Love Thy Neighbor(hood)

Neighborliness is the hallmark of the decent city. While this quality, which compounds generosity, caring, tolerance, and quotidian exchange, is not uniquely urban, it is a founded in the idea of propinquity. The idea of a “nearest neighbor” may be elastic but it is, nevertheless, a product of geography: one might travel to the next farm to find a tow for the tractor, but a cup of sugar or glass of scotch is more likely borrowed across the hall. For an urbanist, geography is destiny.

There is a conversation in philosophical circles – descending through Jesus, Freud, Levinas, Zizek, and others – about the nature of the neighbor and, no philosopher, I cite it largely to evade it. The biblical imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself” is putatively contradicted by Freud who understands the relationship to the neighbor – especially the stranger – as marked by a fundamental and mutual hostility. For Levinas, as I understand it though, the biblical injunction is not simply immanent in ourselves, it potentiates our very being. I cannot begin to unpack the problematics of obligation and command within our possible relations to our neighbor but do note that the discussion always involves the intercourse of physics and metaphysics and that, in considering neighborliness, neither can be excluded. Let us, therefore, stipulate that propinquity and neighborliness are overlapping but non-identical categories. But let me also state a preference for the idea that physical settings have the capacity to support and advance styles of life and habits of conscience and that the neighborhood – although it can be inward-turning, riven, sectarian, or hostile – has a singular ability to support not simply groups but amity.

The neighborhood is, of course, the physical construct that most clearly embodies the idea of neighborliness. This is a territory that is defined by a density of social networks and by a primacy offered to the possibilities of encounters face to face. The predicates for such places are a compound of scale, community, safety, accessibility, convenience and an array of compacts of both conviviality and collective self-regulation. However elastic may be their boundaries, there is an inevitable basis in limits, which describe the terms of affinity and of alterity and strangeness. Neighborhoods also have a temporal component, which helps to define not simply their modes of succession but fix their identities. There is, for example, a difference between the character of the historic succession of immigrant communities through the Lower East Side and the rapid turnover of young singles in the cookie-cutter studio apartments of the Upper East. Some of this is the product of culture and some the result of the physical circumstances of proximity and the character of the interstitial, communicating, space of the street and the other places of mixing and encounter.

Modernist planning, in its utilitarian undertaking, recognized the central role of neighborhoods in the formation of cities but attempted to reduce them to a fundamentally mathematical construct. Thus, the “neighborhood units” that became functionalist writ attempted to assess how many school seats, how many football fields, how many square feet of commercial activity, and how many apartments comprised the ideal increment of urban addition. This same fantasy that morphology produces community is characteristic of the so-called New Urbanists but with a different inflection. For them, the artistic displaces the arithmetic as the guarantor of community. In their mimetic project, the architectural forms associated with putatively successful historic neighborhoods are transferred to new territories as an act of faith. But, witness the girl recently shot dead in Detroit as she knocked on a stranger’s front door after her car broke down, a front porch is an insufficient apparatus for assuring urban decency.

For some time, Terreform, the non-profit I direct, has been working on a project to examine the level of self-sufficiency that might be achieved by New York City, to look at the impact of a more economic and ecological expansion of the defining idea of neighborhood. While this is a fairly wooly undertaking and the idea of autarky that undergirds it is not uncontroversial, the thought experiment behind it is meant to, in effect, look at the way in which the city functions in a decent and neighborly way in its relation to the planet. It examines the nature of the exchange by which we “borrow” oxygen, water, food, labor, and other forms of wealth from our global neighbors, both human and “natural.” In effect, we treat New York as, inter alia, one neighborhood in a global city and – assessing an income gap as extreme as between Park Avenue and Mott Haven – try to imagine a native distributive system that will contribute to the projects of both equality and responsibility.

But, if New York can be seen as a neighborhood on an urbanized planet, it is also a city made up of a mosaic of neighborhoods and the vitality of each should be understood as critical to the variety of all. Our re-imagination of the city has, as its fundamental predicate, the idea that the infrastructure of self-sufficiency should be as legible – and therefore disaggregated – as possible. We’ve therefore been interested in an idea of a semi-autonomous or “harmonized” neighborhood, a place in which all of the necessities of daily life are located within walking distance of home. This, of course, has quite a few implications for urban design. To begin, it suggests that the mix of uses in the city will be reproduced in microcosm in individual neighborhoods, that each will include numbers of jobs, school seats, recreational activities, and retail and cultural opportunities that bear a direct relation to the number of people who live nearby – we do not eschew the quantitative. It also suggests that that the demographics of neighborhoods reflect the array of opportunities that each offers. Thus, one would expect that they would provide the opportunity for affordable housing for teachers, baristas, shop-keepers, entrepreneurs, musicians, janitors, craftspeople, farmers, policemen, and all the others necessary to make the neighborhood go.

Of course, the idea is not to make non-communicating enclaves – gated communities - and, for this reason, I prefer the idea of harmonization to more coercively communalist strategies. The decent city must preserve the idea of freedom of choice and one of the foundations of choice and development in such a city is the continuous production of accidents, of encounters with both neighbors and strangers. Ideas about movement and its freedoms are obviously fundamental to this. The notion is to ratchet up distributive equity via the allocation of residential, employment, and quotidian opportunity across a wider ambit while simultaneously assuring the protection, flexibility, creation and intercourse of communities. The search for greater levels of urban autonomy – and responsibility – will continuously beg the question of various bounding membranes. To be sure, these must always, at a minimum, be transparent to ideas and – in most instances - to the movement of bodies. Beyond this, though, one might expect a variety of gradients defined by affinity, culture, and various forms of self-interest. More, one does not look, as modernist planning so tenaciously did, at the creation of an arrangement of fundamentally identical cells a la Brasilia, the neighborhood unit, or the suburban subdivision: the task is to find the balance of equity, autonomy, and difference.

Which begs the question of the sources of neighborhood variety. Our proposal is not hostile to the idea of comparative advantage but assumes that this will grow from different skills, cultures, and choices, not from uneven development, access to raw materials, or the plan of the colonizer or central committee. Indeed, the struggle of the globalized city, threatened simultaneously by the promiscuous locationality of multi-national culture and its relentless homogenization of everything, is precisely to find the basis for its own originality. I am arguing that the power of increasingly localized means of autonomy can be the primary hedge in this struggle and that this embrace culture, bio-region, and art as well as economic implications of self-reliance. New York is particularly interesting as an example because of the enormous diversity of its population, and we glory in streets intensely inflected by Bangladeshi culture in Jackson Heights, Arab culture in Downtown Brooklyn, or Chinese culture in Flushing. While none of us wishes to sacrifice the vibrancy of this arrangement, we still tread a fine line between the ghetto and Disneyland. Self-determination is the key to resisting both.

The fantasy informing our project is that neighborhood specialization can enjoy strong cultural inflection, produced by certain forms of elective yet non-exclusionary affinity. If the array of economic opportunities remains broad and the availability of housing reflects a progressive attitude towards equity, the grounds for choice will be far less coerced and a protected price structure will forestall gentrification effects and other subversions of security of tenure. There must be limits on the creative destruction of people’s lives in the name of the so-called freedom of the market. Is it controversial to say that the right to stability is now a progressive default?

In our scheme, the devolution of responsibility and autonomy down the scale of urban spatial increments – from the city to the district to the neighborhood to the block to the building to the dwelling – is not simply a strategy for democratizing the city but for radically altering its environmental performance. It’s logical to begin to think about sustainability on the demand side of the equation and this means not simply that individual behavior is central but that the opportunity costs for such behavior must be reduced with the least possible sacrifice. To cite one example, urban transportation demand is in large measure a product of the daily cycle of commuting. But, if a neighborhood offers both residences and workplaces, the need for large-scale mechanical movement systems can be dramatically reduced, if only by smoothing out the cycle of demand. The same is true for a variety of other functions and, of course, constellations of adjacent neighborhoods – accessible on foot, bike, or other benign means – can be planned to house functions that require a larger population to support.

The same strategy can be applied to a variety of other respiratory functions, but the outcomes are often complex and less straightforward. For example, we have spent several years examining the prospects of food self-sufficiency in New York. Although we have proved the marginal possibility of providing 8.5 million people with 2,500 nutritious calories per day from production entirely within the city’s political boundaries, the costs are high. It isn’t simply that the production of certain categories of food are either very difficult – coffee to take one utter necessity – or disproportionately expensive – it makes very little economic sense to compete against the grain production of the great plains – it’s that the mode of production, which would necessarily involve widespread use of vertical farms presents considerable difficulties of organization. Such large-scale production begs the question of large-scale control and the difficulty in keeping the wolves of agri-business from the door of such farms would be great. More, these farms are hugely inefficient from the standpoint of energy and we have estimated that, for a 100% food solution, heating, lighting, and the energy embodied in construction would require the equivalent of something like 25 nuclear power plants. Not in my backyard!

But now the exercise gets interesting. If the premise is to maximize both local control and local respiratory autonomy, a much more subtle and flexible attitude is demanded. And the pursuit of a set of sweets spots of neighborhood communal enterprise is where the conjunction of morphology and metaphysics might be said to truly occur. This is not the occasion to go into the variety of technological, organizational, morphological, and communitarian “sweet spots” we have investigated.   It is clear, however, that from the perspective of the formation, defense, expansion, overlap, and intercourse of urban groups, the introduction of higher levels not simply of neighborhood autonomy but of a sense of collaboration with the largest group of all – the citizenry of earth – can be a major influence on the pervasiveness of the institutions of decency in the city. This is a task for both metaphysics and physics, for democracy, for culture, for survival…..and for urban design.

About the Author
Michael Sorkin is the director of the Graduate Urban Design Program at the City College of New York.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.