TOWN PLANNING DOCUMENTS
A DIALOGUE CONCERNING FORCE AND FREEDOM
The following is a rough transcript (imaginatively recreated from memory) of a dialogue between Bruce Snider, editor, Custom Home, and Chris Alexander. The conversation took place on Friday, May 11, 2001, in a Thai Restaurant in Berkeley, California.
Tell me, Bruce, what is the thing that you most hope to accomplish in the next five years; the thing that most occupies your mind and is most intense in your intellectual and professional desire?
I would like to promulgate a better model for putting people on the land, in
living communities rather than the fabricated developments that pass for
communities these days. All around us we see examples of a better way-the
towns, and cities that we inhereted-and we have become more aware of their
value. But we seem almost completely unable to produce living places
ourselves, or even to believe that it is in our power to do so. Americans
seem increasingly resigned to visiting such places--or facsimiles of such
places--on vacation. We have come to hold much lower expectations of the
places where we actually live. And the current model of development has not
only supplanted the old way, but it also endangers the real places that
Can you give me a practical example of what you are talking about.
We can take the place where I live. It is a small town in Maine, called Northport. There are a few farms, a lot of wooded land, and no real town center. Aside from small enclaves of summer cottages on the shore, residential development is very scattered, mostly single houses and old farmsteads with a few small subdivisions here and there. It is all quite unspoiled. The town extends about 5 miles inland from the coast. When the weather is good, I'll ride my bike through Northport--four miles down the
coast and 5 miles inland-on my way to my office, which is in a neighboring town. And in all of Northport I might pass one or two cars.
It's a wonderful place, and I would be perfectly content if it were to stay just as it is, but that seems unlikely. The surrounding towns are growing rapidly, and it is only a matter of time before growth will overtake Northport, too.
Now, to my way of thinking, growth-more people and more businesses in town-is not in itself a bad thing. What troubles me is the near certainty that this growth will not occur in a way that supports the life of the town, that maintains its unique sense of place or the goodness of living here.
Unlike some nearby towns, Northport does not have an urban center; there is no downtown, no business district, no neighborhood with sidewalks. If the town grows by, say, 5,000 people in the coming decades, chances are that growth will take the form of sprawl, with developer subdivisions and strip commercial development along the major roads.
I have a notion of what I would like to see instead. If Northport is to increase its population by the equivalent of an existing small town, why not build a town--with a town center and neighborhoods-like the many beautiful towns that grew up all around here during the 19th century? The alternative, it seems to me, is to carpet the town with sterile subdivisions designed by people from outside who have no interest in the town beyond making some money here.
But I see a problem. I see a need to make the new developments coherent with the beauty of the past. However, I do not know how to do it, and I do not know, even, how to communicate the need for it to my fellow townsmen.
You want to communicate to them a need for WHAT exactly?.
Unfortunately, most of them think things are perfectly fine the way they
stand. Historically, the town has been very resistant to planning or
land-use regulation of any kind. This is New England, and there is a very
strong sense of, "Nobody's going to tell me what I can't do on my property."
Also, many local families have been here for generations, living a very
modest life. If they can finally make some money by selling a piece of the
farm, then who could blame them?
I don't think my neighbors want to see fundamental change, but their
distaste for regulation makes the town easy pickings for developers and
And what sort of regulation do you propose?
A regulatory mechanism, protection, rules, something -- something, even if we don't know what it is -- to control the onset of development!
That's where I come up blank. I would say a comprehensive plan, but I've seen the results of comprehensive plans in other towns, and that's not what I'm after at all. There must be some way to steer the town's development so that we end up with a real town--with a town center, real neighborhoods, and so on--rather than the kind of centerless sprawl we see all around the country. I would like to think there is some mechanism by which we can accomplish this.
Earlier in our discussion you were saying (and I tend to agree) that Andres Duany's methods (though aimed at very powerful and laudable ideas and patterns, similar in many ways to those which I myself have also pioneered and supported) the overall scheme he uses is very rigorous in its imposition of rules. You feel, and I feel too, that the constraint and absolute character of these rules is too severe. Indeed, as we were agreeing, this heavily rule-bound quality of Seaside is one reason why it does not have the lovely freedom of the old New England towns. It seems regimented, and indeed it IS regimented.
From that argument I would take you to to be a libertarian, in some form. You love freedom. You believe (know, might be a better word) that the beauty and living character of many traditional places came about because people were free to do what they wanted -- within widely understood principles that they all shared. Is this correct? Have I got it right?
Yes. I recently visited Windsor, one of Duany's projects in Florida and left
with very mixed feelings. I think that Duany's site plan and architectural
code have produced rather beautiful results on the surface of things. The
plan works very nicely, and the architecture is uniformly very fine. My
problems with Windsor--aside from the exclusivity and the guards at the
gate--relate to the feeling of the place.
I think that Duany's analysis of the problem is right on the mark, and that his solutions are brilliant, but I have to say that Windsor is not what I'm after here. Clearly, the feeling of the place was a million miles from the feeling of the towns I know here in Maine.
What I am after isn't hard to pin down though. The next town up the road, Belfast, is a perfect example of how I would like to see Northport develop. It has a well developed village center, with downtown shops and lovely neighborhoods, surrounded by rural land and scattered residential development. Somehow, starting 200 years ago, this town got built just right. It's a great place to be. And all of this, I must assume, happened without a comprehensive plan or zoning ordinance.
Belfast is facing trouble too, though. Even with a coherent pattern of development--one pleasing enough to attract summer tourists, retirees, and refugees from other parts of the country--there seems no way to extend this pattern as the town grows. Outside the existing village core, development seems headed for the same train wreck as every other town in the country--strip retail centers along the major roads and subdivision housing.
The issue of development is a hot topic in town and the subject of a referendum scheduled for later this month on whether or not to allow big-box retailers like Walmart to locate there. Still, the idea that Belfast might create new neighborhoods and new shopping districts that embody the positive qualities of its old ones is not even up for discussion.
And here we are in Northport without even the benefit of an existing town center around which to build. And the wolf is at the door. But how do I raise my neighbors' awareness and get them interested in this problem? The matter seems frozen as an either/or proposition between regulation and cheap commercial development.
The issue is difficult to discuss because of the strong local sentiment that ANY kind of regulation is negative. People here have lived their whole lives enjoying freedom--and bearing responsibility for their actions--and they don't want anyone to tell them what to do on their land. They cannot imagine any form of control that would be positive.
And so far, they have been right. The town has got along very well for a very long time. But if we leave things as they are, the future of the town will be determined not by the people who live here but by others who have no stake in the real life of the community.
But why don't you just talk to your neighbors? Here I do not understand you at all. You seem to find a problem with the townspeople who say they don't want people telling them what to do. Yet, like you, they too love freedom. They don't want the town telling them what they can and cannot do on their own land -- not in any form. I personally find this charming, and lovable, and a source of strength.
If you criticize their attitude so strongly, are you not hinting that within yourself, within the freedom-loving Bruce, there rules a secret rod of iron, in the form of a disciplinarian who is going to tell people what they may and may not do. Is that not the very same thing you are criticizing in Andres Duany?
I suspect your neighbors' failure to understand what you want to do, is perhaps realistic. Perhaps you are indeed (as they fear) one of those people who wants to force something down their throats. And their freedom-loving instinct tells them that something about your desire to help is dangerous and unsavory.
Even though I know you are DEFINITELY one of the good guys, and have all the right motives and instincts, I tend to find myself in some degree of sympathy with them.
Well, you may have just nailed me as a closet totalitarian. Still, I can't help but believe that if the town rejects planning of any kind then we make ourselves vulnerable to a future none of us would choose. The freedom we are talking about is only as good as the good will of the landowner. In general, I trust my neighbors' stewardship of the land; they've been doing a good job of it since long before I came along. But I don't trust in the good will of developers. I feel that we must envision a development path for the town as a way of preempting the default path-for-profit housing and lowest-common-denominator commercial development. How can we do that if not through planning and regulation?
Even though I believe in you and I am pretty sure we share the same values and want to see the world get to the same place, I cannot see this matter quite as you do.
I don't like John Birchers any more than you do, and I find "my land is my castle" also a bit much, when a person believes he has the right to do almost anything there... Yet, I actually like the freedom of thought which your neighbors express, and not only like it, but it affirms human nature, and I believe that it is something which MOST PEOPLE feel under the skin. I feel it is a great source of strength. Instead of being something oddball and dangerous which must be changed (as you are almost portraying it), I believe it reflects a real and decent aspect of human nature, which almost all of us feel within ourselves. I do not like to hear any kind of philosophy which starts off, from day one, assuming that there is something wrong with this, and that it must be changed "for the good of the environment."
To me, this is almost as weird as saying that love of children or any other positive human attribute, is a danger to society and must be changed. You are obviously a freedom loving person, but it seems to be me that you espouse a dogma which has shades of the caricatured Russian communist, that the state will tell us individuals what to do, and it must do so, in order to create a good society.
I do not believe this.
But mainly, I just do not believe that this is a truthful picture of human beings, nor of your own feelings about your own life. You don't want people to tell you what to do either. You feel OK saying all this stuff mainly because you feel so deeply that the beautiful world you know is likely to be destroyed -- and also, perhaps, because you see yourself as one of the people who is going to do the telling, not one of the people who is going to be at the receiving end of the telling.
I recognize the contradiction in what I am saying, and it's something I struggle with. Clearly, the places I value most did not result from planning. I would like to get beyond the argument between those who favor development and those who reject it out of hand. That argument is frozen in place, and the resulting compromise is the lousy pattern of development we see, in which "undesirable" uses are segregated from places where people live and so become truly undesirable. What I seek, lacking the tacit consensus that guided the growth of towns like Belfast, is some way to generate a new consensus. A developer can hire Andres Duany to invent a town; how can a town a town invent itself, following the wishes of those who live there, protecting what they treasure most?
Let me give you an example. In the heart of Northport there is an incredibly beautiful old farm. The farmer is old. The farm itself seems to be barely operating; there are a few horses and a few cows, but not much is going on there. Every time I pass that farm-and it is one of my favorite sights on Earth-I shudder to think what will happen to it when the owner passes on. The economics of farming in this area don't favor its continuation as agricultural land, but this place is big part of the character of the town. Short of buying it outright-and the town could never raise what the land would be worth to a developer-how do we keep it from being destroyed? There is always the chance of getting a conservation easement on the land. But without some sort of legal protection, my guess is it will find its highest economic use--probably as custom home lots-rather than its highest use to the town.
I understand the dilemma very well. My wife's father, a farmer, and by the way not conservative at all, finally sold his five-acre smallholding in Eugene, Oregon, for a very high price, which allowed Paul to retire, and the developer promptly built a horror there. What could I do. Should I have told Paul, no, you can't sell your land, you should end your life in poverty? Of course not. The dilemma is awful, and the forces are real.
So I do not disagree with your point of view or your problem at all.
To solve this problem, I think that one must propose a very clear legal distinction between what a private landowner (an owner-occupier) can do on his own land, and what a (by definition absentee) developer can do. The laws of this nation, did lay a basis for enormous freedom that a person could exercise on his own land -- but it was all in the context of a family taking care of their own family, their own business. At the time the laws to protect individual rights were formulated and written into the constitution, no one had hardly even heard of developers.
I believe, given the evidence for harm which developers can do, one must simply state, with legal force, that a developer (whose main aim is money), does NOT have the same rights as a landowner who is trying to look after himself or his family or his business.
In Stafford county, Virginia, there is an experimental new zone currently under discussion, which is a developer-free zone -- -- or a user-design zone -- giving enormous freedoms and rights to people who do things for themselves, but very little freedom to developers who look to make money essentially by pillage.
That is -- at least in part -- the direction which may help to solve the dilemma.
Given that distinction, and focusing for a moment on the rights of the individual landowners, we may then take an extreme libertarian view of individual rights -- provided they are applied to individuals, families, and businesses which are on their own land where they live and work. In that case, I want to suggest something you might not have considered. The freedom which your neighbors love, is then, in that context, perhaps a source of strength, perhaps even the source of the solution to the problem. The freedom they love is the same freedom you love and the same freedom I love. Under the skin, we all agree with them. No one wants a bunch of rules breathing down his neck telling him what to do.
What I think you may not have realized is the strength which lies in this realization. Suppose we say that this yearning for freedom your neighbors have is fundamentally sound, and something to benefit from, not something to be annoyed with -- so long as it is distincguished from the developer's rights.
Let me go further. Suppose I ask a VERY fundamental question. What form of dialogue might appeal to these neighbors of yours, and would seem, in their terms, to be a reasonable process, which they could imagine might lead to decisions about sensible communal patterns.
But my whole point, is that these people do not want to have agreements, forced or otherwise, about communal patterns. They want to be left alone, to do whatever they want to do.
Hold your horses, Bruce, let's hang on a minute. Let us postulate, in advance, that NO ONE, no AGENCY , no LAW, no form of coercion, is going to make people do anything, follow any rule, or make any pattern obligatory.
The purpose in trying to find communal patterns, is not to force them down people's throats, but to have them available out there, in awareness -- only have them available -- have them, understood, only so that people MAY then, if they choose, follow them voluntarily, or move toward them freely, and in a voluntary fashion, only to the extent they wish to, and entirely without coercion.
This is the framework I believe in. It is the framework we must have (I believe), and it is the framework, quite certainly, which created the beautiful old New England communities you love. People acted freely, in the ambience of certain patterns, and chose, or did not choose, to create streets, buildings, fences, and so on... but it was all governed by their own individual judgement, as men and women -- NONE OF IT WAS COERCED.
This is exactly the problem with Andres' approach in its present form. He has instituted patterns as a matter of covenant or law. That is what is wrong; that is why his communities do have a slightly dead quality.
I am convinced we must move away from the idea of patterns imposed by law, and move towards the idea of patterns accepted by people's own good sense and positive feelings.
Let us just think about this fundamental assumption -- and let us THEN ask, once again, how your neighbors would like to see a process trying to find agreed on community patterns -- if it was generally understood that patterns were merely going to be displayed, shared, discussed -- as a basis for possible voluntary compliance, but never anything more than that. They are information, only. Information which people may use, if they see fit to do so.
I can imagine a couple of things. If the patterns are to be voluntary, then people might agree to discuss them. If we had a number of patterns available as issues, and people in a community were asked to vote for the ones they consider most relevant to the future well being of the community. We might make a list of 100 possible patterns, for example, and then ask each person to rank order them (according to their own judgment) assigning numbers to them -- 100 to the most valuable say, and 1 to the least. These numbers might then be tallied, and a kind of combined rank order created for the community -- all this could be done very easily on the web.
Do you think that people would take part in such a discussion, just for the sake of information -- if it was clear that the patterns would not ever be used as imposed rules -- but only as information which people could use or not use, as they see fit.
Under those conditions, this process of trying to decide which of the patterns are most important in a given community, would be an enjoyable process, in which people were seeking a kind of agreement about value -- just getting to know one another you might say.
Why wouldnt that work. Would your ornery neighbors refuse to take part in such an innocent and perhaps pleasant process -- in the priavcy of their own computer.
What do you think?
It's hard to say, but I think a fair number might engage in such a process.
If not now, then after a particularly unpleasant development opens some eyes
about what else might be coming our way.
Can we summarize where we have been.
Let us see if we can agree on a couple of things. You and I strongly agree that the living communities of the past -- towns , villages -- were made by people through voluntary action, and were made freely. There were few actual regulations at those times , almost none. The agreement about values, patterns, and rules, which created such places as old Salem, or Concord Mass, or Beacon Hill in Boston, was a voluntary agreement. The rules were used and applied freely, only because people wanted to apply them. They did so voluntarily, just as far as they saw fit.
I think we agree about that, don't we?
Yes we do agree about that.
And do we not agree also, that the beauty, and inspiration of these places, the way one feels one's own humanity in such a place, comes about exactly because the people who built them were in fact free -- and it is their freedom one senses, It is their freedom which allowed them to make each part appropriate, and sometimes idiosyncratic. One feels the charm, the liveliness, and the relaxed quality of true human condition being supported; and that all comes from the true freedom and individuality of the people and their builders.
The moment we replace this freedom, and try to reproduce or emulate the rules, patterns,by administrative fiat or tyranny, as Andres Duany and other members of CNU do, this does then achieve something very much less. Although Seaside and Windsor aspire to be like to Narranganset or Salem, the reality is in fact more like a developer's effort to make something like that, while not doing the real thing -- hence almost claiming to be something more profound than it truly is. You cannot get the real McCoy by telling people what they must do. You can only get the real McCoy when people do it of their own free will, and decide, for themselves what is the proper boundary to the rules and patterns,and the way they should be applied to this house or that, to this garden, to these doors and windows, or to that barn, that step and this window, and this door.
Of course, it is likely that Andres, and Robert Davis (the developer of Seaside) almost certainly believe that what they have done isrooted in human freedom. They will tell you that people in their system are free within their rules, and that (so they believe) this is in principle just like the places in Maine and Massachusetts we have cited in our discussion. But I must say that this is a wish, not a truth. They wish it were like that, because if it were they (and we all) would have reached nirvana. But it just is NOT nirvana. None of us -- not all of us together, you and Duany and all the others and I, together -- have yet reached the goal of how to make a truly living world. We all want to do it. But we have not got there yet. That is just the truth.
The danger of the whole CNU movement is that it comes too close to developers in their present form, without questioning their activity, and then tries to achieve the vital patterns by FORCE, within the framework of developer's development. It does not permit, or encourage, a form of society and a form of community,where these things might come about by freewill, by voluntary action, by people doing, joyfully and freely, what they see fit to do.
And under those conditions it is my belief, that true life for our world and our environment cannot occur. It will always be slightly fake.
So, in a sense -- it is really saying it far too strongly -- much traditional historicism is all fake -- like Hassan Fathy's village which looked like a traditional village, because he made it look like that by his own force of will -- but it did not have life or freedom in its, arising from the people's own free will -- so in fact it is completely dead. And indeed, in Fathy's case of New Gourna it is actually deserted. The intended inhabitants were so remote from it, emotionally, that they just picked up and left, after he left them there.
But anyway, you know all this; and you and I are surely agreed about this fundamental problem.
The main thing is that you would like, concretely, to do something about it, and to have an effect of the right kind, in Belfast -- and then ultimately, elsewhere, too.
The main thing is that you would like, concretely, to do something about it, and to have an effect of the right kind, in Belfast -- and then ultimately, elsewhere, too.
But to do it, we must get clear, I think, about the way that a new kind of town can emerge from action, and deliberation, taken freely, by the very people whose freedom you seem to have been lamenting. I don't think that will work. I think their freedom must be brought in from the beginning, and in a fundamental way. Only then can you succeed.
Yes we do agree about that.
But how should I do this, How should we do this? How can we make it work?
I think we need another discussion where we focus more trenchantly on the developer -- the limits of his role -- the great unmentionable, hardly ever yet discussed seriously by CNU. We have said far too little about that, so far -- yet that is really the other kernel of the problem.
Are you game for a sequel?