June 22, 2008

Thomas Jefferson and the 35-Acre Ranchette

On my recent trip to Virginia, I finally visited Monticello, the ridge-top trophy home of Thomas Jefferson, a man whose fingerprints are all over American culture to this day.

I admire him greatly. In fact, I found myself unexpectedly teary-eyed when after walking up the woods trail from the parking area (no shuttle bus for M. and me) I found myself gazing at his tombstone and its famous inscription:

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
And Father of the University of Virginia

Now there are some accomplishments "with legs."

But with all due respect, Citizen Jefferson, did you have to be so hard on cities as cancers on human society?

When I was teaching nature writing at the university, I sometimes mused aloud why Jefferson's attitudes, percolating through the meme-aquifers of our culture, could explain why we build ugly cities in America, and why so many people claim to want to flee them for more bucolic homes. (Sometimes they then find themselves unadapted for living in the mountains or wherever, but that is another story.)

In Colorado, the holy ideal is the 35-acre "ranchette," and the story is similar elsewhere. (Thirty-five acres because that is the smallest parcel a sub-divider can offer without legally being required go through a formal subdivision process, provide utilities, etc.)

And then--the Jeffersonian part--having occupied such parcels, the owners immediately put on like a suit of clothes all the virtues that Jefferson ascribed to the rural yeomanry, even though they themselves almost never engage in agricultural pursuits for money.

Yes, I live on a small mountain acreage, so I must have caught the Jeffersonian virus. In fact, M. and I experiment with plants and take notes on our failures and successes, so we definitely have it. But she has lived in Manhattan and I in other cities, and we both admit that living in a vibrant city (as opposed to a suburb full of strip malls) can be exciting. We just decided not to do it anymore.

We think that if cities were designed for people rather than for cars, more people might want to live in them, and there would be less pressure for creating rural subdivisions outside them.

It's a pity that Citizen Jefferson did not turn his architectural talents, which were genuine, to urban design as well as to designing country residences and buildings at the University of Virginia.

During our stay in Charlottesville, an acquaintance there--an environmental activist/blogger who works on land-use issues--said that every time someone tries to write zoning regs to restrict ridge-top trophy homes, the would-be builder will complain, "If they'd had this law back in the 18th century, Jefferson couldn't have built Monticello."

And there is some truth to that. Of course, he owned most of what he could see from the front steps, if that is grounds for an exemption.


Mark Churchill said...

Conservation organizations and their members decry habitat destruction (by which they often mean deforestation in the Amazon), but all too often those members are themselves driving the process closer to home. The suburbs and ranchettes (built, of course, on former agricultural and wild lands) are full of Audubon and Sierra Club types, many of whom moved out of the cities specifically to be "closer to nature". Aarrgh...

As Chas notes, better urban design is one component of a strategy to slow suburban sprawl. Another should be promoting community-based policing (e.g., cops walking a beat, subsidies for law-enforcement personnel to buy homes in sensitive neighborhoods, etc.) to reduce urban crime, often cited as a primary reason for "white flight" (though of course it's not just white people leaving urban centers).

During the hunting season, when I drive almost daily from my 1920's core neighborhood out to the field with my hawk and my dogs, I sometimes think it would be easier to live further out. But living in the city, like having only one child, is a "sacrifice" I'm willing to make. (And from which I reap other benefits.)

I am generally a fan of Jefferson as well, but there's no escaping the fact that his agrarian ideals (and enthusiasm for westward expansion) have had unfortunate repercussions, from Manifest Destiny and its effects on Native peoples to population sprawl and its effects on wildlife species both common and rare...

Steve Bodio said...

Well stated (both Chas and Mark.) Ranchette subdivision is the bane of the west these days. If I can't have a whole ranch (which I can't) I'd rather live in a hunman- scaled old village (which I do.)

One thing I'd like to see is more allowance for livestock and gardens in communities. I won't live where I can't have a garden, pigeons, animals etc. , and such choices are going to become more important as fuel becomes more expensive.

I always enjoyed city life too-- but can't have it with the things i find necessary today. Too bad.

Tree hugging said...

Chas, thanks for the mention, and glad to have you vist our fair city.

Okay... here's my perspective. First of all there is no silver bullet. Localities need a range of tools to manage growth wisely. As has been pointed out, New Urbanism which focuses growth in the areas that already have existing infrastructure is one way. Key to that is buidling greenspace into the design. I feel that pschologically, people flee cities because they feel the need to see living things. If we integrate nature into the city (as well as make it more walkable), then more people would want to live there.

Okay, then there is a totally different model... You are always going to have rural areas and people that want to live there. So, how do you preserve farm land and keep it from being irresponsibly carved into subdivisions? Preservation Development is another model which, when done right, can be effective. An example near me is Bundoran Farm, which was designed by the guy that basically coined the term. It works by integrating farmland and greenspace into the neighborhoods. That way, the "35 Acre Ranchette", it shared as common space and working farm under community ownership.

I do think that if T.J. was around now, he'd definitely have been advocating for many of the new forms of designing our communities. After all, he was a big advocate for using native plants within landscaping, and built greenspaces and gardens around the core of his University, because he believed that being surrounded by nature and gardens was important to learning. As I told Chas, he was a man of paradox. All those things people are saying here about him encouraging sprawl, manifest destiny and the rest is true, but also nestled in his writings are the very tools towards combating those things as well. Understanding TJs pardoxical legacy I think can often shed some light on our own struggles and conflicts as a nation.