Gregory M. Fahy (Gannon University)

"New Urbanism and Aesthetic Unity: A Deweyan Response"


            New urbanist architects and city planners condemn the emptiness and monotony of America's suburban environments.  Instead, they tout traditional urban neighborhoods for their pedestrian traffic, cozy streets and small scale, multi-use buildings.  New urbanists have incorporated these elements into towns such as Kentlands, Maryland and Seaside, Florida.  They claim that the physical structure of an urban neighborhood restores an ambiance of community and cultivates civic virtue in its inhabitants.  As James Kunstler puts it, "If we can repair the physical fabric of our everyday world, many of the damaged and abandoned institutions of our civic life may follow into restoration."[1]  Kunstler argues that the aesthetic beauty of traditional neighborhoods solicits character virtues because "a great many good things proceed from affection."[2]  New urbanists argue that urban physical environments produce more civically minded individuals.  In particular, they claim that the beauty of urban neighborhoods solicits moral virtue in their inhabitants. 

            John Dewey provides a moral psychology uniquely attuned to evaluate these claims on behalf of traditional neighborhoods.  Dewey shares the new urbanists' appreciation of the virtues of community; he defines democracy not as a political institution, but as an ideal of community life itself.  In addition, his anti-dualist approach to moral psychology restores a continuity between the psychological and the physical, suggesting that physical environments may contribute to moral deliberation and thought.  Finally, recent scholarship on Dewey's moral psychology emphasizes the relationship between aesthetic experience and moral action.[3]  In this paper, I first discuss Dewey's concept of habit to explain how physical environments affect moral deliberation and choice.  I then explore his understanding of the relationship among aesthetic ideals, democracy and civic virtue, in particular whether the virtues of social life can be solicited by the aesthetic beauty of one's neighborhood.  Lastly, I discuss several criticisms of new urbanism based upon Dewey's moral psychology. 

Habit and Environment

            John Dewey's moral psychology is based upon habit.  In Human Nature and Conduct, he characterizes habit in four ways: 

     We need a word to express that kind of human activity which is influenced by prior activity and in that sense acquired; which contains within itself a certain ordering or systematization of minor elements of action; which is projective, dynamic in quality, ready for overt manifestation; and which is operative in some subdued form even when not obviously dominating activity.[4] 

Habits are 1) acquired, 2) ordered, 3) projective, and 4) often operative on the fringes of awareness.  Each of these characteristics of habit is relevant for understanding new urbanist claims about the relation between city neighborhoods and civic virtue. 

            Habits are acquired in prior activities.  For Dewey, an environment contributes as much to human action as we ourselves do.  He writes, "Breathing is an affair of the air as truly as of the lungs...  Walking implicates the ground as well as the legs...  They are things done by the environment by means of organic structures or acquired dispositions."[5]  The projections of our physical environment have a considerable influence over our actions, and therefore over the habits we acquire.  These same habits, in turn, discriminate objects and relations within deliberation and choice.  As Dewey puts it, "Forecasts, perceptions and remembrances form a subject-matter of discriminated and identified objects.  These objects represent habits turned inside out."[6]  In hitting a baseball, the ability to discriminate a curve from a sinker is the product of numerous similar experiences.  The physical motion of the ball contributes considerably to these experiences.  Habits project possibilities and discriminate relationships among objects within deliberation.  These same habits are solicited by the organization of our physical environment. 

            Character habits also project a sense of the good within deliberation and choice.  Dewey writes, "While the idea itself, in its content, is 'merely intellectual', that factor determining what this content shall be, is not 'intellectual' at all:  it is character:"[7]  For example, the habit of surrendering one's seat to an elderly individual projects a particular sense of the good into similar subsequent deliberations.  Often operating on the fringes of awareness, habits direct the drama of deliberation towards a good and select objects for such deliberation.  Moral deliberation and choice are entirely guided by habitual projections that are originally solicited by the social and physical organization of our environment.[8] 

Walking Habits and Neighborhood Unity

            Dewey's discussion of walking habits illustrates the importance of physical place to moral deliberation and choice.  An urban environment projects specific tendencies into our habitual constitution.  The scarcity of parking projects a general tendency to walk; we walk because driving is difficult.  An urban environment also solicits a specific form to our walking habits.  The location and distance among stores, parks, and subway stops orient our habits.  While many of these places are socially significant, often neighborhoods are delimited simply by the physical boundaries of highways, hills, vacant lots, etc.  The physical perimeter of our neighborhood, and local destinations within this neighborhood, provide our habits of walking with a boundary and a center.  The physical environments that we construct directly solicit the walking habits that we acquire. 

            In deliberation, walking habits project themselves as a discrimination of objects and distances.  These projections occur on the fringes of many apparently unrelated deliberations.  Dewey writes, "The habit of walking is expressed in what a man sees when he keeps still, even in dreams.  The recognition of distances and directions of things from his place at rest is the obvious proof of this statement."[9]  In discriminating distances, the physical unity of the neighborhood provides limits upon what objects become projected into deliberation.  We pass over certain options because our habits of walking focus deliberation upon only those establishments within walking distance.  In so doing, the concrete geographical unity of place affects our social sense of place and community.  Walking habits project a general sense of neighborhood unity to many different instances of deliberation. 

            New urbanists assume that physical places have a profound affect upon social deliberation.  Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk write, "The combination of a focus and a limit contribute to the social identity of the community."[10]  Neighborhood boundaries are physical and architectural.  A single building can project a focus that orients our habits of walking, influencing other social and moral deliberations.  Conversely, the disintegration of any physical unity to a neighborhood that occurs in suburban environments eliminates any such focus or fringe.  Peter Calthorpe writes that suburban environments create 

     a profound sense of frustration and placelessness.  A homogenous quality overlays the unique nature of each place with chain-store architecture, scaleless office parks and monotonous subdivisions.  Even these qualities are easily blurred by the speed at which we move and the isolation we feel in our cars and in our dwellings.[11] 

Since habits of motility are always operative, even at the fringes of unrelated deliberations, suburban environments foster a general sense of isolation and alienation.  When habits of walking atrophy we lose the sense that there is a coherent community within which our private actions make sense.  Dewey's moral psychology explains how the physical organization of neighborhoods can influence a wide range of social interactions, deliberations, discriminations and choices. 

Beauty, Virtue and Democracy

            New urbanists claim that the ambiance and beauty of older neighborhoods contributes to the moral character of their inhabitants.  Dewey also associates moral action to aesthetically unified action.[12]  In discussing Greek ethical thought, he writes, "The Greek emphasis upon Kalokagathos, the Aristotelian identification of virtue with the proportionate mean, are indications of an acute estimate of grace, rhythm and harmony as dominant traits of good conduct."[13]  In his discussion of particular virtues of character, Dewey argues that these character traits are good precisely because they are able to harmonize and unify situations to a greater extent than vicious traits of character.  He acknowledges the temptation to cultivate individual virtues in isolation from others, arguing that these separately cultivated virtues are narrow and disharmonious.  Temperance, in isolation from other virtues is a "sour constraint,"[14] but within a unity of virtues can become "a positive harmony characteristic of integrated interest."[15]  Asceticism alone is arbitrary and narrow; it is not a virtue.  When temperance is integrated into a broader harmonious interest, it becomes a virtue.  Moral actions are aesthetically beautiful actions; they are harmonious, graceful and unifying. 

            Dewey also distinguishes moral goods from other goods based on the degree of harmony that these goods contain:  

            The good, then, whatever else it is or is not, cannot be an aggregate but is a system, an organism, something which pervades a variety of different forms of value and which holds them together in such a way that the good cannot be realized except as these goods can be realized...  The moral good... is the endeavor to organize all other goods and values.[16]

A moral good is a good projected from the standpoint of an entire character.  This ideal is comprehensive and incorporates other goods within itself.  At the outset of deliberation, we must be able to imagine the organic integration of competing tendencies and desires as good.  While the instantiation of such aesthetic unity in a particular action is rare, this sense of harmonized interests contributes to the drama of every moral deliberation. 

            This ideal of aesthetic harmony pervades Dewey's work.  In his political and social writings, Dewey identifies the pre-eminent social concern of our democracy as how to unify and harmonize the interests of a diverse and scattered population so as to produce a genuine community.  As Dewey puts it, we must discover "the means by which a scattered, mobile and manifold public may so recognize itself as to define and express its interest."[17]  The ideal of democracy consists precisely in recognizing that there are unified interests within a diverse community.  He writes,

     Whenever there is conjoint activity whose consequences are appreciated by all singular persons who take part in it, and where the realization of the good is such as to effect an energizing desire and effort to sustain it in being just because it is a good shared by all, there is in so far a community...  The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy.[18] 

The ideal of democracy is the imagined integration of individuals under shared goals.[19]  These ideals are the basis for community deliberations concerning the most appropriate and democratic means possible to achieve these goals.  Dewey emphasizes the consciousness of a shared ideal of communal life, the ideal of unity and harmonization, that should orient social deliberations. 

            Even in his political works, Dewey acknowledges that ideals are the product of habituation.  As he puts it, "Thinking is secreted in the interstices of habit."[20]  Since habits often operate on the fringes of apparently unrelated deliberations, the physical and architectural beauty of traditional neighborhoods can solicit aesthetic ideals in political and moral deliberations.  The beauty, ambiance and coziness of neighborhoods are themselves the product of numerous social and physical transactions.  Porches overlook sidewalks where a variety of business and personal interactions occur.  The complex integration of public and private, of business and personal projects an ideal of organic unity into the character of the neighborhood's inhabitants.  In suburban environments, by contrast, the disintegration of the public and private spheres undermines the integrated ideals necessary for democratic community life.  Dewey's moral psychology provides new urbanists with an explanation of how the physical unity and aesthetic harmony of a neighborhood can project an ideal of integration into moral and political deliberation. 

Aesthetic Ideals and Moral Action

            New urbanists claim that community life and civic virtue depend upon the physical and aesthetic unity of a neighborhood.  While Dewey's moral psychology provides tentative support for these claims, he also raises questions about the relationship of aesthetic harmony and moral action.  First, he cautions us about the status of ideals.  In an early work, he writes, "Ideals are like the stars; we steer by them, not towards them."[21]  Ideals are the prereflective discriminative background that enables deliberation to gain its bearings.  Their very comprehensiveness precludes their full instantiation in human action.  As Dewey puts it,

            The Good must be an ideal.. and not a natural, or given fact.  Because the idea of it grows out of the failure of our experience to satisfy us, and then our projecting ourselves beyond anything we have actually got and formulating this conception of what experience must be transformed into if it is to be satisfactory.[22] 

The ideals of democracy and moral good are indeterminate, pre-reflective desires for harmonization and unity.  Their very indeterminacy assures that they cannot be fully realized in human action.  While a unified neighborhood can contribute to this indeterminate ideal of harmony, the concrete content of morally good actions is the product of a great variety of particular character habits.  Human beings act in the world of particulars, referring to this idea of the good.  But this ideal does not directly instantiate nor determine an act within a situation.  There is little hope that the physical unity of a neighborhood alone can ensure political and ethical virtue. 

            Second, habits acquired in urban neighborhoods do not predominantly express harmony and unity.  Jane Jacobs's analysis of urban neighborhoods in The Death and Life of Great American Cities also finds moral benefit to urban environments.  But it is not aesthetic harmony and unity that produces this moral benefit.  Instead, Jacobs emphasizes the drama and precariousness of these neighborhoods.[23]  She writes: 

     This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance.--not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have their distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.  The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.[24] 

The complexity and rhythm of a neighborhood cannot be explained in terms of aesthetic unity and harmonization.  Indeed, Jacobs argues that the precariousness and unpredictability of urban social interactions produces morally virtuous citizens.  Since we do not know if we are going to be caught, we refrain from anti-social behavior.  The public interactions that constitute the life of a neighborhood are lived not in artistic harmonizations, but dramatic rhythms.  Dewey agrees that a focus on aesthetically unified ideals ignores the complex rhythm and drama of human life.  He writes, "Religion as a sense of the whole is the most individualized of all things, the most spontaneous, undefinable and varied."[25]  Concentrating on the aesthetic harmonization of unified neighborhoods blinds interpreters to the creative disharmony that results from precariousness and produces some of the most ethical action. 

            This leads to a third criticism of new urbanism.  Dewey emphasizes in his tripartite exposition of moral action in the Ethics that aesthetic beauty and grace cannot exhaustively define ethics.  In his discussion of feelings of duty and sympathy, Dewey recognizes that conflict and disharmony are often a necessary component of moral action.  Perhaps the greatest example of this is Sophocles' Antigone.  Antigone cannot harmonize the demands of the king and the demands of loyalty to her brother.  Nevertheless, her feelings of duty and sympathy to both sides reassure us that her actions are ethical despite the fact that these acts exacerbate disharmony and conflict.  People express moral virtue as much in conflict and partiality as they do in harmonious integration of interests.  Muddling through situations with appropriate feelings of duty and sympathy are expressions of moral virtue as much as aesthetically harmonized ideals.  New urbanists have not sufficiently addressed the complex relationship between aesthetic harmony and ethical virtue.  Until they do, their exhortations concerning the moral benefit of traditional neighborhoods should be met with a degree of skepticism. 


            These criticisms are not intended to discredit new urbanism.  There are great environmental and social advantages to dense communities with multi-use buildings.  Indeed, many people idealize eighteenth and nineteenth century American towns precisely for these reasons.  The moral psychology of John Dewey supports the project of restoring meaningful public places in this country.  Dewey recognizes the importance of community and shared ideals as a prerequisite for democracy.  New urbanists are correct to assert that public places can project meaning, unify neighborhoods and express values.  But Dewey also recognizes that organic harmonized ideals that are solicited by a unified neighborhood are themselves indeterminate and must be instantiated in the activities and passions of concrete individual lives. 

            Kunstler writes, "I don't know if we will be able to reinstate a social contract that recognizes both rights and responsibilities within a social context.  It will certainly not be possible unless we restore that context, and I mean in bricks and mortar."[26]  Kunstler is right that our social habits are affected by public spaces that project unifying values, that mean something to their inhabitants.  Nevertheless, the bricks and mortar of the new urbanists cannot work miracles; public places cannot be asked to project determinate moral values into people's lives.  It is in the choices and actions of every individual that civic and public virtues are expressed.   Restoring meaningful public places means that we should not allow the chaos and individualism of private life to overwhelm these public places.  Public places can provide a context of significance; they cannot make people good. 

[1]James Howard Kunstler, Home From Nowhere:  Remaking our Everyday World for the Twenty-First Century (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1996), 20. 

[2]Kunstler, 20. 

[3]See Tom Alexander, John Dewey's Theory of Art, Experience and Nature:  The Horizons of Feeling (Albany:  State University of New York Press, 1987) for a general discussion of the importance of the aesthetic in Dewey's account of experience.  Steven Fesmire, "Dramatic Rehearsal and the Moral Artist:  A Deweyan Theory of Moral Understanding," Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 31 (Summer 1995), 568-597 discusses the role of aesthetic harmony in moral deliberation. 

[4]John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct:  An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York:  Random House, 1950 (Henry Holt, 1922)), 40-41. 

[5]Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 14. 

[6]Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, p. 182.

[7]Dewey, "The Study of Ethics:  A Syllabus," in Early Works ed. JoAnn Boydston (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1971) 4:  354.

[8]Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, The Meaning of Things:  Domestic Symbols and the Self (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981) claim that the objects and arrangements of households are indicative of the well-being of the inhabitants. 

[9]Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 37. 

[10]Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, "The Neighborhood, the District, and the Corridor," in Peter Katz, The New Urbanism, xvii.  Jacobs argues that an order to a physical place can make "selections that help people make, for themselves, order and sense, instead of chaos, from what they see." (378)  Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides write that monumental buildings are "unique and idiosyncratic, the points of concentrated social meaning in the city." in "The Street, the Block and the Building" Peter Katz, ed. The New Urbanism, xxiv. 

[11]Peter Calthorpe, "The Region," in Peter Katz, The New Urbanism (New York:  McGraw Hill, Inc., 1994), vii. 

[12]Stephen Fesmire in "Dramatic Rehearsal and the Moral Artist" argues that deliberation operates to achieve an aesthetic fit with prefigured experiences, integrating competing desires and addressing various values ecologically. 

[13]Dewey, Ethics, p. 271.

[14]Dewey, Ethics, p. 258. 

[15]Dewey, Ethics, p. 258.

[16]John Dewey, Lectures on Ethics (1900-1901), ed. Donald F. Koch (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), pp. 49, 52.

[17]John Dewey, "Search for the Great Community" reprinted in The Philosophy of John Dewey, ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1973), 622. 

[18]Dewey, "Search for the Great Community," 624.

[19]In Philosophy and the Reconstruction of Culture ed. John J. Stuhr (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1993) there are two articles that elaborate Dewey's radical understanding of democracy.  Stuhr's own article, "Democracy as a Way of Life" argues that we should understand democracy as an ideal of community attitudes.  James Campbell's article, "Democracy as Cooperative Inquiry" argues further that this ideal of democracy should be understood as cooperative inquiry.  Campbell's article also recognizes the importance of aesthetics in critiquing and crystallizing democratic practices (p. 21).  Both articles vigorously defend this idealistic understanding of democracy. 

[20]Dewey, "Search for the Great Community," 630.

[21]The Early Works of John Dewey, ed. Jo Ann Boydston, vol. 4, The Study of Ethics:  A Syllabus (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), 262. 

[22]Dewey, Lectures on Ethics, p. 25.

[23]Paul Goldberger, "It Takes a Village," The New Yorker (March 27, 2000) raises this criticism of new urbanism, writing that new urbanists "have a similar certainty that they can make life better for us all, and the only thing that compromises their brilliance is the absoluteness of their vision." (134)  He points out that new urbanists prefer harmony, unity and the absolute, while Jacobs "likes messiness." (134). 

[24]Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York:  Random House, 1961), 50. 

[25]Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 332.

[26]Kunstler, 52.