On Individualism, Being American and Striving for Sustainability

Yesterday, Americans celebrated independence — strictly speaking, our independence from the British crown. More broadly speaking, the Fourth of July is also a celebration of personal independence, freedom and individualism.

Since for many people the single-family home has come to represent, as George H. W. Bush put it, “the American way of life,” urbanists often find themselves on the defensive when the subject turns to sustainable development and personal freedoms. But as Roger Valdez at Seattle Transit Blog points out, the nation’s founders had more nuanced views than many people realize:

The first words of our written Constitution, imperfect as it may be, are plural: “We the people.

Digging bunkers won’t help us address the pressing environmental and economic problems we face. We have to tap into that other strain of American idealism represented by figures like John Adams, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster who are often marginalized by our worship of Thomas Jefferson. Clay developed the American System, a comprehensive, government driven expansion of infrastructure that built a transportation system for the United States in its early years.

Individual expression is important, but so is our civic duty to others and we should articulate this aspect of American tradition more clearly in our language when we talk to people about growth and sustainability. American tradition includes the common cause, and supporting each other in times of change and challenge. Building better cities in our region, funding transit, and planning for sustainable growth will mean thinking big and beyond the principled stand of lone individuals protecting their rights.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Baltimore Spokes shares data condemning Maryland’s track record on bike and pedestrian spending. Transport Nexus wonders if zoning is really the biggest culprit for America’s car dependency. And The Bellows responds to criticism that “market-based urbanists” are too intent on describing the problems with zoning and planning policies and not focused enough on providing solutions.