better in part because “property values are higher and space is used more efficiently. That means that more people live in the same square mile of land than in the rural areas.” My main objection to this argument may be the preposition in. Mr. Tupy seems unaware of the fact that humans (along with all other life) do not—in fact—live in the land. We live from the land. We take things from it in order to make our life. We exhale and burn carbon. We consume calories and clean water and produce pathogen-laden waste. A conversation about human flourishing and the environment, then, must at some point attend to visibility of and accountability to the land from which we live. What cities are extremely good at is reducing that visibility and creating the strong sense that humans are unaccountable to and for their “environment.” All that steel and concrete appear completely unaffected by our decisions. This isn’t a cause for celebration, but a cause for concern.

Moreover, all of this thinking seems predicated on the idea that the best use of land is for it to be left alone. As if all the humans piling into cities and allowing the surrounding land to return to wilderness is the roadmap to Utopia, rather than destruction.

This was a lousy argument in the 1700’s and it’s only gotten weaker with advances in technology over the ensuing centuries. For many reasons, people who live in cities tend to vote for more. More of everything—all around! Perhaps it’s related to the lack of whole cost accounting mentioned above. And as de Tocqueville wrote, “It’s not an endlessly expanding list of rights — the ‘right’ to education, the ‘right’ to health care, the ‘right’ to food and housing. That’s not freedom, that’s dependency. Those aren’t rights, those are the rations of slavery — hay and a barn for human cattle.”

So, I would agree that cities are better for dependency, but I have not found them to be cradles of free thought or resourcefulness. They do not seem to be better for liberty, and so I reject the idea that they are inherently better for democracy.

This would be news to hundreds of thousands of German, Italian, Scottish and Irish immigrants who got the hell out of American cities as quickly as possible. It would also be news to Muslim immigrants on the margins of cities across Europe today. I understand that Mr. Tupy is making a narrow point that contains some truth in specific, post-modern, pluralistic societies, but I find it to be unpersuasive at any scale. Under scrutiny, it’s actually somewhat offensive.

Minority groups, like all humans, thrive in places where their dignity is known and protected and they have opportunities to live freely. This is true in Los Angeles and L’Arche. It’s true for Jewish sects in the Bronx and Amish communities in the Pennsylvania highlands.

That cities are home to the ultra-rich and provide numerous opportunities for amusement and mindless consumption is hardly a reason to recommend them. To even include this in a conversation about human flourishing seems embarrassing. What’s our metric? Barrels of chlorine added to water supply? Increase in temperature over the heat island? Tons of human excrement piped into adjacent communities? Nah—let’s go with number of movie theaters per block.

That Mr. Tupy aligns himself with Karl Marx in scorning “the idiocy of rural life” should tell you everything you need to know about his worldview. He seems utterly uninterested in one entire half of the human populace—and actively dismisses any fleeting notion of sustainability.

Industrial and urban models were a requisite chapter in the story of human civilization advancing through the 20th century. It seems baffling to think that anyone should wish to continue into the 21st century in this same mode. We’re only just beginning to count the costs of industrial agriculture. We’re starting to recognize the loneliness epidemic as local communities are hollowed out. This is the trend worth watching—not the post-war, consumeristic propaganda of urbanism.

Cities of the future look more like the Middle Age cities that Mr. Tupy evidently so admires. Which is to say, pre-Industrial. They necessarily account for their own water, energy, carbon and food sourcing—not because of raiding hordes, but because of the future. On the output side, they take stock and attend to the waste they produce. They are places for the occasional intersection and overlap of communities and commerce. They are gathering places and markets. They are important sites for cultural markers and institutions.

But they are—for anyone brave enough to look—pretty irresponsible places to live.

Agrarian designer from Virginia.

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