The environmental movement in America began as a defense of nature against man. But what we call “nature” is a human construct, and when Thoreau and John Muir set out to protect the unspoiled wilderness, they were really trying to create the unspoilt human being who would walk in it. All the most vigorous environmental initiatives in America, from the national parks movement and the Sierra Club to Earth Day and the Wilderness Society, have been dedicated to the wilderness idea. The motive has seldom been to protect or improve the human habitat, but to make trails into the pristine hinterland, where the American people can breathe the pure air of Eden, and cast off the burden of original sin, which is the sin of the city.
This wilderness obsession has had good results. It is good that America has large national parks, in which wildlife enjoys a measure of protection. It is good that Americans cherish their forests, rivers, lakes, and wetlands. It is good that they worry over the future of bald eagles, black bears, and bobcats. And it is only right that these concerns should be reflected in American vacations, in the romantic streak in American art and literature, and in the “lone ranger” image that recurs in American popular culture. The squads of easy-rider motorbikes that patrol the scenic highways, the troops of scouts on the mountain trails, the canoes and kayaks on the river rapids-all testify to a deeply implanted respect for the natural world, and a longing for a lost innocence. People who retain the idea of lost innocence are one degree better than those who have forgotten it and therefore believe that there is no such thing. And maybe the goodness of America depends, in the last analysis, on the cult of the wild.
But there is a downside to the wilderness idea and it is an important one. The American concern for animal habitats has encouraged a vandalization of the habitats of people. Man takes his fallen condition with him into the wilderness. He may reflect on it there, as Thoreau did at Walden Pond, but he cannot escape it. And by creating this illusory Eden he turns his back on his true habitat, which is the city.
The city is a crowded forum of strangers, where you are face-to-face with people whose company you never chose. It depends on social cooperation, which in turn depends upon the rule of law and the institutions of commerce. But it depends also on a primordial act of dedication, to the god or saint who will protect it. All the great cities of the world began life as sacred places, in which the life among strang- ers was given a redemptive purpose by the shared submission to a higher power. Modern cities have grown away from that primordial posture of submission. But they are still marked by it. Churches, public buildings, the facades of streets and squares — all bear witness to an original act of settlement, in which a piece of earth was marked out by a community and dedicated to its gods.
The classical building styles that shaped the original towns and cities of New England derive from temple architecture. Their harmony stems from the devotion of their founders: when placing brick on brick or stone on stone they were building not just a home but an altar. The same is true of the Gothic style, praised in those terms by Ruskin, and put to such striking use in the industrial architecture of Victorian England.
It was Ruskin who launched the environmental movement in Britain. The greenwood had been felled to create the Royal Navy and nothing of wilderness remained. But Ruskin did not care. His concern was with the landscape made by man — the patchwork quilt of old England, seamed by hedges and dry-stone walls, and buttoned to the earth by neat little cottages of stone. For Ruskin this man-made nature was contiguous with the city, to which he dedicated, in Stones of Venice, the greatest description in English of a place made sacred by buildings.
AMERICAN SPRAWL IS BOTH THE CAUSE and the effect of the wilderness urge. It comes from ceasing to care for the city as a sacred place and a common home. Throughways, junctions and flyovers, faceless tower blocks, loud fascias, adverts raised high on poles and childish logos — all such things deface the city, turning it from a home to be lived in to a tool to be used.
The trashing of the American city didn’t have to happen. The idea that you can own land in a city and do what you like with it is a new and eccentric chapter in the history of human settlement. Religious edicts, building codes, and civic ordinances governed the appearance of the ancient city and ensured its continuity as a public space: this we witness not only in the surviving monuments of Athens and Rome, but also in those jewels of everyday urbanization like excavated Ephesus and the now mutilated Aleppo.
The crenellations on the facades of Venice have been legislated for 500 years. The heights of buildings in Geneva and Helsinki have been limited by law since the 19th century. The city of Salzburg now bans those who trade in its center from displaying their logos or altering the architecture to suit their taste. Thanks to the legally imposed boundaries of Vienna, you can look from the center of the city to a green horizon of protected woods. And so on. European cities have been loved by their residents, and have therefore adopted an aesthetic of settlement. Hence their residents have settled and stayed.
The American city began as a creditable attempt to create a public space, but nothing public exists for long in a country where only the wilderness has a lasting claim to protection. New Brunswick, laid out with classical streets and squares, pinned to the sky by the clean stone spires of churches, was trampled to dust in a few decades: now it is a wasteland of parking lots and office blocks, with the occasional classical building marking the place of a vanished street like a loyal hound at the grave of its master. This aesthetic disaster—matched elsewhere only by the results of war and conquest — is a lasting blemish on the American idea. But what can be done to rectify it?
The New Urbanists advocate centripetal rather than centrifugal cities, and argue vigorously for designs that will attract residents downtown. But even if they succeed, the rooted American belief that you can do what you like with your property and stick what you like in the face of passersby, means that the cities of the New Urbanists will very soon look like the cities of the old urbanists that we know— a jumble of signs, logos, and fascias, scattered along throughways in which buildings stand not beside their neighbors but against them. It is hardly surprising that those who work in such places should flee at the first opportunity to the unspoiled wilderness. But it is their love of the wilderness that caused the disaster.
It is not that Americans are unaware of the problem. Concern over the randomization of the American city was vigorously expressed by J. C. Nichols in the early years of the iron-frame skyscraper, and later by Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, from their very different points of view. The battle lines over suburbanization were formed between the wars, and hostilities have recently escalated with the writings of James Howard Kunstler, Joel Kotkin, and Robert Bruegmann. The fight against billboards, which had a success with the institution of scenic byways, continues on a small scale all over America. And here and there counties have succeeded in placing restrictions on the worst forms of light pollution and roadside sprawl. But, for good reasons as well as bad, Americans are reluctant to impose aesthetic constraints on the use of private property.
THE OTHER DAY, sitting on the porch of our publisher’s mountain cabin in Virginia, I confronted the distinction between owned and unowned America in its most vivid form. Across from us was the Shenandoah National Park, a dark mass of forest, exuding its primeval silence. And below it, in the valley, was the old village of Etlan, Madison County, an unspoilt clutter of whiteboard houses along the road. But among the old farms with their rust-red barns, the new horse farms are springing up, one of them vast, rectangular, its white-light sheen dominating the landscape and eclipsing the softened colors round about.
In Europe there would almost certainly be a law, telling the owner of that horse farm to blacken the roof of that barn and to paint its sides rustred—as there is a law requiring pan-tiles in Provence, slates in Brittany, Cotswold stone in Gloucestershire. But, as our publisher said, such a law would be received over here as a gross intrusion by the government and would be resisted by no one more fiercely than the good conservatives whom he has spent his life defending. And those conservatives would be right. For the American way of life is about individual sovereignty: take that away, invade the home and dictate the taste of its inhabitants, and the most sacred altar of freedom would have been surrendered to the encroaching state.
Still, I cannot help blaming that ugly horse-barn on the wilderness beyond. Nor can I help wishing that Americans had not invested quite so much of their aesthetic passion in the places where they don’t live, and quite so little in the places where they do.