Russell Kirk and the New Urbanism

On the outside, cities appear to be permanent, huge things made of stone, concrete, and steel. But the reality is that cities are complex, diverse, and fragile. They are shaped by the interplay of individual, family, neighborhood, friends, work, and society, and are all the more complex and fragile for acting upon themselves.

A failure to understand this interplay marked America’s relationship with her cities in the twentieth century and may yet undermine the current urban revival. One of the people who did understand it was Russell Kirk, whose centennial this year is.

“A city is not simply a collectivity; it is a vital community, composed of a great many distinct individuals, most of whom have no desire to be precisely like everybody else,” Kirk wrote in a 1982 article called “The Architecture of Servitude and Boredom.” “Society is not a machine,” Kirk reminded readers. “On the contrary, it is a kind of spiritual corporation; and if treated as a machine, people rebel, politically or personally.”

Since that article was written, the image of the American city has changed dramatically. In 1982, one worried about being mugged on the subway. In 2018, one worries about the subway breaking down. In 1982, ground-floor windows invariably had bars over them; few businesses were open after dark and few people went out to patronize them. In 2018, people leave air conditioners in unbarred, ground-floor windows, and some cities appoint “night mayors” to encourage businesses to stay open late.

But have politicians, business leaders, planners, and the other movers and shakers truly learned from their experience? Or is the revitalization of the American city superficial and temporary?

In some respects, American cities are treated more like organic communities than they once were. It is rare for urban governments these days to utilize eminent domain with such abandon as in the immediate postwar period, when whole neighborhoods were demolished and redeveloped as “Towers in a Park” or parking lots. At the same time, mayors and planners don’t need to use eminent domain powers to reshape neighborhoods. The troubles of the American city by the end of the twentieth century left a large number of properties vacant or significantly underutilized. Cities on the rebound now act as brokers between developers and property owners, using their planning staff to create helpful, location-tailored zoning overlay districts and lobbying other government agencies for improvements.

Many of these redevelopments are inspired by the New Urbanism, a movement among architects and planners that seeks to re-create the human scale and walkability of American small towns from before World War II. On the surface, New Urbanism is exactly what Kirk was looking for.

The reality is somewhat different. New Urbanist–inspired developments like Assembly Row in Somerville, Massachusetts, are in reality more of the same. In planning the project, the city designated a Master Developer, helped acquire the parcels for the project, and ensured that everything was built according to the city’s zoning regulations. Nothing about Assembly Row, except the demand for housing that led to a largely disused industrial area becoming residential, was organic. The result is a set of buildings that, while nice enough at the moment, will age together and depreciate in value, likely ending up demolished to make way for the next fad.

Kirk proposed four principles for urban revitalization and renewal: “First, the architecture of a city and countryside ought to be adapted to the humane scale. . . . Second, the community called the city must nurture roots, not hack through them. Neighborhoods, voluntary associations, old landmarks, historic monuments—such elements make men and women feel at home. . . . Third, the measure of urban planning should not be commercial gain primarily, but the common good. . . . Fourth, civic restoration must be founded upon the long-established customs, habits and political institutions of a community.”

A great many people in today’s cities now pay lip service to one or more of these principles, yet they merely replace one sort of evil with another. Instead of bleak towers, people have reduced “humane architecture” to “green space,” filling cities with a different kind of bleakness. Neighborhoods and associations are held rigid and inviolate, unwilling or incapable of absorbing newcomers while the old landmarks are prevented from all cosmetic alteration, vastly increasing the costs of maintaining them in the first place. Instead of commercial gain, the measure of urban planning is now the gain of existing homeowners. “Long-established customs and habits” are used to justify the unwillingness to invest in measures to make streets safer by slowing cars, even for children.

Kirk’s principles are still relevant, even if they have been poorly understood and badly applied, and they compare favorably to the four conditions for generating diversity that Jane Jacobs elucidated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs encouraged mixed uses in the same areas, short blocks, buildings of different ages, and a concentration of people. Indeed, Kirk’s principles and Jacobs’s conditions are related. Buildings of different ages and uses, constructed in short blocks, are part of a humane architecture. The presence of many people requires that common habits and political institutions develop simply to live together.

But mere intellectual commitment to humane architecture or long-established customs will not overcome what Kirk recognized as the most revolutionary and destructive force unleashed on the American city in the last century: the automobile. “From courting customs to public architecture, the automobile tears the old order apart,” Kirk wrote in an essay called “The Mechanical Jacobin”—for so he called the car. The automobile was, Kirk insisted, “a revolutionary the more powerful for being insensate.” As Robert Hughes said of Brasilia in his amazing documentary series The Shock of the New, “The car has abolished the street.” On the road, man’s servant becomes his master.

What Hughes meant was that the accommodation of traffic and the traffic engineer’s delight in throughput had made all streets into highways. In the cities of Europe and even in America before the coming of the automobile, streets were, as Ivan Illich wrote, common spaces. Children played; men set up tables for chess, checkers, or dominoes; in more commercial areas, people would set up stalls or carts from which to sell their wares. Almost none of this survives the mechanical onslaught.

The car also changes the way people experience buildings. For pedestrians, buildings must be anchored in space. There are only a few approaches one can take, and the relationship of building to environment and street becomes important. It must be interesting both to the person next to it and to the person walking up to it. By contrast, buildings in the automobile era are afterthoughts. Because they can be approached from any direction at high speeds, they need not be interesting to look at, nor must care be given about surroundings. Indeed, a building today that is attractive to look at would likely be regarded as a hazard for drivers. Between noise, exhaust, and the sheer amount of space they take up, the presence of more than a handful of automobiles prevents life in cities from being humane.

Kirk understood the attractions of cities, especially of the older, walkable districts, predicting, in the1967 essay “Reoccupying the City,” that affluent people would return to more central neighborhoods. “Life in the city may offer more to conscience and sense of community than does the moral atomism of the typically prosperous suburb,” Kirk wrote. At a low point in the history of American urbanism, then, Kirk foresaw the paradoxical future: cities would preserve some of their historic virtues—but only for the few who could afford them.

Perhaps the most important lesson urbanists can learn from Kirk is that cities are not merely conglomerations of people, buildings, and resources. “It is in community that human beings realize their aim in existence; they become fully human only by becoming civilized, and civilization means the life of the city,” Kirk wrote in The Roots of American Order. Cities must attempt to satisfy all the faculties, spiritual and material. The urbanists’ task is to build the conditions whereby life in the city is worth living. ♦

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.


Subscribe to Modern Age

Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.”

Subscribe to Modern Age »

Join ISI

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Other posts you might like