Four men cross the street


Over the Christmas holiday in late 2008, I read two book-length interviews with Ivan Illich by David Cayley, a Canadian broadcast journalist. In passing, Illich mentioned Leopold Kohr, an Austrian political theorist best known for the phrase, “Small is beautiful.” In a talk that Illich gave at Yale University in October 1994, he noted that Kohr advocated for proportionality rather than smallness. As Illich developed Kohr’s main themes, I saw his relevance to how we think and talk about urban density.

Kohr argued that everything that exists has natural limits, and that cities arose and thrived thanks to a widely shared “common sense” about the limits of their pieces and parts, and the ways in which they properly related to each other. Proportionality for Kohr meant “the appropriateness of the relationship.” Another key word for him was certain, as in “a certain way.”

Kohr would say that bicycling is ideally appropriate for one living a certain place. This statement reveals that “certain,” as used here, is as distant from “certainty” as “appropriate” is from “efficient.” “Certain” challenges one to think about the specific meaning that fits, while “appropriate” guides one to knowledge of the Good. Taking “appropriate” and a “certain place” together allows Kohr to see the human social condition as that ever unique and boundary-making limit within which each community can engage in discussion about what ought to be allowed and what ought to be excluded.

In other words, we cannot meaningfully discuss density except in relation to a certain place. One question that density poses is, “What relationships are appropriate to that place?” It’s not a question that is meant to be posed or discussed in abstract. “Who is the community?” is also a relevant question: in relation to a certain place, “community” is no abstraction, either. In his talk, Illich noted that, with the Enlightenment, we began to lose our grasp of proportionality in this sense.

The price of modernity

“Plato would have known what Kohr was talking about” Illich said. “In his treatise on statecraft he remarks that the bad politician confuses measurement with proportionality. Such a person would not recognize what is appropriate to a particular ethos, a word that originally implied a dwelling place, later something like ‘popular character.’” Also lost is paideia, “the attuning of the common sense to the ways of a certain community, and tonos, which one can understand as ‘the just measure,’ ‘reasonableness,’ or ‘proportion.’ A hundred years before the French Revolution, proportion as a guiding idea, as the condition for finding one’s basic stance, began to be lost.”

This disappearance has hardly been recognized in cultural history. The correspondence between up and down, right and left, macro and micro, was acknowledged intellectually, sense perception confirming it, until the end of the 17th century. Proportion was also a lodestar for the experience of one’s body, of the other, and of gendered relations. Space was simply understood as a familiar cosmos. Cosmos meant that order of relationships in which things are originally placed. For this relatedness—this tension or inclination of things, one to another, their tonos—we no longer have a word. Tonos was silenced in the course of Enlightenment progress as a victim of the desire to quantify justice. Therefore we face a delicate task: to retrieve something like a lost ear, an abandoned sensibility.

Illich also pointed to temperament, which went from being “the combination of qualities in a certain proportion, determining the characteristic nature of something,” as medieval philosophy defined it. “To temper was to bring something to its proper or suitable condition, to modify or moderate something favorably, to achieve a just measure.” At the beginning of the 18th century, it “came to mean to tune a note or instrument in music to fixed intonation,” Illich said. The universal and general thus replaced the local and specific. “Proportionality being lost, neither harmony nor disharmony retains any roots in an ethos. The Good, Kohr’s ‘certain appropriateness,’ becomes trite, if not a historical relic.” The result is a shift from “the Good” to “values.”

An ethics of value—with its misplaced concreteness—allowed one to speak of human problems. If people had problems, it no longer made sense to speak of human choice. People could demand solutions. To find them, values could be shifted and prioritized, manipulated and maximized. Not only the language but the very modes of thinking found in mathematics could norm the realm of human relationships. Algorithms “purified” value by filtering out appropriateness.

Modernity, that child of the enlightenment, comes with a price. How we think and talk about density today is symptomatic of what it has cost us. This is what I take from Kohr and Illich. While there are proponents of higher-density urban development who speak eloquently about urbanity and manage to achieve it, density in practice can be a diktat of abstract values that leads more often than not to a redeveloped cityscape that is placeless, generic, and disharmonious.

Reframing density

Cities like San Francisco and Berkeley exemplify our current dilemma around density. On one side are the advocates for what might be called “regional, long-term values.” On the other side is the local community, appalled by redevelopment proposals that disregard current zoning and posit a fabric that is radically altered from what exists. All this occurs within a drawn-out and politicized entitlements process, fought as a zero-sum game. Reading Illich on Kohr, I wondered if what’s actually broken is the way we think of density in an urban context. How can we reframe it? Three changes seem crucial:

First, we need recognize that density’s effects are always specific. Another question to ask of density is, “What will it actually contribute to this place—this site, block, neighborhood, district—in terms of livability, urbanity, and sustainability?” It’s also important to ask “Who will benefit from any changes to the existing fabric that alters its density?” Especially so when the changes proposed will undo existing agreements on the character of that fabric.

Second, we need to revive the rule of law in urban redevelopment. In San Francisco and Berkeley, its loss has led to a politicized, case-by-case entitlements process. Glacial and expensive, it makes every project a protracted struggle, while undermining the existing planning framework that, at least in theory, codifies good practices and precedents.

Third, we need to restore a “common sense” about proportionality and appropriateness, so that density regains its innate connection to actual settings and to those who live and work in them. There is a supposition that ordinary people cannot be trusted to make decisions about density, yet the results of a process dominated by experts don’t inspire much trust in their greater wisdom.

By rooting density in the specifics of a place, the larger principles that make a higher density desirable can be considered in application. Is this the place to shift the density higher, and if so, then how and how much? What will this imply for adjoining areas? Do we need new rules—or old rules reaffirmed—to maintain these areas as they are or ensure that their future redevelopment is appropriate?

Restoring common sense

These are obvious questions, but they are not being posed. Density is considered a value for its own sake—socially useful. The actual results are often a disaster. Ordinary people are up in arms, because they realize that the governments of their own cities have turned against them. That’s steadily breeding a reaction, even in progressive San Francisco and Berkeley, where people accept that higher density is necessary. It’s not just “Not in my backyard!” The reaction is really “common sense,” a desire to preserve the quality of the city against incursions that undermine it. With justification, there’s little confidence that what’s being proposed won’t result in a net loss of urbanity for a neighborhood or a district.

We all know of places that, by adding new density thoughtfully, have gained hugely in urbanity. These are the benchmarks to which Smart Growth advocates point, but they’re the exception. Every time mediocrity gets a pass in the name of higher density, the case for it gets weaker in the public’s mind. Every time some out-of-scale project emerges from entitlements, bloated by the need to recoup what politicians have managed to extract from it, the public sees higher density as yet another form of corruption.

The divide will get worse, not better, until density is reframed. Cities will get worse, too, until urbanity is seen as the necessary outcome of redevelopment. Behind urbanity are the place–specifics of proportionality and appropriateness, as Kohr and Illich noted. Without that sense of tonos, we are not as smart about growth as we need to be. —John Parman


  1. David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992, and The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich, Anansi, 2005.
  2. Ivan Illich, The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr, 14th Annual E.F. Schumacher Lecture, Yale University, October 1994, E.F. Schumacher Society, 1996.
  3. This was neatly illustrated in an article on 4 July 2010 by Jonathan Weber in the New York Times, quoting Smart Growth advocate Peter Calthorpe, who spoke approvingly of such proposed mega- projects as the environmentally-vulnerable Saltworks in Redwood City, seeing that partial-wetlands development as responsible in the longer run, as against the short-sightedness of its local critics.

Still unpublished, this was written for a Smart Growth advocacy group in Manhattan that put out a call for papers during the late December 2009 break. This is the sixth draft, considerably cut down. —John Parman

John Parman is an editor and writer based in Berkeley, California

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