Monday, September 01, 2008

The Rise of Urban Romanticism

Quite a while back, someone sent me a link to an interesting white paper from New Zealand's Center for Resource Management Studies titled "The Rise of Urban Romanticism (or The New Road to Serfdom)". I finally got a chance to read it, and I think it has a really interesting perspective. He talks about the fundamental conflict over the last few centuries between the Scientific Enlightenment and Emotional Romanticism, and how socialism, fascism, and communism were all 20th-century "dark sides" of these fundamental movements. Modern Emotional Romanticism movements include anti-globalization, radical environmentalism, and, you guessed it, urban romanticism - i.e. the smart growth movement of density and transit. Romantic movements always revolve around an extremely passionate mission to "fix" some aspect of humankind based on an elite aesthetic vision, whether society wants to be "fixed" or not and pretty much regardless of any collateral damage to the people involved.

He defines an older generation of urban planners schooled in the scientific enlightenment tradition of reason and engineering what the people wanted. Then he gets into the newer generation of planners who have moved to the romantic side based on aesthetics and environmentalism - more architect than engineer. You can guess which side he comes down on. Excerpts:
In his seminal work, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek makes the point that the problem with central planning is that it attempts to form a universal view on matters on which there can be no universal agreement. Therefore any such plan necessarily coerces more people than those who willingly go along with it. Smart Growth is a classic example of this failing. It forces the majority to live where they would not choose to live if given the choice. All those people must be coerced into making second-best choices – they lose their property rights and their liberty.
Sometimes we are asked to choose from three or four of these different “visions” – overlooking the fact that the future contains an infinite number of possibilities. We should ask what happened to all the others. The few alternative visions presented have one thing in common. They all transfer power from the people to the Urban Romantics who will then use those powers to impose their “vision” on the canvas of the region. The rest of us have to do as we are told, and suffer the costs, which are enormous. The Urban Romantics don’t care – they have power and have no concern for the consequences. When did you last hear a “Smart Growth” planner express real concern for, or even refer to, housing affordability.
The other fatal flaw in these “visioning” exercises is that they survey the wrong population. The need to develop the “vision” is always justified by a perceived need to manage the “problem of growth”. Hence the exercise begins with some scary claim that the population of city X will grow by Y thousands or millions over the next Z years.

The Urban Romantic visionary then asks the existing population (or a small and carefully chosen sample of the existing population) where these hordes of newcomers should live. We know that existing people have quite strong preferences about where newcomers should go, but these are usually remarkably different from where the newcomers themselves want to go. Certainly in New Zealand newcomers show little enthusiasm for land around railway stations or other “transport nodes”. Unsurprisingly they prefer the beaches, the mountains, the countryside, or the nearest “Hobbit-like” village.
While he starts out mentioning some dark sides of the scientific enlightenment (like socialism and social engineering), later in the paper he seems to categorically divide the world into good science/reason vs. bad romanticism. I don't think it's that simple. Romanticism has produced a lot of good things (like civil rights), and clearly has a place as the balancing yin to the science's yang. But his overall insight is a good one well worth considering.

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At 12:23 PM, September 02, 2008, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Romanticism also produced some downright nasty movements such as Eugenics. A movement championed by elites in Europe, the US, and in Ivy League colleges during the 20s and 30s. This movement also led the aforementioned groups to praise Hitler in his writing supporting Eugenics. So much so he spoke at Harvard and received an award for it. It also formed the foundation for Planned Parenthood (which the current organizational head glosses over whenever confronted by the claim). The current U.N. supports this movement through the programs that support population control. Eugenics also became the founding platform in many "progressive" groups.

What is Eugenics? Just look it up and you can figure out why it is such a nasty movement.

Wikipedia has a great article on the subject, but don't limit your search to just that website. There are plenty of resources on the subject and it is something that should learned to prevent future travesty.

This writing Tory Posted can be expanded upon in many areas along the line I have presented above.

At 1:43 PM, September 02, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

FWIW, I could just as easily argue that proponents of smart growth and
sustainability are descendants of the Enlightenment, and that
proponents of "individual freedom" at all costs are atavistic Romantics. Which
option sounds more romantic to you?

- Individual freedoms should be preserved above all else
- Planning for city services like sewage, trash, education, health,
and transportation systems

The author classifies Romanticism as looking towards the past, and Enlightenment as seeking out progress and "the future". Yet he later goes on to say:
"We cannot predict the future because we cannot predict
future knowledge." How can you profess to be enlightened when you reject our ability to use reason to address our future needs?

Sounds like this guy is a Romantic to me... he doesn't even want the gubment's hands on his waste water:

>>One common strategy is to require all new dwellings to be
served by reticulated systems of water supply and wastewater treatment – again at precisely
the time when highly effective on-site treatment systems and roof-water collection systems
are becoming available.

If I am being romantic by preferring that my waste be treated by the city, and that the city have plans to deal with millions more like me, then just call me Shakespeare.

At 4:45 PM, September 02, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think he would agree on the planning for the areas you describe, and call that old-style enlghtenment/reasoned planning ("meet the peoples' needs"). Romantic planning says "shape the environment so people live the 'right' way."

And there's a difference between planning and offering and charging for water services, and imposing and requiring them on all developments regardless of legitimate alternatives.

At 7:31 PM, September 03, 2008, Anonymous RedScare said...

I love when those opposed to planning argue that planning is bad...oh, except for those times when it was good.

It appears that the writer is suggesting, intentionally or not, that planning taken to an extreme (architects vs. engineers) should be guarded against. I would tend to agree. The extremes are seldom good for the majority of the people. But, just as extreme planning is bad, so is is extreme lack of planning, and extreme antagonism to planning, positions I see taken regularly on this blog. Perhaps a pragmatic blog is boring, but one that takes extreme positions is often wrong.

At 3:40 PM, September 05, 2008, Anonymous Mike said...

The Romantic movement also saw the rise of the "organic" idea, as in letting things grow organically and "naturally," as opposed to human artifice as was associated with the enlightenment. The French garden, with its geometric forms and symmetric paths, is a characteristic Enlightenment product, while English and American landscaping, with their emphasis on natural patterns, were products of the Romantic reaction to this. The Enlightenment is probably associated with no place in the world more than Paris, and the geometric planning of Paris's streets and public spaces can be seen as a direct outcome of that Enlightenment heritage.

I could cite many more examples of how Romanticism could easily be taken to refer to the exact opposite of what you describe it to mean. Who, after all, was more opposed to government intervention than the great American Romantic author Henry David Thoreau? The historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy once drew a list of over a hundred definitions of the word "Romantic."

Be careful of these facile over-simplifications.


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