Catholic University scenes

It’s been a beautiful week at Catholic University of America for the Civitas Dei fellowship, which has been taking place in Maloney Hall—the home of the Tim & Steph Busch School of Business. I haven’t been able to attend every session, but those I’ve been present for have helped me think more deeply and more seriously about the commitments we’re making (or not making) to advance the common good in our society.

What I haven’t captured here is the torrential rain that kicked off the week on Monday morning, that caused flash flooding across the city. But even when it has rained, it’s been that warm-ish summer rain that leaves you wet, but not miserable.

Civitas Dei

We spent Independence Day weekend in Virginia in Front Royal and Manassas, and I’m back in Washington tonight at Catholic University and the Dominican House of Studies. I’ll be a part of the Civitas Dei Summer Fellowship this week:

The Civitas Dei Summer Fellowship (sponsored by the Thomistic Institute and the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America) supports rising scholars seeking to better understand the Catholic intellectual tradition. This summer’s program will examine the search for happiness as a fundamental end of the person and the polis. Applications will be accepted from graduate students and advanced undergraduates in all disciplines.

The week-long seminar will introduce students to foundational themes in philosophy, political theory, and theology, dealing with law, personhood, political life, and the search for happiness. The focus will be an introduction to foundations of political and moral theory of Augustine, Aquinas, and modern constitutional jurisprudence. The program will include visits to institutions in Washington, DC, as well as encounters with outstanding Catholic public figures. The seminar is an excellent way to think theoretically about the intersection of political theory, moral principles, and practical engagement, in the heart of the nation’s capital.

Adrian Vermeule
Ralph S. Tyler, Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law
Harvard Law School

Adrian Vermeule is the Ralph S. Tyler, Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law. Before coming to the Law School, he was the Bernard D. Meltzer Professor of Law at the University of Chicago. The author or co-author of nine books, most recently Law’s Abnegation: From Law’s Empire to the Administrative State (2016), The Constitution of Risk (2014) and The System of the Constitution (2012). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012. His research focuses on administrative law, the administrative state, the design of institutions, and constitutional theory. Having grown up in Cambridge and attended Harvard College ’90 and Harvard Law School ’93, Vermeule lives in Cambridge still.

Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P.
Professor of Moral Theology, Dominican House of Studies
Prior of the Dominican House of Studies

Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P., is the prior of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, where he also teaches moral theology. He obtained his doctorate from the university of Fribourg (Switzerland), defending a dissertation on St. Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of the common good. Fr. Guilbeau has also worked for various Catholic media, including The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM Radio, EWTN Radio, and Aleteia.org.

Chad C. Pecknold, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, The Catholic University of America
Faculty Fellow of The Institute for Human Ecology

Chad C. Pecknold is an associate professor of systematic theology. He teaches in the areas of fundamental theology, Christian anthropology, and political theology, with a particular interest in Saint Augustine’s City of God. As a commentator on the Church and contemporary politics, Dr. Pecknold has appeared on a wide variety of other news programs from NPR and PBS, to FOX, CNBC, Voice of America, and the BBC. c policy to natural science, technology, and the environment.

Independence National Park in 2026

David Murrell writes on Independence National Park, worth reading this Independence Day weekend:

The City of Philadelphia, which technically owns Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell (more on that later) and profits immensely from the park’s tourism, is guilty of neglect, too. Over the past decade, it’s given a total of $76,000 to the park — less than the annual salary of a single police officer.

But perhaps most damning of all is the widespread apathy toward the park, which seems to be shared by just about every Philadelphian. Is there something missing in our genetic code? People in Boston and Washington, D.C., have a certain historical pride baked into their DNA — even though neither of those cities has the place where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the building where the Constitution was debated, or Alexander Hamilton’s central bank. We care more about sports, food and Rocky than our historical significance. Perhaps a Freudian psychologist would trace this apathy back to when our young city lost its status as America’s capital in 1800.

In 2026, the United States will turn 250. It seems self-evident that the entire country’s attention will shift to Philadelphia, as it has for every significant anniversary in American history: the Centennial in 1876, the Bicentennial in 1976. Will our city’s crown jewel be polished in time?

When you take a tour of Independence Hall, you’re meant to absorb the following bit of American gospel above all else: that the United States is a grand experiment, its brand of federalism a shining beacon for all other governments to follow. What they don’t tell you on the tour: The federalism celebrated in American lore is also the precise reason why Independence Park is foundering. …

“Philadelphia has, literally, the best stuff in the nation,” she says. “I just can’t imagine that everyone shouldn’t be sending all their dollars to fix it and make it even better.”

It could happen. The world got a glimpse of widespread civic-mindedness in April, when the Nôtre Dame cathedral burned in Paris. Residents streamed into the streets as flames burst from the spire. One onlooker told the New York Times in a moment of despair, when the building’s fate still hung in the balance, “Paris is beheaded.”

Parisians arguably have every excuse to be more apathetic about their history than Philadelphians are, considering France’s wealth of historical sites. Yet $1 billion was raised for Nôtre Dame in the two days after it burned. To the French, the cathedral wasn’t merely another famous building — it was the soul of Paris, the lifeblood of the city. Would people be similarly devastated if Independence Hall caught fire?

We tend to think of historical buildings as just that: old, fixed in time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their pasts may already have been written, but they straddle past and present in equal measure. Each dollar Walker solicits for the First Bank or Independence Hall becomes part of those buildings’ legacy; each tour MacLeod leads widens their story. And we seem to have forgotten that ours is an active inheritance — it must be maintained. There are few consistent lessons across history, but this one is most apt: Just because something is here today doesn’t mean it will be here tomorrow.

New York over 29 years

A few years ago, I saw someone share photos of a few Chinese cities that have been developed out of (more or less) empty landscapes over the space of a decade or so. Here’s an older version of that before/after perspective on New York from The Sun, showing the city’s skyline from 1880-1909:

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Now look at this as a metaphor for your life. What can you build over the next 29 years, and how can you change over the next 29 years?

Knight ‘Public Spaces Fellows’

Knight Foundation has established “Public Spaces Fellows:”

Launched in February, the program recognizes leaders, experts, and practitioners who are dedicated to developing public spaces that create or strengthen civic engagement. Selected from more than two thousand candidates, the seven fellows will receive $150,000 each in flexible funding as well as opportunities to learn from one another, share lessons, and raise their work up to a broader audience.

The 2019 class of fellows includes Anuj Gupta (Philadelphia), who as general manager of Reading Terminal Market has spearheaded engagement initiatives designed to bring people of different backgrounds together around food; Eric Klinenberg (New York), who recently served as research director of Rebuild by Design, a federal competition aimed at generating innovative designs in a region affected by Hurricane Sandy; Erin Salazar (San Jose), founder and executive director of Exhibition District, a women-led arts nonprofit that works to create economic opportunities for artists at the intersection of public art and community; Chelina Odbert (Los Angeles), co-founder and executive director of Kounkuey Design Initiative, a nonprofit design firm that advocates for community participation in public space development; Kathryn Ott Lovell (Philadelphia), commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and an advocate for “citizen-centric” service; Walter Hood (Oakland, California), creative director and founder of Hood Design, which practices at the intersection of art, design, landscape, research, and urbanism; and High Line co-founder Robert Hammond (New York), who had the foresight twenty years ago to reimagine what an abandoned elevated railbed on the west side of Manhattan could become.

New York’s High Line is the obvious standout in terms of the project with the clearest public impact, but each of these fellows provides a model for how people might respond ambitiously and with a conserving spirit to build upon the best part of the existing built environment of their community and potentially transform it in the process.

Leonine concludes

Since October, I’ve been attending monthly sessions of the Leonine Forum at the Catholic Information Center on K Street, along with about 45 other Washington fellows:

During a year-long program of intellectual and spiritual seriousness, the Leonine Forum educates these men and women in the core tenets of the Social Teaching of the Church and its practical application, and invites them into a larger community of Leonine Alumni and leaders committed To integrating those teachings within their professional and civic lives.

Intellectual Formation

In monthly sessions led by Catholic thought leaders from around the country, Leonine Fellows grapple with some of the most important questions at the intersection of faith and public life.

Spiritual Development

Living a fully-integrated Catholic life is an activity not only of the mind, but also of the body and spirit. Accordingly, Leonine Fellows will have the chance to supplement these intellectual endeavors with opportunities for Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, confession, and spiritual direction.

Cultural Engagement

Leonine Fellows have opportunities to engage with the broader culture as informed and articulate advocates through civic engagement, service work, and employment and networking opportunities.

Community Service

Understanding that we are called to love our brothers and sisters, Leonine Fellows and Alumni have the opportunity to participate in service work as a group on a regular basis.

Last night I attended the tenth and final session for our cohort at The Yard in Eastern Market. Leonine has been a great experience, with speakers ranging from Arthur Brooks and George Weigel to Mary Hasson, Fr. Dominic Legge, Carter Snead, Ryan Anderson, Stephen P. White, Chad Pecknold, Fr. Paul Scalia, and others.

I think applications are open for most, if not all, of next year’s cohorts.

Artena, a human-centered place

Marlo Safi writes on Artena, a small town in Italy about 25 miles from Rome:

The beauty of Artena is in its organic simplicity, and its rebellion against the capricious whims of technology that have influenced city planning and development everywhere else. Its streets are narrow, walkable, and not perfectly paved with cement or painted with traffic signs. And, similarly to Rome, it’s inspiring.

Artena is “human-centered,” Stefano Serafini says. Serafini is a director of the International Society of Biourbanism, a group headquartered in Artena that focuses on our urban environments as an organism, and, through research, aims to realize optimal environmental enhancements for cities based on human needs. What that looks like in practice is at the heart of the Biourbanism Summer School, a week-long event I will attend and report on next month. I won’t be the only foreigner in attendance — the school is attracting a diverse group of writers, architects, artists, politicians, economists, and citizens from across the world. Serafini describes the variety of attendees each year as a “unique and different symphony.” …

While communication at the school will primarily be in Italian and English, perhaps the most important language is the unspoken one of the built environment — the one Artena will use to speak with attendees. This theme of language is central to the school, and more generally, architecture, Serafini insists. Post-modernity, with its severe geometry, unnatural dimensions, and alienating scale has stripped us of local vernacular and rootedness…

I expect this summer school to be one that reminds me, as someone who has grown resigned to American cities designed with seemingly little thought to the human desire for identity and attachment, that solutions exist. They exist in places such as Artena, rebuilt in the 15th century, which rebels against the hegemony of the car and its demands on our cities, encouraging those who walk through the streets to unburden themselves of the modern world’s baggage.

“The school wants to open our eyes on what really matters,” Serafini says. “Which in architecture means knowing what is right and what is wrong when designing a place for ourselves, our human fellows, and other creatures, and the common environment.”

The International Society of Biourbanism, and its Biourbanism Summer School, seem like cousins of what Strong Towns is doing domestically.

A place needs to be lovable

Charles Marohn asks, “If we’re not going to maintain what we have, then why bother building anything new?”:

It was Steve Mouzon who first told me that a place needed to be lovable, that we only maintain that which we love. I never learned anything about “lovability” in my undergraduate course on concrete structures, and I know of no engineering manual that references it, yet I’ve found Steve’s insight to be an undeniable truth.

I love my house—and have deep respect for the resources that went into building it, as well as the amount of effort it will take to retire my mortgage—and so I maintain it. I don’t wait for concrete to fall apart before patching it. I don’t wait for the siding to rot before repainting it. I don’t wait for the roof to leak before maintaining it. …

Local governments suffer from a dual set of challenges when it comes to maintenance. The first is that most of what we’ve built is not lovable, at least not broadly lovable. The asphalt cul-de-sac has some functional appeal to the people who live on it, but the broader community is not going to demand it be maintained. The same with those DOT-specified streetlights the city purchased in bulk. The plastic park equipment may be sanitized and safe, but even it is unlikely to endear.

For the most part, the Growth Ponzi Scheme has put our cities on a path of quantity over quality. We build a lot of stuff, all of it to a finished state. That stuff then sits and rots—perhaps with some nominal maintenance from time to time—until it falls apart, at which point we put together a huge project to replace it with something new built to a finished state. …

What this means is that nearly all public investments—infrastructure, buildings, parks and other facilities—have a predictable life cycle. Initially they are shiny and new. Then they start to wear, fray, and show signs of decline. Then they start to fail to various degrees, finally followed by either a complete failure or a major reconstruction project (generally using debt financing).

Throughout this process, the public grows used to decline and decay—almost comes to accept it as normal—while the world around us becomes less and less lovable each day. This is, for example, how the richest cities in North America—New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—suffer with escalators on their transit systems out of service for years. These things are not difficult to fix when maintenance is prioritized, but when it’s not, just wait for the next large maintenance bond and fix it all at once. …

This enables the second challenge local governments face, that of low expectations. …

This is part of what I was trying to speak to when I asked, “Who’s responsible for a place like this?

New Columbia

Since moving to Washington, I’ve been loosely following the push to transform the District of Columbia into America’s 51st state.

I think it that making the District a state would be bad for both the District and the country, and that if the status quo is unacceptable, it would be simpler and better for the District to be absorbed back into Maryland, just as the District’s western fringe was absorbed back into Virginia.

David Schleicher wrote “Welcome to New Columbia: The Fiscal, Economic and Political Consequences of Statehood for D.C.” in 2014, and I saw it after Tyler Cowen recently shared it. It’s worth checking out if you’re following this topic:

This Essay sketches some of the long-term economic and political consequences of making Washington D.C. the 51st State. The statehood debate has overwhelmingly focused on the same set of issues: the impact of statehood on the federal government’s structure. But if D.C. becomes a state, the most impactful change in its citizens’ lives would not be their new ability to elect members of Congress; it would be the dramatic shift in economics and politics that would come with the transition to having a state rather than city government. On the day “New Columbia” enters the Union, it would bear a constellation of features unprecedented in the nation: the only state wholly part of one metropolitan region, the only state without local governments, and the only wholly urban state. These features have deep implications for the advisability of statehood when compared to the alternatives of retrocession or the stateless status quo and also furnish a blueprint for steps to mitigate the risks and exploit the benefits that statehood would offer. Part I of the Essay will discuss the special fiscal and economic conditions that New Columbia would face. On one hand, statehood would better allow D.C. to take advantage of periods of economic success. In particular, a state of New Columbia would likely be free of the restrictive confines of the Height of Buildings Act, allowing for greater growth when demand for living in D.C. is high. Moreover, the District would likely also gain greater taxing power (although it would lose some forms of generous federal funding). Yet such benefits come at a price: as a single-city state, New Columbia would face drastic risks in times of downturn. The fact that New Columbia would be entirely in one economic region, and the fact that it would exclusively be the center city of that region, would mean almost necessarily that the state would face substantial financial risks in the case of regional and urban-form related shocks. This pro-cyclical effect makes the case for retrocession stronger, and also suggests reforms like a mandatory rainy day fund if statehood is achieved. Part II discusses the implications of New Columbia’s unique internal politics. As noted, New Columbia would be the only state without local governments. The absence of separate spheres for local and state elections would have at least two major implications for New Columbia’s politics and policy. First, as a state composed of an overwhelmingly single-party city, New Columbia’s elections would likely be decidedly uncompetitive. Even in the status quo, this absence of party-level electoral competition is a likely cause of many of the pathologies in D.C. politics, from excessive restrictions on growth to its persistent problems with corruption. To ensure the state of New Columbia does not share these defects, any move towards statehood should include reforms aimed at introducing more political competition. Second, and more optimistically, the unprecedented marriage of a city and a state government offers a powerful change for innovation. Historically, the relatively circumscribed legal power of cities has prevented them from pursuing a number of effective policies because such powers are the exclusive province of states. Further, big cities are often losers in state political fights. In this context, New Columbia’s fusion of city and state would provide many opportunities for policy flexibility and discovery unavailable to most big cities.

Overcast on Dumbarton

I visited Epiphany for mass this morning on Dumbarton Street, and on the way home walked past this:

A green car on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown

Take a moment and put yourself in my shoes taking the photo—there’s without looking left or right, there’s no way to tell you’re not looking right into the past. This same scene could have existed nearly fifty years ago: same house, same fence, same car, same street, etc. And eventually, even when cars like this are converted to electric and homes are running off of clean geothermal or solar, the scene could still otherwise be the same, a little window for looking out into another time.