Urbanism and the Common Good

by Nathaniel Gotcher

Out of necessity, ancient cities were designed with a high regard for the everyday activities of the community. This included worship, exchange of goods, study, and recreation. All of these things had their time and place and were facilitated by appropriate proximities between buildings and areas of the city. Thus, the market, where the exchange of goods took place, was often centrally located so that it was available to all. The temple (and later the church) was given a prominent location near the center of the city, making the worship of the gods (and later the one God) central to the lives of the citizens, both symbolically and practically. Those buildings and areas used most often were given greater attention and those buildings which symbolized the community and its identity were given places of honor.

We live today in a world in which our interconnectedness means that cities very infrequently fail if we don’t want them to. Resources can be shared globally in a matter of days; funds can be allotted instantly through the internet. While this can and does lead to a very many good things (not least among them is the ease with which we can aid those starving or experiencing violence around the world), it also all but abolished the need for cities to function as they once did: for the common good of its citizens. Families (and even individuals) can function autonomously, as long as they have the funds to support their way of life. With enough personal wealth or property, we do not need the others in our community, at least not materially, as the ancients did. Or at least we think we don’t.

In fact, we are still dependent on the countryside for our sustenance, at least some countryside somewhere. The modern polis is fractured; the city is in one place, the countryside in another, and the wealthy live on swaths of unproductive land in between (in the suburbs, which literally means “under the city”.) Is it any wonder our politics are just as fractured? If we are to make the common good central to our politics, we could do worse than looking at how our cities are organized.

Cities, generally speaking, are made up of buildings and roads. Urban design focuses on where buildings and other destinations should be built and how best to get to them. Before proposing principles of urbanism that support the common good, we must know which buildings and spaces a community needs. The citizens of the modern world need, as the ancients did, sustenance and security. To support these need, a community must have certain building types and appropriate infrastructure. What this means will vary greatly between countries and even between neighboring cities, but the types remain the same.

The first and most fundamental type is housing. Houses provide immediate security to the citizens and give families a place in which to organize their lives. All further urban development is built on this foundation. The production of tools for the everyday needs of the home and other manufactured goods require workshops. Storage buildings are necessary to keep these goods safe and markets provide a place where these goods can be distributed and exchanged.  These building types make up the basic layer of urban development; however, these building types only address the ordinary material needs of the citizens. The common good ultimately concerns the whole person, spiritual as well as material. The material needs provided by these buildings are essential to maintain a city, but without buildings which address the spiritual goods of the community, the city remains incomplete.

The human spirit must first of all be formed. To this end, a city should have schools where children are educated “in the arts and sciences for the advantage and prosperity of civil society.” (Divini Illius Magistri 77). This education allows the citizens to determine just and prudent action in the face of political uncertainty. A city thus needs a place set aside for careful political deliberation.  Furthermore, a city needs places for artistic and scientific endeavors so that the human spirit might be elevated by the contemplation of truth and beauty. Finally, the city requires houses of worship so that the final end of the human person, union with God, is given a place of honor in society.

The arrangement of these buildings is the second half of urban design. There are three aspects of urban arrangement: number, proximity, and hierarchy. There must be a sufficient number of each building type so that every citizen is able to participate in the life of the city. Some needs, such as the storage and distribution of goods, are related and so their respective buildings should be built near each other. Also, the buildings which provide the daily needs of the citizens ought to be close to their houses so that travel does not dominate their lives. Those buildings which concern the human spirit should be given special attention in the design of the city. Streets, bridges, lighting and other infrastructure aid in the effective arrangement of a city.

All urban design decisions should weigh these considerations carefully. The arrangement of the parts of the city is an essential aid in the pursuit of the common good. The buildings and infrastructure of a city provide the necessary support for the sustenance and security of the citizens. Furthermore, they designate places for the pursuits of the human spirit. Scientific progress has brought us many things: new and more efficient ways to grow food, faster transportation, and global trade among others. New urban forms are possible, and the organization of communities is more varied than ever. Despite this, human nature is the same, and cities should be designed to fulfill the common good, both material and spiritual.


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