This post is inspired from exchanges with Robert Stark of Stark Truth Radio and is part of the lead-up to our next podcast.
A glimpse of the the disordered sprawl of a typical American city from the air, especially the Sunbelt and West of the Mississippi River, tells you everything you need to know about the culture. The cityscape itself is a Hobbesian nightmare and tragedy of the commons. A monstrosity that sprang up over-night like a weed.
Except in the very core downtowns, land management seems almost non-existent. Whoever buys land uses it however they want within the zoning rules and most architecture is rushed. It can be hard in a town like Phoenix or Vegas to decide what is more disagreeable, grey stucco boxes or the cookie cutter houses with the fake terra-cotta roof tiles.
Because individuals run rampant, it becomes impossible to do anything without cars. Even public transportation doesn’t work well when the distances are too great and even urban areas too diffuse for any coherent collective activity.
Every single house stands alone with its own lawn. At the same time all the houses are nearly identical. In a glimpse, we see the banality and horror of individualism without duty to others.
The price of everyone snatching their little plot is most have to live far away from where they want to go. Yet every day they climb into their cars, navigate the labyrinth of their neighborhood and then make their way to the same highway everyone else wants to use at the same time of day.
Of course, in America, few people will object much to living far away from the center because they know what the alternative is.
One direct problem of a civilization in denial is the overunning of urban areas by the underclasses.
The twin threats of skyrocketing property values from making control of land a free-for-all and underclass dysfunction in the city centers creates a perfect pressure cooker that keeps millions of workers stuck paying huge mortgages and car payments for the honor of driving 2 hours each way to work every day.
When we consider it takes 2 incomes to keep up this facade, it’s no wonder the fertility rate of cooperators has plummeted. They may even have decent money in the bank after all their toil, but they are worse off than homeless bums when it comes to the critical resources of time and energy.
Not only do these harried worker bees struggle to have time to settle down and have a family, they don’t have time to sustain friendships or participate in civic activities.
The setup of the zoned residential neighborhood ensures that they can spend the rest of their lives shuttling between house and job never coming into contact with strangers in a fun and positive way.
When nothing is close to the house but other houses, it creates a dis-incentive to go anywhere. Any activity outside of the house, even to get groceries carries an extra time penalty that eats up even more of what little is left.
Now that we’ve examined the problem before us, we can see the solution lies in creating pleasant space-efficient walkable areas to live.
In many city centers people live in apartment buildings where the bottom floor is all businesses. Within a block of someone’s flat, they can stop by the pharmacy for aspirin and by the bakery for a loaf of bread. They get a little bit of exercise, and come into constant contact with strangers who live near them. The same activities that are annoying chores in the suburbs can be part of a pleasant daily routine where residences are organized around human needs.
This village structure mimics natural habitats peoples have lived in for thousands of years. Urban sprawl as we know it, on the other hand has been around for barely 70 years and in that short time has contributed to the civilization-wide collapse of commonality and culture.
Clearly, the village structure where commerce and residences coexist in a walkable core should arise as the new unit of urban organization, even as we get further from city centers. That way, they aren’t as far and they are compact enough that public transport remains practical.
I was already very skeptical about American cities after seeing Argentina and Europe but what really demolished established ideas for me was the several months I lived in Ansan, South Korea as an English teacher.
The town was planned out as a suburb of Seoul during the rule of the dictator Park and didn’t even become a city until 1986.
This town that’s younger than me now has 700,000 people in a roughly 5×5 mile square. Even so, it didn’t feel crowded and there were parks and greenspace within easy walking distance of downtown. In 5 minutes, I could walk from my apartment on a busy street to fields of flowers and follow a path by a river where I’d frequently see large herons fishing for prey.
Just as it’s obvious the typical American city visually represents a cacaphony of individual wills colliding, it was clear from one look that Ansan was planned out and built as a single project.
In some areas nearly identical apartment buildings were built like a line of dominoes and had big numbers painted on them. This wasn’t appealing visually and felt alien but as I got to know the place I saw it was a superior system. I found multiple high rises were often organized around central courtyards that spontaneously became community common areas.
I’ve never forgotten walking through these squares and seeing little old ladies putting out red chile peppers out in the sun to dry on blankets. People were going going about their daily chores in public like they actually lived there. It was mundane details like this that made me realize how screwed up things were back in the USA where everyone is afraid to go outside and suffer the scrutiny of their neighbors.
Because thousands lived in high rises, there were always green areas nearby. In the other direction would be city streets with occasional small grocery stores and internet cafes. Every 5 or 6 blocks, there was a heavily commercial street with restaurants, bars, and shopping. Because of this, few residences were more than 10 minutes walk away from a wide variety of services.
The use of space on the commercial streets also intrigued me. In US cities, it’s usually just the street level that has businesses. In Korea, I saw four story buildings, each with businesses on every floor.
It blew my mind how half a strip mall worth of rented office space plus parking lots and bland landscaping was put in a single building instead and repeated down a whole city block. This compression made it so that one block could serve the needs of thousands of people living nearby without feeling congested.
This also made it so enough activity was concentrated in one place that it felt like an active community with plenty of things to do. This to me was in especially stark contrast to the lifeless and sterile American-style suburban sprawl. To top it off the Korean suburb’s size made it practical to connect to the big city. When I got off work on the weekends, it was a 40 minute train ride into Seoul.
My experiences in Korea, the US, and around the world showed me that more control, not less, is needed for a modern society to thrive. Nations like South Korea and Chile that greatly improved their fortunes both had dictators set up the framework their current democracies grew into and that is likely a common factor in their successes.
In the case of land, it is abundantly clear by now that it cannot be treated like another commodity. The amount of land never changes and its primary value for most people in modern life is strategic rather than economic especially when it comes to cities.
Barely a century ago, most people were still farmers and our ideas and laws about land still reflect that. What we need to consider is that very few people now make their living off the land itself. Land in modern life primarily determines where people can exist in relation to jobs, services, mates, family, friends.
Thus, the main objective of modern urban land management is to keep life near cities affordable for as many productive people as possible with high quality of living. It should be treated as a basic means of stimulating the economy and incentivizing people to bring forth the next generations of society’s cooperators.
While I’ve been influenced by living in a real-life example of a planned city, with a little imagination we could do it a lot better by enforcing high aesthetic standards, for instance making each high rise distinct, yet part of a unified theme for the whole town. I also recognize, that city centers have historically been “gene shredders” with net negative fertility. This state of affairs was more sustainable in an age where there was always a countryside brimming over with armies of new young people fresh off the farm. In our present reality most people now live close to urban areas. That’s where all the jobs are and that’s where the young women go.
In a modern civilization, the city has to become capable of sustaining and propagating human life for the first time in history. Where urban sprawl was a new invention that made ancient problems worse we must now figure out how to make urban life demographically sustainable.