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The Good City

by Mark Peres

August 6,2007

We have long sought to live in the good city. For most of Western history, we took our cues of what defined the good from classical and Judeo-Christian notions. The Greeks believed that the good life is the life of moral and intellectual excellence, and therefore the good city is one that makes the good life possible – offering art, culture and life of mind and body. The Romans believed that a city’s goodness is reflected in its beauty, grandeur and physical function and expression. The citizens of Jerusalem believed that the true measure of a city’s goodness is how well it takes care of its weakest members – or its compassion and ministry to the least among us. As Philip Bess, professor of architecture at Andrews University, noted in an article entitled “The City and the Good Life,” although these traditional notions are still with this, the industrial age reframed common wisdom: a good city is measured today by an economic standard – its ability to create and distribute material goods and services, and to create surplus wealth for leisure and culture.

Bess went on to note that most people who concern themselves with cities today think about the formal order of the city – its patterns, grids and presentations – and the relationship of that formal order to economic power. He argues that our pre-industrial notions of the good city – what he calls a city’s moral order – is no less significant. The marks of this order are the existence and health of institutions that shape and guide behavior and promote the common good – the elements of life in community.

The notion that community is a product of institutions found earlier expression in the work of Lawrence Haworth, now distinguished professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Waterloo. In 1963, he published a philosophy of the city called The Good City. Haworth asserts that a good city has two essential ingredients: opportunity and community. Unfortunately, the design and function of modern cities favor opportunity at the expense of community. Haworth notes that modern cities are designed to take advantage of specialization, the key to industrial success. Haworth states:


 "Because urban life is specialized, it is diverse; the person confronts an unprecedented wealth of opportunities to act, to express himself, to develop his potentialities. What specialization removes from life is community. By promoting a plurality of individual worlds, specialization dissolves the continuity of persons, their sense of living a common life and having common concerns. The problem is that of restoring community to the city in such a way that the distinctive contribution of city life, the wealth of opportunity it offers, is not lost."

Haworth concludes that the way to restore community in opportunity-rich American cities is by attending to the city's institutions. According to Haworth, "If the quality of life and mind in the city leave something to be desired – if men are submerged, if there is excessive conformity and a failure of sensitivity and feeling, if each is preoccupied with personal gain and personal comfort, if there is an absence of communication and community – then it is to the institutional structure that we must look for a solution."

As Robert Bellah, professor of sociology emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, noted in an article entitled “Strong Institutions, Good City,” an “institution” is defined sociologically as “a pattern of expected action.” Bellah writes:

"Our response to an outstretched hand – a handshake, for example – is an institution. Hospitals, churches, police departments, the flow of automobile traffic, businesses and taxation are also institutions. All these enterprises are expected to act in certain ways. Institutions, in short, are those structures that make life possible, especially in a crowded, busy urban area….Institutions ground the multitude of opportunities in a city, providing a structure that enables the inhabitant to live a meaningful life in community."

In this light, our institutions – our patterns of behavior that we expect from each other – have a moral dimension. Our sense of community results from whether and how these expectations are fulfilled. One challenge of leadership then is attend to how shared values are actualized in everyday interaction. In so doing, we build the good city by attending to both its formal and moral framework.

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