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August 05, 2008

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Joyless Moralist

"The town where Joyless Moralist grew up was the exception that proves the rule: located next to a spectacular mountain range which, however, jutted up directly out of plains that were a suitable city site, it could provide access to natural beauties without investing a lot in landscaping and development. But I suspect that as a rule, big-city dwellers are more able to roam green forests and walk beside cool waters than suburban-dwellers are."

Well, if it was the exception, I think there are quite a lot of exceptions, probably because there are quite a lot of places in America that have some surrounding natural beauty to tap. Largish cities do sometimes try to set aside some land for natural-type parks, though I think more often you see mown, landscaped parks (good for playing baseball in, less fun for hiking.) But my two most recent residences (that is, my current one and the one before) have both been in suburbs connected to semi-significant urban areas, and both have had a lot more access to nature than I could have gotten in the city center. Before those two, I lived in a smallish, mostly suburban city with fantastic nature access. And obviously growing up we had a lot too. Again, all of these regions had some surrounding natural beauty, making it relatively easy to reserve some land for parks and put in some trails -- extensive landscaping wasn't necessary. But the happy thing is, we have a big and beautiful country, so there *are* lots of places like that.

I *have* experienced the frustration of being trapped in suburbs where no one seems to have bothered to put in any walking trails or even sidewalks. As someone who loves walking for pleasure, that's very depressing. But I just see it as another criterion for my smallish-community list of attractions. Build sidewalks. When there's natural beauty around, put in some trails to take advantage of it!

Incidentally, suburbs are also pretty good for the kind of little natural details that there tends not to be room for in the middle of the city. Flower gardens. Large trees lining the street. I get lots of pleasure from things like that.

Nato

Consider an alternative mode, in which we are left still with our web of metropolitan areas, but instead of suburbs stretching as far as the eye can see like in the LA metropolitan area, there's a number of small, dense clusters of towers. Not necessarily so high as Tom's example, but here I think of something heterogeneous approximating S.F north of 16th or Manhattan south of 42nd. Places like Clarkesville, TN would, instead of stretching out ~8km in every direction, obliterating the riverside forests and fading into uninteresting expanses of farmland interspersed with tracts of low-quality housing located miles from anywhere, no one would be more than about two and a half km from the edge of town.

Further, Tom's idea could easily be change to something like Hong Kong, where a strip of dense development ends suddenly against a hillside forest, so that none of the millions of people is very far from the forest, and mass transit is astonishingly efficient and easy.

There's lots of ways to get most of the supposed benefits of suburbia while simultaneously getting the benefits of density.

Nathan Smith

I agree with JM about big trees lining the street being a really nice feature. Fairfax has those, which I appreciate... On balance I'd probably prefer the row houses and five minutes' walk to Rock Creek Park, but both are all right. I think small towns located near places of natural beauty are rarer than JM thinks. But possibly the large, beautiful urban parks are rarer than I think.

Hong Kong is a great city! I was amazed at the way you can go straight from the high-density skyscrapers to the mountain draped in thick forests and with a gorgeous view of the bay! All in all I think as far as natural beauty/greenery goes, city/suburbs is pretty much a wash... or rather, it varies a lot among cities and among suburbs, but it's not clear there's a big advantage for either cities or suburbs *in general.* The same goes for rural areas: you may have some kind of "nature" nearby, but not necessarily if it's all farmland, or it might be private land and inaccessible. Natural scenery varies a lot in beauty, of course, but also, it typically takes a little bit of development, such as hiking trails and picnic sites and campgrounds, to make it good for recreation. In general, I think the basic public land management problems that need to be solved in order to provide the citizenry with access to the beauty and peace of nature and greenery are not that hard to solve, but unlike with private property/market goods, no one has an incentive to solve them, so whether they get solved or not is sort of erratic. There are a lot of success stories but there are also a lot of traps where people get stuck without access to any nice natural or park space.

Tom

There are two ways to appreciate and care about nature (and perhaps most other things too): for its own sake, and for your sake. If you care about nature for its own sake, then you should be against suburban living. If you care about nature for your sake, then you should be against urban living. Personally, I'm one of the people that cares about nature for its own sake more than for my sake. Of course I love to be in nature from time to time, just like most people. But if everyone tried to be in nature all the time, nature would quickly devolve into something much less enjoyable for all. It's sort of a catch-22. Mine and others' love of sushi poses a similar problem: loving and buying lots of sushi leads to over-fishing of the sushi-type fishes, diminishing that which we love. For that reason I no longer eat sushi fish; I care more about the fish for their sake than for mine. Ideally what we want is a way to sustain the things we love, to counteract the ways in which we diminish them. Suburban sprawl does not lend itself to sustaining nature or counteracting our diminishing of nature. In the case of farmed foods, we've used a high-density, high-efficiency approach to sustainability. Perhaps there's a lesson in that.

Nato

By "using" nature, we often destroy it, for sure, but neither are all uses equivalent. For many uses of the term "nature," Golden Gate Park absolutely suffices for the millions who use it annually. On the other hand, it's not good for camping, or having camp fires, or for hunting, or enjoying pristine vistas, or... but I think these are much more occasional desires for most people. The kinds of natural 'goods' for which suburban proximity to undeveloped lands provides are, so far as I can tell, much the same as provided by large urban parklands. I don't think urban living would significantly reduce public access to camping-type natural goods, since we already have to travel some distance to reach them - much farther than we used to, in fact, at least partially because forest lands have been supplanted by subdivisions and/or farms that were themselves supplanted by subdivisions. If our worry is the problem of diminishing common natural goods through too much camping/sightseeing, then urbanization might ameliorate it somewhat by increasing the total stock of natural goods, but not by reducing consumption.

Nato

Of course, I do not value forests and fish for their own sake, if "for their own sake" means some intrinsic value independent of *evaluators*. I value forests I/we don't "use" and fish I/we don't eat for a variety of reasons, but all of those reasons do eventually trace back to something that is a good I have human reasons for valuing (my progeny's use, or as a reserve in case of X or as a potential scientific resource, or...).

Joyless Moralist

I value nature for more than just its instrumental value to human beings. It has moral value in its own right. But I don't think the best way of valuing it is by ceasing to enjoy it *as* human beings -- that would be making a mistake, seeing ourselves as something outside of nature when in fact we are also a part of it.

As an analogy, consider a great work of art -- say, Giotto's paintings of St. Francis on the walls of the Basilica San Francesco. I think those have a value apart from the pleasure human beings take in looking at them. Suppose for some reason that the human race were about to die off, or have to evacuate to another planet, and there was basically no chance that human eyes would ever behold Giotto's works again. Someone might say, "hey, well we won't be needing these anymore, so we might as well play paintball in the basilica for these last few days -- what a thrill, playing paintball with Giotto for a background!" If it were some ordinary house or school or something basically *functional* like that, I'd say fine, whatever makes you happy. What difference does it make? But with something beautiful like that, I'd say no. Giotto's work is a thing of great beauty, and it is not fitting to destroy such a thing unless the need is truly dire. Similarly with nature: the man who, upon witnessing the demise of the human race, would want to take the whole natural world with him, would in my view be an evil person indeed.

It's quite another thing, though, to want to perfectly preserve these valuable things *at the expense of * human good. Giotto's paintings may (in my view at least) have a value independent of the pleasure they give to others, but that doesn't mean we should lock up the basilica and darken all the windows just to keep the paintings in pristine condition. They *were* made to be viewed and enjoyed, and we should enjoy them, though hopefully in such a way as to keep them beautiful for as long as possible. In the case of nature, we are its apex, and it is only good and proper for us to continue to enjoy it, as well as using it sometimes for our own welfare. Deliberately locking ourselves away in order to preserve the pristine wilderness would be, it seems to me, perpetuating a confusion, that we and the natural world are things totally alien from one another, such that we could screen ourselves off from nature without dehumanizing society, and on the other hand, that nature is somehow more itself if humans have no part with it. It's part of the glory of nature to enhance the lives of human beings, and part of the good of humanity to value nature properly.

Joyless Moralist

Concerning Nato's suggestion of the Hong Kong-like city: I might be reasonably happy with that at some stages of life. It might be all right for me at the moment (though honestly, I've never enjoyed apartment-dwelling very much, but maybe I'd willingly make the sacrifice if the benefits were large enough) and if I never have children, maybe I could be happy under such conditions for my whole life. But again, I think it's at the young-children phase of life that such conditions are somewhat unpleasant. Nathan's suggestion -- that a home should be just a stopping-place since most of life is spent in more interesting places -- doesn't work so well for parents with young children, particularly multiple young children, and it's in that more home-bound stage that it's particularly nice for people to have their own little bit of nature just outside the back door. And again, that's the stage when people become especially keen to buy a home.

Tom

Looking at Giotto's painting does not diminish the painting; building suburbs does diminish nature, significantly. I'm not advocating that people not go into nature (and by "nature" we mean something not significantly modified by man. Of course it's true that man is also natural in a tautological sense, but in this discussion we're specifically contrasting that which is heavily influenced/modified by man and that which is not; otherwise you would consider a big city to be just as natural as a forest, and it's clear that you are arguing with the contrary in mind). I'm merely advocating against that which is unnecessarily destructive to nature. If we were like Tolkien's Elves, then suburban tree dwellings would be fine and dandy. But we're not. We slice up the land into grids outlined by asphalt and concrete, with dogs, cats, and cars performing sentry, imperiling the natural wildlife and keeping them from resources that would allow them to flourish. We destroy native plant species in order to raise Kentucky blue grass in an inappropriate climate simply because lawns should be a certain color green, a certain thickness, and a certain height. We level rolling hills and put track homes on top. We drain wetlands and swamps, and build golf courses in their place. Our super highways, vital to suburban living, dominate the landscape and consume vast swathes of natural habitat. I don't see how you could possibly equate this to viewing a painting.

Joyless Moralist

Okay, well, maybe I'm not clear on what you were proposing; I was under the impression that you were offering this as a plug for your mega-city idea. Keep people in one very densely populated place; keep nature free of people. If it's just a question of balancing, then the questions become more subtle and complicated.

Giotto's paintings are not harmed by my looking at them per se, but they are in the long term harmed by light falling on them, air moving around them, etc etc -- in other words, they are harmed by being kept under conditions where people can look at them. If we sealed off the church and kept it perfectly dark and still, they'd last a very long time. As things are, not so long. Still, it's better this way. Beautiful art should be enjoyed, if possible.

Defining nature is admittedly tricky. Sometimes we define it in opposition to "supernatural" (which, if you don't believe in the supernatural, would encompass everything that is) and sometimes we define it in contrast to "human or man-made." I, subscribing as I do to a teleological view of the universe in general, would attach a deeper significance to it, which maybe falls somewhere between these two meanings.

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