By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Earlier than ten thousand years or so ago, humans hunted and gathered food in bands or tribes with no more than a few hundred members. They occupied land, a territory, which they defended against other tribes, because their lives depended on it. Those were societies similar to that of other primates, such as gorillas, baboons, or chimpanzees: a core of dominant males surrounded by females and children, and immature or aging males standing guard and sounding alarms on the perimeter of the roving group, ready to engage hostile tribes or large predators, until the big males joined the fray. In human tribes, many males and females were pairing for life or for enough years to nourish offspring to maturity, about thirteen years. At thirteen, boys became men with a bar mitzvah or something equivalent, and the girls married off, or sold, anyway turned over to reproduction and life-long service to the family. When early geniuses domesticated animals and plants in certain tribes, those tribes settled down in the most fertile area of their territory, starting the first village communities. Surplus grain, meat, and milk allowed leisure for technical innovations and the development of specialized skills. Societies became large and more complex; the chiefs became kings, the shamans, priests. Eventually, where resources were plentiful, cities emerged in the Nile delta, in Mesopotamia, and other fertile river valleys. Today, we have huge metropolitan areas, like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Moscow, with luxurious developments, cultural centers, government buildings, transportation corridors, office buildings, manufacturing plants–also slums, crime, pollution, noise, congestion, traffic jams, and other evils. In response, thinking people ask: can we not design a community properly, as we design other systems, to meet human needs for healthful living, privacy, peace, security, and social interaction, rather than accept the massive urban agglomerations grown on our lands? Yes, we can, but to build on a design for the ideal community may be more difficult for people than to stay in the ugly urban centers they now have.
People may be afraid that the community that is designed will be uglier than the one that has grown naturally. Utopia is the word for it when the outcome of the design is good, dystopia when the end product is ugly. Thomas More wrote “Utopia” to describe a socialist community ruled by just laws, not kings. King Henry VIII ordered Moore’s beheading for “treason against the crown,” (really for simple disobedience in the issue of the king’s divorce and remarriage). In ancient times, the philosopher Plato designed his “Republic” to be ruled by a philosopher king and properly trained noble men. Plato was a philosopher and an aristocrat. According to legend, the ancient Greek city state of Sparta was designed by Lykurgos, the city’s king, and turned out to be as ugly in many ways as Hitler’s Nazi Germany, or Lenin’s Soviet Union. Why was Sparta a dystopia? The ruling class, Dorian warriors who came to Greece from the North, conquered and enslaved the locals, who were more numerous than they. The slaves worked the fields, periodically revolting and getting punished by their Spartan overlords. Sparta was also threatened by other city states and non-Greeks, such as the Persians in the East. King Lykurgos organized his city as a permanent armed camp. All citizens, from a very young age, devoted their lives almost exclusively to exercising for war with no regard for discomfort, pain, or danger. Citizens had little time for the finer arts, learning, or even for their families. They admired strength, courage, and honor only. They lived Spartan lives. The city survived for many centuries undefeated and even prevailed over the vast Persian army, with the help of other Greeks, and later defeated the powerful city of Athens, its liberal design said to have been laid out by the legendary King Theseus.
Later in that age, Alexander the Great founded several cities he named Alexandria, the most famous one in Egypt, where his general Ptolemy and his descendants, including Queen Cleopatra, ruled for some years. Alexandria in Egypt became famous as a cultural center of the ancient world, with its vast library and scientific center, burned by a Christian mob as a pagan target, with many irreplaceable manuscripts lost forever to the world.
Eventually every community, no matter how strongly built, will collapse, as Sparta did after the rise of Macedonia and later that of Rome; survival cannot be the only principle to follow in designing a community, or a private life. Utopian dreamers should consider the principle of bringing the magic of the arts to our brief existence on earth, as the ancient Athenians did brilliantly with music, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture, drama, poetry, oratory, history, and philosophy. The design of the ideal community should allow also for expression of spiritual sentiments, the free worship of God, as each person perceives God, and above all freedom for all the people to live the way they choose, provided they bring no harm to others. A society cannot be peaceable and content when some of the people are masters while others slaves, when a few are filthy rich, while most others dirt poor, or when some are exalted, while others oppressed; above all, a good community is a just community, where all citizens may advance themselves with hard work, talent, and learning, where those who save and invest may get to keep most of their wealth for themselves and their children instead of being taxed to death and beyond; people will not be motivated to work hard and save, if most of the coin they earn is taken from them by the Sheriff of Nottingham, or Robin Hood. Most of all, the ideal community cultivates the fruit trees of imagination and creativity, which are the sources of the most abundant wealth.
Great wealth is not enough for a city if its environment is not safe and healthful. Rome may have lost its vitality and power because of the lead metal used in water pipes and containers, leading to the slow poisoning of eminent people and their children. Today, many large cities are covered with smog and toxic chemical residues; water is polluted; food is lacking in vital nutrients, because of depleted soils and over processing; crime is rampant, damaging lives and property; moving about is gruesome in mass transit or in traffic with a private car; noise is jangling our nerves in stores, streets, subways, restaurants, clubs, offices, or factories. People add to all that mess by smoking, drinking alcohol, strong coffee, tea, sugar, or stronger addictive drugs. One of the worst ills of most modern metropolitan areas is the sheer density of the population. Experiments with rats and other mammals have shown that the health of the animals rapidly declines as population density gets higher than normal in the wild. Animals become aggressive, attacking their fellows more often, raping the females, who suffer frequent miscarriages; males abuse or eat many of the young. Humans, like rats, are very adaptable, surviving in dense crowds and in other adverse conditions; surviving is not the same as living good lives.
A community may survive, but it will not thrive, unless those who are capable of doing excellent work are encouraged to produce it and profit from it. Such a community will fall behind others and decay, eventually dissolving, as it happened with the Soviet Union, where political institutions ware framed by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.
By comparison, the Founding Fathers of America, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and others, framed just institutions for the federal and state governments, with balanced powers for the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. These institutions have served America well, promoting growth, prosperity, and social peace at a high level. That is why many more people want to come to the United States than want to leave it.
The design of America is fine at the federal and state levels, not so at the county and city levels. Large cities are not suitable for good and healthful living; small towns are places where young people find little in the way of recreation, education, cultural expression, and employment. If the local factory closes down, workers have to move to the big city where there are many companies operating, as well as job opportunities in government, education, and services. Thus large cities become more populous and small towns the depositories of old and spent people. Transportation is a nightmare in metropolitan areas; the grid system of roads, which served early, largely rural, America well is clogged with automobiles. Cities grow horizontally, spreading over much prime agricultural land, asphalt and concrete covering large areas. Master-planned communities, such as Mission Viejo, Woodbridge, and Valencia in California have provided bikeways, walkways, parks, and excellent street landscaping for commercial purposes, in order to sell track homes, and condos. In the last decade of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first, high-rise condos for affluent people, and mixed-use buildings for childless couples and single people have revitalized many downtown centers. Unfortunately, they have also added to congestion.
History shows that civilization and high culture do not flourish in large, congested, cities or small towns and villages, but in prosperous cities of one to a few hundred thousand people, such as those of ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy. Those were city states, each about the size of a county.
County governments today have little power to correct problems like congestion and heavy traffic. Cities look to their own interests and are fixated on growth at any cost. The federal government with its broad and extensive powers must impose zoning and construction codes that will establish properly designed and distributed cities of moderate size, not too large, not too small. Good ideas come from Arcosanti in Arizona, being built slowly by architect Paolo Soleri and his students on a plateau north of Phoenix. This is a three-dimensional city which incorporates industry, agriculture, housing, offices, entertainment, all the needed amenities, with the use of little land, and hardly any roads. It is a city designed to a human scale, where people can recapture their tribal heritage, living in it without pollution or strife.
Such three-dimensional cities, separated by wide areas of open land zoned for agriculture, parks, or wilderness, would serve us far better than our current population centers. Each city would be designed with a planned maximum size, no more than a million people, and once that size was reached it would stop growing. Individuals and companies would own the framework of spaces to finish for their uses: industry below ground, stores on the surface, offices next up, and residential units higher still. The top of the city would be used for solar panels, wind turbines, antennas, pools, sport facilities, gardens, and helicopter pads. In the city’s compact space, few pollutants, CO2 for example, will be generated and can be more easily trapped for disposal; everything used can be recycled. Transportation corridors would exist between cities, but inside the city, traffic would be with elevators, escalators, bikes, and feet for the most part. The entire structure would be air-conditioned efficiently by central facilities on the roof and basement.
I visualize such a structure, with a different shape for each city to fit its particular function and character; it would be a steel and concrete building inside a cube of ten miles all around, with an average population density of one thousand people in each cubic mile; cities would separated by open country one hundred miles in each direction. Such a dispersion of our cities would make America safer from acts of war or terrorism, even from natural disasters, such as meteors, hurricanes, flooding, and volcanic eruptions. One structure might suffer extensive damage, but others not much. It would not be like the damage America would suffer if a major metropolitan area is struck, as New Orleans by hurricane Katrina. The social organization inside the city would also fare better than New Orleans did, because people would be more closely knit together by proximity and allegiance to their community.
I do not mean to imply that city design would involve much social engineering, such as proposed in B. F. Skinner’s “Walden II.” People would naturally be more closely knit, cooperating better with each other in a stable, well-organized, and civilized city, than in a megalopolis full of the slums of disadvantaged people. I don’t subscribe to social engineering which forces human beings into molds for which they have not evolved and to constraints they are not pleased to assume. I respect freedom above security, comfort, wealth, even life itself.
Humans cannot be happy and fruitful living like social insects, bees, ants and such, with a reproducing queen, all others completely constrained to specific tasks: food gathering, warfare, nursing, etc. Humans have minds that adapt readily, allowing them to grow, change, and form creative relationships with other people. It is human nature to want to be with others, enjoying work and recreation together. Community engineers and dictators should stop trying to turn their fellow humans into social insects.
People in the ideal city should have the freedom to enter into any social arrangements they choose, to form the friendships, marriages, contacts, neighborhoods, tribes they choose, without undue interference from government. In our large cities now, we have Chinatown, Korea town, Greek town, Germantown, etc. That will also be fine in our city of the future.
In the U. S. there have been many experiments with forming communities on religious grounds, such as the Amish, Shakers, Oneida, and the early Mormon tribe. Some of these tribes still exist–enlarged or diminished. The nineteen sixties and seventies brought us many communes, dedicated to independence from the consuming culture of American life, instead sharing resources among the people, not competition and personal enrichment. The vast majority of these communes have disbanded, as most socialist movements usually do, but have brought some of their values to the rest of society. Other people created modern business cultures: corporate tribes, such as Apple Computers, Microsoft, eBay, Amazon, Google, and many others in Silicon Valley and beyond. A business organization, of course, has to be geared to the efficient production of goods in order for an enterprise to compete and survive. A government organization, too, needs to be effective in serving the people, or their rulers.
In the ideal city, and country, politics should serve the people, not rulers of any sort. I reject autocracy in any form, even that of Singapore which thrived with autocracy under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, or that of prospering Russia under Putin. China, Pakistan, Myanmar, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Lybia, Zimbawe, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and many other nations have worse problems with autocracy. Monarchs, tyrants, dictators, entrenched presidents, ruling political parties, usually controlling the army and secret police, restrict freedoms, oppress, exploit, torture, and kill people who resist their dominance of social affairs.
Our American democratic system serves justice well, but it can be improved to fit better our design of new high-rise communities widely surrounded by open land. Take the voting system for example. We require that new immigrants pass a simple test to get citizenship after at least five years of residence. Citizens born in America don’t have to pass such a test, except in school, out of which children frequently drop out. Born idiots are allowed to vote, senile seniors too. A graduate from Podunk High School with 1.1 GPA has one vote; so does a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Political Science. During elections, people are asked to vote for officials on the basis of what they read in papers, see on television, or after listening to speeches crafted by paid political writers, which simply spew out what the voters want to hear.
In our new cities, every one thousand adults could vote for leaders in their neighborhood they would know well, and one thousand such leaders could elect officials to manage the city. One thousand city officials could then pick state officials, and one thousand state officials could appoint the top officials to run the federal government. Such an election system would be grass-roots democratic, major voting decisions made by knowledgeable people, expert in administrative processes. We would get a hierarchy of power, created from the bottom to the top, a hierarchy changing with each election, not becoming entrenched.
What we have thought about the ideal community may be fine, but how do we build one? Who has the power of Alexander the Great, Julius Cesar, or Napoleon the Great to accomplish such a task? Great people build to become even more powerful, glorifying their names. Big companies with master plans for new communities proclaim broad social ideals, while pursuing narrow commercial interests: the bottom line. The rest of us, though, can get together and vote for changes in our society with enlightened leaders whom we elect wisely. To a degree, the necessary changes are already occurring in our society. We can also change our nation by choosing to live in a city that meets our criteria for a good community, moving out of a city which does not, as long as we have the means and freedoms to choose.