John Muir and Livable Cities
Over the holiday I read a new biography of John Muir, the iconic Victorian-era environmentalist and tireless advocate for wilderness conservation who helped establish the Sierra Club. Written by environmental historian Donald Worster, the book narrates Muir’s well-known struggle and political machinations over the damming of Hetch Hetchy. Less widely known was that as a pacifist Muir was a draft dodger during the Civil War (he did abhor slavery), and although he believed America was immoral for allowing the 19th century killing-off of animals, he had to subsume his values to court Teddy Roosevelt, an avid sports hunter, in order to advocate for protecting wilderness. The storylines about Muir included a critical deconstruction of the politics of the early American conservation movement and this led me to reflect on the similarities between that movement and San Francisco’s contemporary livable city movement.
Muir never articulated an urban environmental agenda but a significant parallel involves the moral and ethical discourses that were invoked by Muir and by today’s livable city movement. Both Muir and the livable city movement frame their cause in moral terms and as benefiting society through a kind of civilizing process. Muir believed that a love and understanding of nature would elevate humanity and help alleviate tension and conflict. Nature was a type of social therapy. Similarly many livable city advocates believe that "how we get there matters" and have a moral discourse that links things like bicycling and walkable streets to good health, less pollution, and less dependency on corporate-controlled oil. In this framework, urban configurations are connected to wider moral-social problems of over-consumption and excessive materialism. To address pressing problems like global warming, resource depletion, and alienation, the city of today must be reorganized and made more humane and connected to nature. This reorganization, like wilderness preservation for Muir, is guided by ethics and not money.
Yet both Muir and today’s progressive livable cities movement align with capital to get things done. Muir had Edward Harriman of the Southern Pacific Railway as a patron, and in his later years was more prone to cozy-up with the ruling class rather than tramping around the Sierra like a vagabond. Today, there is a political alignment between environmentalists, urbanists and real estate developers who were once deeply at odds over land use policies. “Smart Growth” movements like the recently established coalition advocating for more federal funding for transit (Transportation for America) are joined by the National Real Estate Association. In San Francisco, the local manifestation of this is the work of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) and the Housing Action Coalition (HAC). A notable outcome of this loose alliance is the way in which political progressives in San Francisco have embraced neoliberal theories of pricing as a strategy to transform transportation. Progressive advocacy of strategies like congestion and parking pricing reflects the parallel trend in contemporary conservation efforts, whereby private capital is frequently used to conserve open space rather than the traditional method of direct state intervention and regulation. Today, some livable city advocates have shifted from a discourse of explicitly banning or limiting cars to one of pricing the car and commodifying street space.
But a conundrum arises with this alliance between progressives in the livable city movement and capital. At times the livable city movement appears to have lost some of its populist edge. Again, the story of Muir has parallels worth considering. Swirling around Muir during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were blunt populist and socialist challenges to gilded age capitalism. Muir was sympathetic to concepts of economic redistribution and loathed the massive ecological destruction of big capital, but was somewhat detached from the day-to-day political struggle between capital and labor. Muir even sided with capital for pragmatic reasons having to do with financing the conservation movement. For example, he preferred William McKinley over the populist William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 Presidential election because he thought McKinley was more prone to protect wilderness. His friendship with railroad baron Edward Harriman led Muir to look the other way as Southern Pacific battled California progressives over labor and other issues. A revolutionary Muir was not.
In many ways Muir was similar to the reformist New Urbanists who are part of the livable city movement – seeking a pragmatic balance between populist causes (affordable housing) with bourgeois interests (private property, quality of life). Muir’s conservation ethos was that love of nature would balance the labor-capital divide. New Urbanists have parallel beliefs about good urbanism. Good city form, mixing land uses and housing types, and providing walkable urbanism, helps resolve some (but by no means all) social ills. This reformist approach reflects Muir’s and the New Urbanist tendency towards a secular-scientific based pragmatism in politics that hold skepticism towards rigidly defined ideologies such as socialism or libertarianism. Muir, like livable city advocates, held progressive/liberal values of freedom of thought, encouraging individuality, openness and experience and an “enlightened utilitarianism” centered on the use of resources in a careful and rational way. But as a pacifist who abhorred hunting, he tempered his values to support hunting for food, and endorsed the militant and imperialist McKinley and Roosevelt. Many livable city advocates acknowledge that in today’s economic framework there must be for-profit housing built to cross-subsidize affordable housing.
One last point worth considering is that Muir’s sense of social justice was more a worry about future generations rather than the contemporary class struggle waged around him. As livable city advocates promote urban densification and reduced automobility, it is worth taking heed of that. A populist working class appeal should be part of the livable city discourse. For example, as livable city advocates grapple with improving Muni they should not always reduce Muni’s operating deficits to one of obstinate labor unions – as San Francisco’s capitalist class is so apt at doing. And as pricing is pursued as transportation policy, it should be assured that the revenue go towards improving the non-automobility of San Francisco’s working class and not simply beautification of streetscapes in neighborhoods already endowed with wealth, or towards mega-infrastructure that enhances real estate values but does nothing for making the working class journey to work affordable in both money and time.