The Family and Urban Design – Philip Bess
The basic proposition --paraphrased from Aristotle’s Politics-- is this: Human beings need families in order to live, but we need cities in order to live well. Each --Family and City-- is fundamental, and each is unique. To employ architectural metaphors: The Family is the foundation of human flourishing, The City its pinnacle; and in something like that order, because both in life and in building we start from the ground up. The Family begets, bears, and succors human life. The City exists to promote the best human life, which has substantive content: a life of moral and intellectual virtue lived in community with others. Both families and cities are singularly important examples of such communities, the former our first school of virtue, the latter a community of communities that requires an increasingly demanding extension and perfection of virtues learned initially in the Family. Moreover, the Family and the City exist in reciprocal relationship. Families better flourish in good cities; and a good city over time depends upon its ability to enable and sustain good families. It is true in a (comparatively) trivial sense that, from a sociological and positive law point of view, the Family (and its corollary, marriage) is a social construct. But it is true in a much deeper ontological and existential sense that society is a marital-and-Family construct.
Because we are embodied beings, our lives take place: better or worse lives, in better or worse places. Urban design entails proposals for the physical form of human places at the scale of Hamlets, Villages, Towns, and City Neighborhoods; and urban planning is systematic thinking about water, energy, transportation, and land use policies as these facilitate good human settlements. Physically, good urbanism entails networks of blocks, streets, and squares characterized by a hierarchy of spaces and buildings, and a mix of uses within pedestrian proximity -- characteristics of historic urban settlements large and small, from big cities to rural villages. These more-to-less dense traditional settlement patterns are physical manifestations of good stewardship --- practical, beautiful, and socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable; and in each of these ways contrast with post-1950 automobile sprawl patterns of development.
What is the relationship between good and bad urban design and good and bad families? Whatever it is, it is not that present-day town-and-city dwellers are thereby morally superior to suburbanites. Nevertheless, many of us harbor an intuition that there is some relationship between good places and good families, between good urban design and good character; though the precise relationship is not quantitative, and often eludes us. Modernist architects implied a kind of environmental determinism: that good architecture and urbanism will make people good, and bad architecture and urbanism will make people bad. (Present-day neo-traditional architects and New Urbanists sometimes seem to make the same argument.) But this is completely wrong; and the language of determinism in considering families and cities is false. Perhaps a better way to understand the effects of good and bad design is suggested by the subtle realism of the old Catholic moral admonition that we should consciously seek to avoid “proximate occasions of sin” – because this instantly raises the possibility of “proximate occasions of grace.” So here I suggest that good urban design can be a proximate occasion of grace for families, primarily through the classical architectural virtues of durability, convenience, and above all beauty (and the latter’s sacramental and epiphanic implications). Good urban design is important for families not because good or bad urban design can cause families to be good or bad; rather that good urban design can help families be better, and bad urban design can hinder and impede families from being better. And respecting their reciprocity, it must be said too that good cities are as much the product of virtuous citizens as virtuous citizens are the product of good cities.