Zoning Degrades Society

It's been great to see you all again. Those of you hanging around Dunster House and those of you waltzing down DeWolfe St. Those of you patronizing Christie's and those of you already ensconced in Cabot. Those of you whom I am privileged to know in the Harvard community.

As a prospective student, the admissions office once told me that the people who comprise our college community are one of the two great parts of the Harvard experience. (The other is the supposed abundance of funding.) It is not my intention to praise fellow students--praiseworthy though they may be. I would simply like to note the environmental unity of the place we call Harvard, and the role that urban geography plays in our daily lives here through the provision of common ground.

Having spent the summer living at home on the suburban North Shore of Long Island, I have come to appreciate the holistic nature of Cambridge. This is not to cry about a dearth of activity in the 'burbs, which also have the shopping, movie theaters, houses of worship, educational institutions, parks, restaurants and government buildings we find here. But it is to decry the decentralization of life found in suburban America, the separation of businesses from residential communities and schools; of churches and temples from the village green; of wealthy neighborhoods from those less affluent.

Unlike Cambridge--where everything that you might need, and any daily activity in which you might participate, is within reach by foot--suburbia calls for survival by automobile. Now, cars in and of themselves aren't evil contraptions. But reliance on these impersonal person-movers furthers the atomization of life. A trip to the store provides little or no opportunity to engage in the civic life of the community, if there is even a community at the "heart" of suburbia. The automobile has had the doubly adverse effect of destroying small towns and villages from the inside, by clogging the streets, and from the outside, by drawing consumer-citizens out of the town square and into the strip mall.

Geographical proximity is only the primary issue of concern to those who desire hearty communal life. After all, we could envision concentric circles of strip malls and certainly we could not deem that a worthy town. The town must be a complex reflecting the diversity of individuals' social lives. In the village center, we must find outlets for civic passion, artistic expression, the appreciation of nature, the economic needs of the consumer, the elegance of society and the mixture of masses. Unfortunately, if you visit town nuclei outside decent cities like Cambridge, there is nothing there.


In an excellent analysis of the legal basis for the tragic American landscape printed in the September issue of Atlantic Monthly, James Howard Kunstler cites zoning codes as the source for our current civic discontent. Originally, zoning was a response to industrialization, a determination by the inhabitants of a town that they would not be overwhelmed by immense factories. After WWII, zoning codes became even more restrictive so as to separate most aspects of life from each other. Today, Kunstler says, "What zoning produces is suburban sprawl, which must be understood as the product of a particular set of instructions.... [This] model of the human habitat dictated by zoning is a formless, soul-less, centerless, demoralizing mess."

As Harvard students living on campus, we have our entire world arranged around us, and in this synthesis of work and school and housing and worship and entertainment we thrive as members of the community. As adults living in suburbia later on, our work will be apart from our housing, and both separate from places of worship and houses of entertainment. We should appreciate the moment, but we should also move to alter the zoning codes in our home communities. The organically coherent life which we lead here can be exported to the rest of America so that the country is reinvigorated by the centrality of place and the unity of community, which is so important to the healthful functioning of all our social hamlets.

Joshua A. Kaufman's column will appear on alternate Tuesdays.

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