To make strong towns, unmake sprawl

Aaron M. Renn reviews Charles Marohn’s bookStrong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity“:

Strong Towns, the book and the namesake organization, resulted from civil engineer and urban planner Charles Marohn’s discovery that the highway projects he designed showed a negative return on investment. The local taxes generated by new road construction and expansion didn’t even cover the costs of the roads themselves, much less any other city services. Marohn calculated, for example, that it would take 37 years’ worth of property-tax revenue from all the houses on his own cul de sac just to recoup the street’s initial cost. This realization inspired Marohn to argue that urban sprawl is a financial loser.

According to Marohn, the current approach to suburban development is a “growth Ponzi scheme.” New developments, like housing subdivisions or industrial parks, require little maintenance for many years after their initial construction. This allows the municipal tax revenues they produce to be used for other purposes. But over time, infrastructure inevitably needs repairs, and, too often, a city can’t cover the cost. If the city goes ahead with the maintenance work, it will need to boost economic growth to generate the necessary revenue to pay for it.

A similar challenge arises on the private side. Unlike traditional communities, which organically form in increments, modern neighborhoods are commonly built in large, uniform blocks intended as permanent developments. Zoning and building codes, along with restrictive covenants, ensure this outcome. Today’s housing developments, for instance, might feature hundreds of homes—separated into various pods—that collectively sell within a narrow price range. Since these homes get built at once, they require major maintenance, such as roof replacement, at around the same time. Homeowners confront significant repair bills, but some cannot afford the upkeep, so the neighborhood can start to look worn down.

This convergence of public and private redevelopment costs—along with changes in market demand for building and neighborhood types that disproportionately affect “monoculture” developments—has contributed to the decline of many outer-urban and inner-suburban areas across America. In modern suburbia, dead malls and rising poverty levels bring municipal fiscal distress; government incentives helped trigger this pattern. “Today, the public sector backstops almost all private land development,” Marohn observes, “either by direct investments up front or by assuming the long-term maintenance obligations before the tax base has matured.” Marohn believes that a significant amount of U.S. infrastructure will be decommissioned due to its high cost.

What Marohn is getting at is the difference between organic and artificial human communities. We’ve been building “artificially” for 70+ years, and the results are the sort of communities Marohn is warning will be financially unsustainable—if not in themselves, then in the supporting infrastructure that they require. We need to think about making strong towns and communities by first unmaking the sprawl that has led to so much of our disconnectedness today—our commutes, our lack of town centers, our lack of relationship with those who should be our neighbors, our tax liabilities, etc.

Our older way of developing a place, which is incrementally, not only ensure that we have a real “center of gravity” in our communities in terms of town squares and places for sharing with one another in meaningful ways, but also that things don’t break at the same time, and that communities support their own needs as much as possible. We call that localism, but it might as well be called conservatism. It was the progressive social architects and engineers that gave us the problems we face.

TechCrunch also has a great review of the book worth checking out.

I’m planning to read “Strong Towns” before the end of the year.

Old Reston and Lake Anne

I visited a friend in Reston on Sunday afternoon to help with a project, and after finishing we walked through old Reston and saw Lake Anne. It’s been good to experience more of Northern Virginia and especially Reston. Lake Anne and the surrounding natural trails are beautiful, especially right now. Old Reston isn’t much to look at architecturally, but it’s so perfectly situated amidst nature that this, combined with its fundamentals (public square, al fresco dining, little shops and homes nestled alongside one another, walkable paths) make up for its deficiencies.

When I woke that morning after 6am, it was pitch dark due and raining on the way to and from 7:30am Mass. That continued the entire morning, but cleared up for what turned out to be a fantastic afternoon and evening.

Red Mass

I attended the Red Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle this morning, an annual Mass sponsored by The John Carroll Society for the Holy Spirit to guide all who make and interpret our law at the start of a new Supreme Court term.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington celebrated the Mass alongside Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington. It was a beautiful Mass, with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and others in attendance. I caught up with Leonine Forum friends afterwards and a number of others, and went to Kramerbooks Cafe near Dupont Circle for lunch.

As background, The John Carroll Society offers this history of the Red Mass:

On February 15, 1953, Archbishop Patrick A. O’Boyle celebrated the first John Carroll Society sponsored Red Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. In succeeding years, the congregation frequently has included the President of the United States, the Chief Justice of the United States, and Associate Justices, other leading federal, state and local jurists, cabinet officials, members of Congress, diplomats, university presidents, deans, professors, students of law, and lawyers.

The Red Mass is celebrated annually at the Cathedral, traditionally on the Sunday before the first Monday in October, which marks the opening of the Supreme Court’s annual term. Its purpose is to invoke God’s blessings on those responsible for the administration of justice as well as on all public officials.

Since its inception, the Red Mass has remained the ceremonial highlight of the Society’s year. Liturgically, the Red Mass is celebrated as the Solemn Mass of the Holy Spirit. Its name derives from the traditional red color of the vestments worn by clergy during the Mass, representing the tongues of fire symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The Red Mass enjoys a rich history. Originating centuries ago in Rome, Paris and London, its name also exemplifies the scarlet robes worn by royal judges that attended the Mass centuries ago. The Red Mass historically marked the official opening of the judicial year of the Sacred Roman Rota, the Tribunal of the Holy See. During the reign of Louis IX (Saint Louis of France), La Sainte Chapelle in Paris was designated as the chapel for the Mass. In England, beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing even through World War II, judges and lawyers have attended the Red Mass, which today is celebrated annually at Westminster Cathedral.

In the United States, the Red Mass tradition was inaugurated in 1928 at old Saint Andrew’s Church in New York City. Since then, the Red Mass has been celebrated increasingly in communities throughout the United States.

Epiphany’s Tabernacle

I took this photo after Mass this morning at Epiphany in Georgetown. Ever since first coming here, I’ve been taken by the simplicity of this church and love it as a sign and symbol of the simplicity that characterizes holiness—the lack of ego, the lack of pretension, the humility. And one of the other things I love about Epiphany is the way the Tabernacle is illuminated by natural light through a small glass window.

It wasn’t dark in the church when I took this, but I brought the light down specifically to emphasize how beautiful the natural light illuminating the Tabernacle is—especially on early mornings or dark days. There’s poetry in that: the place where Christ dwells in the light.

The next conservatism

After work on September 5th I was initially headed home and walking down M Street, until I ran into a friend from Newsmax and decided to head to Catholic University for the Institute for Human Ecology-hosted debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. I’ve been following this debate since Sohrab Ahmari’s May piece, “Against David Frenchism“. It drew an incredible audience, probably 500+:

I think the debate itself was basically a disaster, in the sense that neither Ahmari nor French really debated one another—they spent most of the conversation trying to feel each other out, and so much of the conversation felt like a series of Twitter-style barbs rather than a good back-and-forth. You can watch/hear it here.

I spoke with Hadley Arkes afterwards, and he previewed what ultimately became this review/response to the debate. I think that’s worth reading if you watch the debate and come away as ambivalent by both Ahmari and French as I think many should have been after their debate. I have heard that their second encounter at Notre Dame went much better, but I haven’t had time to hear it.

All that said, Sohrab Ahmari’s latest First Things piece states very directly what wasn’t ultimately sussed out at Catholic University: “The New American Right: An Outline for a Post-Fusionist Conservatism“. It really is worth reading in its entirety, but I think this excerpt particularly helps explain why Ahmari started critiquing “Frenchism” (what Ahmari calls “a program for negotiating Christian retreat from the public square into a safe private sphere”) in the first place:

The common good and the highest good are among the bedrock principles of classical and Christian political philosophy. It is a sign of the times that their use now elicits a parade of horribles: the Inquisition and Islamic State, Francisco Franco and Ayatollah Khomeini, Vichyism and Leninism. The arch-liberal political theorist John Rawls seems to reign over the imaginations of many, even supposedly conservative, minds, for strong metaphysical claims to the public square are widely assumed to violate its neutrality. This truism is asserted even as the critics’ intemperate reactions reveal that the liberal public square is anything but neutral—that it is bathed in its own metaphysics and theology.

Progressive liberals are quite open about their aim: to raze all structures that stand in the way of an empire of autonomy-maximizing norms, an empire populated by the “free individual who no longer acknowledges any limits,” as Pierre Manent has written. Conservative liberals and libertarians share in this view of the highest good: The unfettered life is the best life. Most recognize the need for some limits, at least against freedoms that harm others. But the regulative ideal remains always operative: an ideal of ever-greater autonomy won through the removal of limits.

Our classical and biblical heritage holds a different lesson: that we are not free merely to the degree that we are unregulated, unrestricted, and undisciplined. Rather, true freedom is above all the free affirmation of the personal responsibilities attendant on individual rights. “I shall walk in liberty,” sings the psalmist, “for I have sought thy precepts” (Ps. 119:45). Freedom requires a moral and religious horizon, not just in man’s private sphere, not just at the level of culture and civil society, but also in his collective experience—that is, in the state and the political community.

Critics fret that such talk risks unsettling the peace of modernity and resurrecting “a premodern concept of the higher good.” It was precisely liberalism’s “ability to filter out the old prejudices,” one critic asserted, “that made the peace of the modern world possible.”

That is a cartoonish critique. It reduces millennia of religious tradition and philosophical contemplation to so many “old prejudices.” But it expresses a belief that is common enough: that liberalism has put an end to the religious conflicts of the past and ushered in an unprecedented peace by relegating faith to its proper—that is, private—sphere. To its critics, then, the new American right raises the specter of religious and moral conflicts that will imperil the peaceful freedom of the West.

But the new right begins from a different premise: that a great deal of our peaceful freedom is already lost. The free world doesn’t feel free, because often it isn’t. But this new unfreedom doesn’t arise from a dearth of individual liberties. The modern West is unfree because it is irresponsible, unbounded, unattached.

Ahmari writes elsewhere in the piece: “Yes, plenty of men and women still make commitments: They get married, have children, serve their communities, and so on. But they do so in spite of, and with little help from, our liberal-technocratic arrangement. At every step, disorder menaces families and communities.”

If any of this makes sense, or “sounds right” in some way, this is a debate worth following…

Lauinger Library tower

I took these photos on Saturday morning when I visited Holy Trinity, which is the only church within reasonable walking distance that offers Saturday morning mass. Does Georgetown’s Lauinger Library tower stand out as rudely to you amidst the rest of the aesthetic landscape as it does to me? Look at it:

What was the leadership at Georgetown thinking when they approved Lauinger Library’s design? That blank concrete tower, and the hulking concrete building overall, look grim even on a beautiful summer day. It only gets worse in winter’s dimmer days.

Georgetown Marian Procession

This morning I went to 7:30am Mass at Epiphany in Georgetown for the Feast of the Assumption. And at 7pm I walked back to Epiphany for their Marian Procession through Georgetown, from 27th and Dumbarton to Wisconsin, and then down Wisconsin and along M Street, and finally back up 27th to Epiphany.

We prayed the Rosary and at each decade the priests leading the procession offered a meditation on Mary as our mother. “Beauty is attractive,” it was said at one point, “but holiness is inspiring.” As we walked along, pointing in our way to Mary’s holiness, I thought about how far away from that I often feel. And as I thought this I heard Philippians: We’re here to work out our salvation. We sang between decades—Hail Holy Queen, Enthroned Above, and Immaculate Mary.

As we stood in front of Epiphany at the end, one of the women led us in singing the Salve Regina:

Salve, Regina, mater
misericordiae:
Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra,
salve.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et
flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia ergo, Advocata nostra,
illos tuos misericordes oculos
ad nos converte.
Et lesum, benedictum fructum
ventris tui,
nobis, post how exsilium
ostende.
O clemens: O pia: O dulcis
Virgo Maria.

Tradition and community life

Christopher M. Reilly writes on healthy community life:

Senator Josh Hawley is right when he says that America needs to renew its attention to “the middle.” The quibbling of Democrats’ debates, and the historic dysfunction of Congress, show that most of our governing class is simply ignoring the demands that half of the country expressed by electing President Trump. We have had more than our fill of postmodern chaos and excuses from a governing class that is fleeing from responsibility for average citizens. All generations, not least the hounded Millennials and the forgotten elderly, have heard too much about an “epidemic of loneliness” and “death by despair,” and not enough about reasons to hope. …

While rebuilding a community requires reorganizing power, there is much more to it. It is not enough simply to urge people to rejoin their church or a baseball league. As Robert Putnam and his colleagues demonstrated in Making Democracy Work, communities are built around shared traditions and norms―the “social capital” of the people. A local community has a character that distinguishes its people and place, one that gives the community an identity that its residents can relate to, negotiate with, and absorb into their own personalities. The social capital of a community is not merely an asset for its current residents: it also affects the welfare of future generations and the community’s attractiveness to newcomers. Public policy must therefore take it into account.

There is always the danger that emphasizing social capital and tradition can quickly lead a community to oppress or unjustly exclude some people. The entire political tradition of the Enlightenment can be seen as a resistance to unthinking, oppressive traditions that were thought to underlie the Leviathan states that existed before and during early modernity. But the American communities that we are considering are much smaller in geography and population than the nation-state, and therefore the dynamics of interaction are different; as a shared language for face-to-face social engagement and events, knowledge of tradition can be essential to individuals’ free participation in dialogue within their community.

Moreover, not all appeals to tradition are sincere. Niccolò Machiavelli urged leaders to pay lip service to traditional themes in their public statements in order to give their progressive policies a more appealing ideological mask. We see the same deception at work today as the dual forces of elite centrism and relativism use the language of family, peace, and religious sincerity as a convenient decoy while they in fact promote a culture of impulsive consumerism. By contrast, the tradition and common sense of America’s small communities authentically uphold faith and family as ballasts against the chaos of postmodernity.

Because of the importance of passing on tradition, a flourishing community requires active communication among citizens. The members of the community must engage, debate, and cooperate in the social and political processes that govern the community’s operations. But that cooperation can happen only if each citizen identifies so closely with his extended neighborhood that that identity expresses itself spontaneously in his action. In other words, true citizenship is a process of dialogue between the individual and the whole, and such citizenship is at the core of what defines any community. As Rudolf Steiner declared: “A healthy social life is found only when, in the mirror of each soul, the whole community finds its reflection, and when, in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.”

That being said, we should add that one kind of community, the two-parent family, is founded on natural bonds that go deeper than the members’ self-identification with the group. Families are the bedrock of well-being for their individual members, both children and adults. They give their members financial security, healthy emotional growth, and the life experience that imparts spiritual and practical wisdom. For children in particular, living a happy family life teaches them that the larger world—of which their family is an image—is good, a lesson that children carry all through their lives. Moreover, families act in the larger social dialogue in ways that individuals do not, through inter-couple relationships, collective parenting networks, and intergenerational support. Flourishing communities are as much defined by the engagement of families as of individuals.

All of this ties in with Philip Halfacre’s vision of genuine friendship.

Dumbarton Oaks Garden

I visited Dumbarton Oaks Garden today for the first time, alongside a friend whose idea it was to go. It’s in Georgetown, and only a few blocks from home, but it feels like you’re in the country:

In 1920, after a long and careful search, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss found their ideal country house and garden within Washington, DC. They purchased a fifty-three-acre property, described as an old-fashioned house standing in rather neglected grounds, at the highest point of Georgetown. Within a year, the Blisses hired landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand to design the garden. Working in happy and close collaboration for almost thirty years, Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand planned every garden detail, each terrace, bench, urn, and border. The upper sixteen acres were transferred to Harvard University in 1940 to establish a research institute for Byzantine studies, Pre-Columbian studies, and studies in the history of gardens and landscape architecture.

A thousand ages like an evening gone

At Epiphany in Georgetown for Mass this morning, O God, Our Help in Ages Past was sung. I don’t remember hearing it before:

Our God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home:

Under the shadow of your throne
your saints have dwelt secure;
sufficient is your arm alone,
and our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received her frame,
from everlasting you are God,
to endless years the same.

A thousand ages in your sight
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
with all their lives and cares,
are carried downward by your flood,
and lost in foll’wing years.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the op’ning day.

Our God, our help in ages past
our hope for years to come:
O be our guard while troubles last,
and our eternal home.