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Seek the Good of the City, Not Its Growth

Modern politics squeezed out lofty classical considerations. Urban understanding needs them back.
Silver Spring

Democracies like the United States, a clever man once said, do best when the only questions they have to deal with are essentially trivial. How then does a democracy avoid squabbles about such important issues as the division of wealth, as justice?

By means of economics, said America’s founding philosopher, John Locke. Larger disputes over justice, Locke said, can be safely ignored so long as society’s wealth is steadily growing and so long as private property is secure. As long as a rising tide is lifting all boats, and brigands aren’t robbing banks, for all practical purposes justice has already been done. It is hardly surprising, then, that the problem of growth is always at the top of the agenda for American politicians.

The problem of growth remained at the top of the agenda at a recent forum discussing urban growth strategy held this May in Montgomery County, one of the largest and wealthiest DC suburbs. (The county’s Silver Spring downtown was one of the earliest new urbanist projects.) The forum was organized by maverick council member Marc Elrich and economist Michael Shuman for the purpose of critiquing the County’s economic development plan, the product of expensive consultants.

As the forum transpired, I found myself increasingly struck by an unspoken conflict of assumptions about what the word “development” refers to. One side—represented by Shuman and Elrich—saw development as concerned with the good of the city. They asked qualitative questions about how to create as good a city as possible, and how to make the economy serve the interests of that good.

The other side—represented by the consultants who came up with the growth-focused plan—saw the economy as the thing that needed to be developed. The difference between these two views is the difference between classical and modern politics generally.

Politics, Classical and Modern

Classical politics was the attempt to define, through an ongoing conversation, what a particular community meant when it said that it was a good community; more precisely, what it meant when it said it was aiming at becoming the best sort of community. It required a shared understanding of what is meant by words like “good” when we say we are building a “good city.” Modern politics believes that such a shared understanding is impossible to achieve and sets aside such weighty debates for more practical concerns, which is why the methodology and mentality of economics so dominates modern thinking.

Economics, as we learn in college, is a non-normative science. It doesn’t ask questions about what is good, or, for that matter, about what is kind (so long as contracts are obeyed), or beautiful (for whom?) or fair. In the classical world, by contrast, these qualitative matters were the very stuff of politics, because politics concerned itself with virtue. Fearful of raising such imprecise and unscientific matters, modernity cast such concerns out of the public realm, leaving them to the private world of autonomous individuals.

The modern world differs from the classical world in one more crucial sense. Modern politics has no well-defined location, not any more than the global marketplace has a location. Classical politics, by contrast, takes place in the city. The city is what classical politics is about.

Return to that development forum in Silver Spring, and see if these distinctions provide any clues for how to further and deepen that well-started conversation.

Two Developments

Elrich started the Silver Spring forum by asking everyone to think about what is the best kind of city. What are the kinds of cities people like to be in? Places “that work,” he said, tend to have a lot of small shops and a good mix of older buildings. (I found myself imagining places like Annapolis, or M Street in Georgetown, or any number of American small towns as they looked 50 or 60 years ago.) The right sort of development plan, from Elrich’s perspective, would serve to create the quality of cities we want. It would help “fill the small spaces” in our town centers and help people already living there learn to become entrepreneurs.

To create such cities, Elrich asked, is Montgomery County using the right economic development strategy? As Elrich explained, the County had commissioned a study, which led to a plan, the point of which is to stimulate economic growth. That plan emphasizes looking for “big fish”—big corporations in favored industries—to move to Montgomery County. Elrich isn’t necessarily against that goal, but he wonders whether such a strategy, in itself, will serve to create the quality of cities we actually want. Will it fill the small spaces in our town centers? Will it create entrepreneurs?

The hired consultants asked none of those qualitative, place-based questions. They suggested that the County grow its economy by attracting outside, globally-competitive corporations who will bring with them high-wage jobs in industries such as computers, health care, and bio-tech. Although no one said this at the forum, if past is precedent, the headquarters of these imported businesses will be plopped down somewhere along a highway (in Montgomery County, most likely highway 270) that is easily accessible by car.

Michael Shuman, for his part, felt that the consultants simply missed the whole point of economic development. True economic development, for Shuman, consists of applying four rules:

  1. Maximize the percent of local industry and trade that is locally owned.
  2. Emphasize local self-reliance, not as a means of becoming disengaged from the wider (including global) economy, but so as to engage with it from a position of strength.
  3. Maintain high labor and environmental standards.
  4. Create, or maintain, a social, institutional and investment framework that fosters a sort of local entrepreneurial eco-system.

Clearly, Shuman’s strategy makes sense if one’s focus is on the cities and concrete communities being “developed.”

If, however, the point of development is to adapt the County to the global economy, does the consultants’ strategy make better sense? Shuman says no, it doesn’t even work on narrowly economic grounds.

The consultants focused on attracting to the County specialized, high-tech corporations. But specialized industries, when they move, bring along with them (from wherever they were before) their own specialized employees. Rather than developing an existing community, their approach is to shift people around. And, I might add, by placing those people out in an office park somewhere, even their purchasing power does less than it could to help locally owned restaurants and service businesses struggling to survive in town centers.

What is more, Shuman continued, the consulting report recommended hand-picking—“out of the 1,100 different productive economy sectors operating in the U.S.” only five favored industries that will be the beneficiaries of government largess. But “all the data tell us,” Shuman said, “that this strategy is the way to kill an economy.” Actual growth in per capita income is strongly correlated with a high density of diverse, locally-owned businesses. In other words, from the Shuman perspective, economics über alles fails even in economic terms compared with the city-based approach.

If “all the data” say the approach of diversifying the local economy produces better economic results, and I agree that it does, why is Shuman’s strategy still at the margins, while the consulting group’s approach remains front and center? One reason is that we are simply philosophically unprepared to wade into the qualitative, ethical, and aesthetic judgments demanded of us if we walk away from economism. Or, to put it differently, and more optimistically, we cannot arrive at a sufficient consensus on any of these “imprecise” but crucial questions unless we consciously choose to do so, by means of a continuing conversation.

Conversation Starters

What concerns me is the development of cities, as I agree with the likes of Aristotle, Simone Weil, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Jane Jacobs that the city is the purpose and goal of economics.

From the perspective of classical political thought, the city is the optimal scale for organizing political life because it is a scale that is sufficiently complex to allow for human flourishing, but not so huge that the crucial questions can’t be addressed by means of reasoned debate. Scales larger than that—such as the national or the global scale—are so vastly complex that such a conversation can no longer be concrete and to a purpose.

What can conversation actually accomplish? At the scale of Montgomery County, certainly not everything necessary. Numerous impediments to a city-focused development strategy—everything from taxation and agricultural policies to international trade deals—currently reside at the national level. All the same, there are some steps that do seem doable at the local level.

We know, both from experience as well as from authorities on the subject such as Jane Jacobs, that creating living city centers requires a mix of old and new buildings. We also know this same goal requires putting in place the right amount of small (in terms of square footage) spaces for small businesses. Zoning rules, even if they tried, cannot mandate the correct proportion of ages and sizes, because it depends on the history of a particular place, on existing structures and how adaptable they are, to say nothing of the wishes of residents and property owners. But a conversation between political leaders, planners, architects, business owners, residents, etc., in any given city, can find a modus vivendi that respects the general rule that all of these elements need to be considered and placed in a reasonable balance. A general rule can be legislated, even if not the details.

We also know a lot about what kinds of architectural forms make walking a pleasure instead of a burden. Jane Jacobs advocated for intricate connectivity and small blocks, among other reasons to provide lots of corners (for corner stores) and for simple aesthetic variation to movement through urban space. Rome presents the classic example of good connectivity, and of course of much else besides. A form-based code, then, can be one good tool among others if it is part of a political conversation within the city, even if it involves a series of aesthetic judgments about form that cannot be purely legislated.

And we know that, if varied work places exist in the right relation to housing, this creates urban places where family members including children can easily interact throughout the day. Such a ‘right relation’ depends not just on formal and aesthetic elements of the city: it also depends on the diversity of work available, and indeed on how we understand the meaning and purpose of work.

But by what method can we implement such a vision—assuming agreement about such matters, many of them qualitative and “imprecise,” can be reached? Perhaps a kind of legislative technique can be developed that writes rules of the sort: “The city architect [yes, there should be city architects!] and planning board will approve projects that most closely approximate the best existing models of good cities.”

To achieve any of these results, to be sure, the economy needs to be genuinely varied at the urban scale, something that is only possible if the urban economy itself is also sufficiently self-reliant. (By ‘urban scale’ I mean, as did Jacobs, the city and its region, and local farmers.) Otherwise a city becomes, as is usually the case now, a play-thing of the global economy with its gun-to-the-head version of so-called comparative advantage.

Here is the clincher, though. Shuman’s crucial second rule, emphasize local self-reliance, will only be implemented by a polity that recognizes the good city, and not “growth” in the abstract, as its proper goal.

Paul Grenier is an essayist and translator who writes regularly on political-philosophical issues, and a writer and editor at Solidarity Hall. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.