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Letters -- December 1996

Home From Nowhere

The E Word

Proportionalism

Advice & Consent



Home From Nowhere


James Howard Kunstler "Home From Nowhere," (September Atlantic ) is the Steve Forbes of urban development. As Forbes proposed to abolish the tax code to solve all our economic problems, Kunstler advocates eliminating land-use zoning to solve all our urban problems. I am no defender of highway strips and malls, but Kunstler's essay relies on several questionable assumptions: 1) that most people constantly notice and are depressed by the passing urban scene as they travel about; 2) that they would rather walk or bike than drive, regardless of weather, time of day, age, or need to transport children, pets, or objects; 3) that pre-zoning mixed uses would necessarily be preferable to whatever has been built since zoning arrived; and 4) that zoning is the root of all urban evil.

In fact, zoning may have been more influential by default than by design over the past three decades. Far more important factors have been the building of the interstate highway system, housing subsidies, economic restructuring and the rise of the service sector, the telecommunications and computer revolutions, fear of crime, the decline of central cities, school concerns, federal deregulation of S&L lenders, and federal tax deductions for mortgage interest, property taxes, and rapid depreciation of useless investment properties. All these have shaped our urban places for better or worse, and none involves zoning. Indeed, Forbes's concern about the tax code was closer to the root of our urban evils than Kunstler's fixation on zoning.

Rutherford H. Platt
Professor of Geography
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Amherst, Mass.


James Kunstler undercuts his own good work by overstating the damage done by current zoning laws and understating everything else. If zoning were the chief culprit, then Houston, which has never had conventional zoning laws, would not now be even less livable than Los Angeles. And if the kind of town planning that Kunstler extols were all that was needed, then Savannah, Georgia -- which perhaps best meets Kunstler's criteria -- wouldn't have gone into a long decline. Or at least Broughton Street (its main business thoroughfare) would have kept pace with the rest of Savannah's restoration.

Sadly, other forces play a big role in the partial deconstruction of America's cities and towns. (Kunstler seems to have said as much in other writings.) Foremost, of course, is the automobile. Until our political system can reasonably assess the real costs associated with our "one car, no passenger" habits, there is little chance that changes in the zoning laws will much matter.

Steve Stein
Tiburon, Calif.


A well-designed ranch house can fit comfortably in a true neighborhood, and makes sense for people who cannot handle stairs (an increasing proportion of the population is elderly). To condemn horizontal windows as overly sensual is just plain silly. My childhood home had horizontal windows, and I can assure you that their orientation did not corrupt my morals in any way.

Susan K. Reynolds
St. Louis, Mo.


James Kunstler seems to assume that in the absence of the current zoning, the kind of urban development he envisions would naturally appear. This is far from obvious. Citing the construction industry, car dealers, and politicians as the purveyors of "sprawl" (a pejorative term that does not even allow for the possibility of benefits associated with low-density development), Kunstler fails to consider the role of market forces. Isn't it possible that much of the built environment ultimately reflects the preferences of us, the consumers?

Many people don't want to live above shops. Such locations tend to be noisy and dirty, and inconvenient for autos. Many people prefer private space (large lots) to public space. Many enjoy the sense of privacy afforded by setbacks from the street. Many, many people like being able to drive everywhere and park nearby. Rather than shop in a neighborhood store, many people prefer to drive to a large store that offers a better selection and lower prices. Just last week in my city people lined up early in the morning to be among the first to shop at our new Wal-Mart on grand opening day.

In my view, zoning is sometimes good (when it protects citizens from environmental nuisances, and prevents unrestricted destruction of environmental amenities such as wetlands), sometimes bad (for example, when it has the effect of excluding low-income residents from a suburban jurisdiction), and often irrelevant (McDonald's would not build a restaurant in the middle of a residential neighborhood even in the absence of zoning).

Julia Hansen
Bellingham, Wash


James Howard Kunstler replies:

A number of correspondents suppose that advocate the elimination of zoning and nothing more as the remedy for the disease of suburban sprawl. My article was precise and emphatic on this point:the gross abstractions of zoning must be replaced by the enduring principles of civic design. While some cities can, like Houston, achieve the miserable results of suburban sprawl without any rules whatever, zoning makes suburban sprawl mandatory and inevitable even in places with higher aspirations.

Particularly interesting, and shocking, are the comments of Professor Rutherford H. Platt. 1.) That most people are unaffected by the tawdriness of suburban sprawl. This is tantamount to a bald confession that the planning-and-zoning profession is unconcerned with whether its work produces human happiness or not. The salient characteristic of the human habitat in America today is that it is composed of places not worth caring about. The result will soon be a nation not worth defending. 2.)That I fail to recognize that people sometimes need to use cars. This is merely a silly inference. Rather, Iclearly advocate a human habitat that provides for pedestrians as well as motorists. 3.)That history, tradition, and human culture offer us nothing useful in respect to civic design. This has been the dogmatic position of many graduate schools of design since the Second World War. The ruined cities and ravaged countryside of America testify to the utter failure of this world view. 4.) That zoning is a straw man unfairly blamed for the ills of civic design in our age. In fact zoning is a set of explicit instructions, uniformly applied throughout the United States and given the force of law, under which it becomes impossible to construct the dwelling place of a true civilization.



The E Word

Cullen Murphy, in his delightful article "The E Word" (September Atlantic ) cites H. W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage to demonstrate that the word "privy" is one of a series of "progressively superseded euphemisms." I hasten to point out that at least in this neck of the woods the term is alive and well. In the Lemoine Point Conservation Area, near Kingston, all the "private places of ease," as the third edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1959) defines the word, are signposted throughout the 337 acres of forest, field, and marsh as "privies." To be sure, the seventh edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1984) does describe the word as "arch. or US," but I like to think that our Canadian sign writers were simply trying to be succinct, earthy, and accurate, since the "WCs" in the forest have no water, and "toilet" seems too modern to depict the rather rustic outhouse accommodations that visitors to Lemoine Point enjoy.

Anthony W. Riley
Kingston, Ont.


Cullen Murphy's engrossing article "The E Word" reminded me of a former brother-in-law who, when visiting, would ask, "Pardon me, but could you show me the way to the euphemism?"

Pauline Monson
Birchrunville, Pa.



Proportionalism

I am concerned that readers of Robert D. Kaplan's article "Proportionalism" (August Atlantic) may be led to believe that "doing or accepting a certain amount of 'evil' to make possible a proportionately greater amount of good" means accepting problems for which there are solutions. That 35,000 children a day (nearly 13 million a year -- more than twice the number of deaths attributed to the Holocaust) die of preventable malnutrition and disease is one of those problems.

Sixty percent of these deaths are caused by measles, diarrheal diseases, and pneumonia. A dose of measles vaccine costs pennies. Just ten years ago 2.6 million children died annually from measles. That number has been reduced to one million because of an increase in immunization rates from 25 percent to 80 percent which stemmed from national commitments made at the 1990 World Summit for Children and from the efforts of international agencies such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Diarrheal diseases take the lives of three million children a year. More than half these deaths are caused by dehydration, which can be prevented by a remarkably inexpensive treatment called oral rehydration therapy (it combines boiled and cooled water, sugar, and salt in the correct proportions). Pneumonia takes the lives of more than three million children each year, lives that could be saved if parents knew the danger signs, if community health workers were trained to diagnose pneumonia, and if low-cost antibiotics were available.

Although Kaplan emphasizes population control, women's literacy, and resource-renewal projects, he does not mention relatively inexpensive U.S. government programs such as the USAID Child Survival and Disease Account and other bilateral assistance efforts that provide the micronutrients iodine and vitamin A. Another important aspect of ending hunger on the planet is microcredit, the lending of small amounts of money to very poor people, especially women, to begin small businesses that lift them and their families out of poverty [see "The Barefoot Bank With Cheek,"December, 1995, Atlantic]. With a repayment rate of 98 percent at around 16 percent interest, who could ask for a better investment?

If funded at the levels recommended in the James P. Grant World Summit for Children Implementation Act, these programs -- immunization, oral rehydration, child survival, family planning, basic education (especially for girls), micronutrients, and microcredit -- could save the lives of millions of children a year. This funding would constitute only 0.14 percent of our total foreign aid, which is only one percent of the federal budget. All that is lacking is the political will to make that funding a reality. Because people, not governments, create political will, it is critical that Kaplan's notion of proportionalism not deter us from what is now possible.

Dennis Sparks
Ann Arbor, Mich.


Robert Kaplan argues that "helping Africa is strategically important." But his suggestion that Africa's history and environment inherently preclude successful development and his contention that the best that aid can do is "slow societal deterioration gradually" will likely have the opposite political effect. Instead of consolidating support for development and humanitarian aid, such a mindset is more likely to evoke hopelessness and resignation.

Luckily, Kaplan's sensationalistic vision of Africa is deeply flawed. Although that continent has more than its share of failed states, most African states are undertaking the difficult project of economic reform and political reconciliation -- and many of them are beginning to succeed. Ghana and Uganda, which a decade ago were failed states themselves, are in the forefront of these efforts. So much for Kaplan's fatalistic Afro-pessimism.

Indeed, according to the International Monetary Fund, something of an economic boom is going on in sub-Saharan Africa, with growth increasing from one percent in 1993 to more than three percent in 1995, and predicted to reach more than five percent this year. As a result of this turnaround, many African countries have begun to reverse their marginalized position in the international economy. Last year alone U.S. trade with Africa grew by 20 percent. Africa is also beginning to participate in the emerging-market phenomenon, receiving approximately $20 billion in private capital inflows in the past two years.

In this context development aid can be defended, not as a finger in the dike against social deterioration but as a tool to facilitate difficult transitions and support Africa's own efforts to achieve progress. The primary purpose of foreign aid in Africa should be to facilitate economic growth and the creation of a stable investment climate that can speed up Africa's effective integration into the global economy.

David F. Gordon
Overseas Development Council
Washington, D.C.


Robert D. Kaplan replies:

Fighting children's diseases anywhere is obviously worthy. In my article I emphasized population control, women's literacy, and resource renewal because it is in those broad areas that both social development and a more advantageous relationship between suffering peoples and their environments are more likely to be achieved. Without such fundamental improvements new diseases may continue to replace old ones.

The IMF statistics are welcome news. As David Gordon indicates, economic reform and political reconciliation -- and, I might add, world price hikes in some agricultural commodities -- have been responsible for much of this growth. It is precisely such factors -- a continent's own economic and political evolution, along with the world economic climate -- that can pivotally affect history. Exceptionalcases aside, though, the evidence that U.S. foreign aid will make the difference for an entire continent is weak. Yet the programs I recommended would dovetail nicely with the economic reforms Mr. Gordon says are under way. Both Mr. Gordon and I support foreign aid for the poorest parts of the globe. He is more optimistic than I was to the ultimate effect. I hope he will be proved right.



Advice & Consent

Almost seventy years ago a woman named Lulu Jenkins decided to study the throwing abilities of youngsters, and published the results in A Comparative Study of Motor Achievements of Children of Five, Six, and Seven Years of Age (1930). Jenkins found that by age three and a half, boys threw farther and more accurately than girls, and that by age five, boys but not girls began to throw by facing away from their target and shifting their weight from one foot to the other in the classic throwing motion.

James Fallows would argue, as he did in "Throwing Like a Girl" (August Atlantic ), that even at such a young age such differences can be explained by differences in training, either formal or informal, and that given the same training, girls would throw just as well as boys. Nothing in his essay, however, supports that argument.

First of all, athletic ability is determined as much by the control of musculature, or "motor skills," as by skeletal structure. Proper shoulder design is a necessary but insufficient condition for throwing well. Thus the observation that men and women have the same shoulder anatomy goes no way at all toward proving that differences in throwing ability have no biological basis.

Second, differences in athletic ability, like other differences between men and women, are not absolute. To say that "men throw better than women" is to say not that all men throw better than all women but that a greater number of men than of women throw well. That some women throw well is nothing more than what anyone would expect.

Third, Fallows flatly states that the throwing motion is "not at all innate." But since innate behavior is any behavior, no matter how complex, lacking a learning history, it is impossible to determine innateness simply by observing it. Even if we grant that throwing is strictly a learned behavior, it doesn't necessarily follow that anyone can learn it.

Finally, Fallows bases his entire argument on what "seems" to him to be the experience of boys and girls "in the playground or the back yard." One might charitably assume that he has actually made such observations, but they hardly constitute scientific evidence.

Michael Levin, in the introduction to Feminism and Freedom (1987), wrote, "It is a measure of the ability of slogans to paralyze thought that any writer should have to explicitly disavow the patent absurdity that men are better than women, but I shall enter one such disavowal here. Men are not better than women and women are not better than men; men and women differ." It is disturbing that an intelligent person could arrive at such sweeping conclusions about human society based on nothing more than anecdotal evidence and bad logic. What is more disturbing is that "Throwing Like a Girl" perpetuates that article of feminist faith most demeaning to women, which is that in order to be as good as men, they must be the same as men. The ultimate irony of the women's movement, as James Fallows clearly demonstrates, is that it so often amounts to little more than a pathetic adoration of everything male.

A. Sam Knox
Pendleton, Oreg.


According to Charles Trueheart's "Welcome to the Next Church" (August Atlantic), the Next Church appears to be disturbingly disconnected from the larger society of which it is part. All of the Next Church's volunteerism is apparently directed inward; "outreach," if that is the appropriate word, is actually marketing. The energy of the Next Church therefore benefits the Next Church -- a nice bit of Boomer self-absorption if ever I saw one. And what about the money these mega-congregations generate? Trueheart is largely silent on this revealing topic. As tax-exempt institutions, Next Churches use publicly financed infrastructure and services without having to pay for them -- yet another way they take but do not give. Are we really to admire institutions whose insularity makes them so deeply irrelevant to every social issue save the Boomer's unquenchable need to belong?

Gary B. MacDonald
Indianapolis, Ind.


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1996; Letters; Volume 278, No. 6; pages 8-14.

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