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Walkable Cities and the Good Life

June 8, 2016


Years ago, an elderly man would walk the busy streets of our Chicago suburb. He was an immigrant. The rumor of the neighborhood was that he was from Eastern Europe, and he and his wife lived with their son and his family. He wore traditional black dress, and I never saw him without his black tweed flat cap. With hands clasped behind his back, he would walk every day throughout the suburb unconcerned about the cars whipping by him. Sometimes I would come upon him miles from home. I often saw that he collected dandelions. Later I discovered he did this to make dandelion wine. Despite the difficulties and dangers of maintaining his rustic lifestyle in the American suburb, he continued his routine.

I was always nervous for him as I watched cars speed by. It was as if they were oblivious to him. But despite the chance of becoming road kill, this man continued his dangerous walks. The roads he walked were the only ones that would bring him out of the confines of the subdivision. Beyond the purpose of collecting dandelions, walking outside the subdivision was an expression of a more fundamental desire to somehow participate in the variegated social life that is encountered in a simple walk through a town. As Aristotle thought, we are social animals. As such, we need to live in spaces that allow us to encounter and see other people. Getting out of the house and walking a public square is conducive to the good life. But most of our current suburbs are built upon different assumptions. They are built around the assumption that everyone will use a car, and our environments are constructed accordingly. This entails that non-drivers are dependent on those who can drive, thus making it difficult for them to socially flourish.

Walkable towns are conducive to the good life for they inevitably place us in community. Suburban sprawl, while providing certain pragmatic goods, is not conducive to achieving this. Communities are often forced into existence instead of developing naturally. This strain may be felt due to an underlying cultural ideology that presupposes the individual as an autonomous self ontologically prior to communal relations. A good illustration of this ideology is the suburb: a random collectivity of atomized households from which individuals venture out for consumptive purposes. With traditional communities and parish life becoming less prevalent, there is no organizing principle to life other than that which will seemingly benefit the economy, satisfy individual desires, and secure autonomy. In its basic structure, the suburb comprises subdivisions—designated for the private life (home)—strip malls lining wide streets, unimpressive civic buildings lacking majestic facades, and beige houses of worship on the outskirts of town. None of these sections are within walkable distances from each other. Getting from one to the other requires a car or other means of transportation. More to it, each are partitioned off from the others. Typically there is no public square or structural centerpiece around which the town is ordered. No one can enjoy a stroll through a variegated environment in which one can see others enjoying themselves. Instead, people are forced to either walk through their neighborhoods, which are boring enough, or drive to a location that is walkable and provides a square-like feel to its atmosphere. 

In Till We Have Built Jerusalem, Philip Bess, Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture at Notre Dame, argues against suburban sprawl and the ideology motivating its construction. Citing Aristotle and other thinkers within the Aristotelian-Thomist intellectual tradition, he attempts to demonstrate that living in “walkable and mixed-use human environments,” in which dependency on a car is not a given, is required by the natural law. While it may best suit the living conditions people currently want, Dr. Bess stresses that it is not the ideal for which we should be striving. He does not wish to enforce a change of living environment, but he encourages us to look to the natural law and the ancient ideal of the polis as guides for how we can best build our city, and hence our lives.

When I was in college I loved to walk around campus everyday. I was not dependent upon a car to take care of life’s necessities. I enjoyed seeing familiar faces and saying hello. But what made this a good environment was that its landscape was stamped with buildings in a hierarchical harmony in which the most important cultural structure—in this case, the church—was prominently featured, and around this the lesser structures were fittingly ordered. I carried this sensibility with me when I studied abroad in Europe. Most European towns were beautiful, primarily because there was a clear sense of harmony and order in their landscape and architecture. Most towns were walkable and mixed-use human environments. People were not car-dependent. The residents walked the town daily. At the center of most towns were beautiful churches and/or civic buildings with squares to which the main roads led. Beauty was not of secondary concern. Clearly, it played a prominent role in the development of the town. But this harmony was not simply for the sake of being “pretty.” Instead, it acted as a sacramental sign of a transcendent end from which peace and order would be bestowed on the town. Walking through each town was enjoyable because its vision of the good life—with rampant secularization in Europe it is better to say “its former vision”—was displayed in spatial dimensions. Moving through these spaces affected me spiritually.

Upon returning home from Europe for the summer, I asked my mom if she still sees the elderly Eastern European man walking throughout the suburb. She told me that he recently was hit by a car and died. This sad incident has stayed with me and I kept thinking about it as I read Dr. Bess’ book. With Dr. Bess, I believe the formation of walkable, mix-use towns is important to living the good life. 

Robert Mixa is a graduate student at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and a Word on Fire blog contributor.