Civitas, a roman term, described the status of citizenship in the Roman empire as well as a type of semi-autonomous settlement made up of cives. Doug Kelbaugh, in comparing different paradigms of urbanism (New Urbanism, Everyday Urbanism & Post Urbanism), focuses on this term in an article that relates the differnt types of urbanism to the public realm (PDF). While it is relatively academic there are a number of interesting insights throughout the article.
The final section that binds the three urbanisms together, subtitled Civitas: the Public Realm, talks at length about how “Without community, without civitas, we are all doomed to private worlds that are more selfish and loveless than they need to be.”
The following ideas fly counter to much of the conventional thinking in American cities, but maybe radical reconfiguration of values is just what is needed as, like rest of the world, we become increasingly urban.
Kelbaugh cites Andrés Duany’s observation that there is “a widespread tendency within architectural avant-garde to equate order with repression and, by extension, disorder with democracy”
I’m guilty of this so it caught my attention. He goes on to say that
“the modern conception of democracy, as set out by western philosophers such as John Locke, has been about civic responsibility as well as personal rights and freedoms. Only this century in America have individual freedom and license trumped civic responsibility and duty. Private rights now overwhelm group rights, at great cost to community. “
There is some explanation o ideas that lead into a more detailed discussion about community that deals with the arguments and counter arguments about why this is, but generally it boils down to the dichotomy between people needing to be part of a larger social system and needing to express themselves as individuals. This requires a balance of tolerance and respect.
This, as he admits, “is easier said than done, as America has found after centuries of slavery and immigration. It is becoming an even bigger challenge as more and more American grow up without first hand experience and skills in city living.”
Community must deal with the full range of human nature, including its own dark side. If it projects its own disfunction and pathologies onto an outside enemy or stigmatized minority, it has not fully faced itself and is in collective denial. More typically, the unity in community is bought at the price of identifying enemies, who are sure to return the favor.
Enemies will get even some day, as the chain reaction of intolerance and injustice is perpetuated. If this dialectic is an inevitable part of the human condition, the question arises as to what is the most hospitiable scale for social harmony and political unity and the least hospitable scale for hatred and enmity.
Americans have been quick to exchange the more raw and uncomfortable sidewalk life of the inner city for the easy and banal TV life of the suburban family room. We have been to quick to give up the public life that American cities have slowly mustered in spite of a long legacy of Jeffersonian rural yeomanry and anti urbanism. It has been our good fortune that immigrants from countires with strong public realms have imported urban and ethnic values for which we are much the richer.
The property rights movement is, in my opinion, one of the greatest threats to civitas. The conflict between private property rights and community rights (including intellectual property rights) could shake this country to its constitutional roots inthe next decade. Property rightist must come to grips with the fact that rights attached to land ownership are part of a social contract and not inalienable, absolute, natural, or God-given.
… property rights are stronger in the U.S.A. than in any other country on earth. They have long played a central role in shaping American urbanism or, more accurately, in keeping government from shaping it. We have increasingly fragmented private development within a public realm that is often little more than leftover space. In other counties, the public sector takes a stronger planning and regulatory role in urban development, and private property rights are more frequently trumped by the public good.