The second in a series of essays on the other reasons why density and cities are important.
One of our nations founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, has inculcated the idea that as Americans we are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These are basic human principles most people want. As Americans, we feel that this entitlement is best expressed at the individual level rather than as a group.
However, freedom and rights are not always best measured at the individual level; communities have freedoms and rights as well. Americans are exceptional not because they conquered a continent or put a man on the moon, but because they believe that rights and freedoms start with the individual rather than with or through good government and the community.
This strange idea is not only a source of pride, mingled with patriotism, but also it is deeply embedded in our psyche and language. But even if there are God given individual rights we are born with, there would be no way to express those outside of society which would have to understand and appreciate those rights and freedoms and establish, together as a group, the methods to ensure them.
Rights and Land Use
When government decides to condemn property to make way for a rail project, for example, one is certain to hear the clamor over “rights” being taken away. The sanctity of the home and hearth is positioned against the faceless machine of communal development, the lone individual against the mob. However, that narrative is dependent on the idea that the rights of one individual trump the well being of the group.
If we are going to support a sustainable future, we have to make decisions that are based on considered and careful analysis of what will work best over time for the most people. That means that each of us as individuals must be prepared to yield our own best interests over time to that of what is likely best for the whole society. This is a value system that is typical among many cultures, and while it can lead to bad outcomes, so can radical individualism.
The Individual Versus the Community
Each of us every day faces limits on our convenience and comfort created by rules, regulations, or laws—or simply by the presence of our neighbor. A long line at the coffee shop, a crowded bus, or a traffic jam thwarts our ability to do what we want to do. We accept these daily inconveniences for the same reason we accept regulatory ones; crowds and rules make life more predictable and individuals more accountable. We are willing to trade the discomforts of living with other people because the benefits surpass those of living alone.
Americans of all political persuasions often announce, “I have a right to…” followed by what is likely the most trivial comfort or convenience. Making good land use decisions will mean unlearning more than 200 years of historical conditioning and language so that our measure of freedom is no longer based on whether a group of individuals are inconvenienced by a road, transit, or development project but whether those things are benefitting the greater good.
Community Based Land Use
Community based land use policy is not a mass of angry neighbors expressing their “rights” to weigh in on how a project is making them uncomfortable. That might look like community action, but it is really a group of individuals collectively expressing their discontent. They might even be a majority in the room, in their respective geographic area, or even at the ballot box. But a community is not collective individual opinion. Community is not the majority of who fills a room, or sends e-mails to elected officials. Those things matter less than the discernment of government about what will benefit the community in a longer time horizon.
So far, government has tried to make people happy as individuals while at the same time looking out for the long-term interests of the community. Cars and subsidized roads have helped us do both for a long time now. The result, though, has been rapid environmental degradation through depending on the car to allow us to be alone one minute and in a crowd the next. The car has meant being able to have isolation and community whenever we want; all we have to do is turn a key and drive to whichever one we want at the moment.
Shifting our view of how we are free won’t be easy. We’ve done it before. I once asked an older man who was an air raid warden during World War II if people complained about air raid drills that required everyone in town to shut off their lights, close their blinds, and stay quiet. He said there was none; and there wasn’t any process either, the drills were mandatory.
Blocking views, making noise, and a few topless barber shops might inconvenience and annoy a few people for awhile, but pushing uses together, putting more people closer together, and freeing the market to produce as much housing in the city as possible is the best route to the common good and the best way to find a good life, freedom, and happiness.