An Interview with Daniel Kemmis
(Oregon Planners' Journal, February 1996)
By Richard H. Carson,
Daniel Kemmis was in town this January to discuss his latest book, The Good City and the Good Life, at Portland State University, Lewis and Clark College and Powell's Book Store. His first book was Community and the Politics of Place (1990). Dan grew up on a small farm in eastern Montana and later went to Harvard College and the University of Montana Law School. He has had a lifelong fascination with politics and was Speaker of the House in the Montana legislature. He is currently in his second term as the Mayor of Missoula.
Editor: You have strong feelings about the introduction of "big box" retail outlets into the city environment. You have even called them parasitic. Why?
Kemmis: Good citizenship among retailers is, I think fundamental to a good community. The concern that I have about the "big box" phenomenon - the category killers - is that so often it appears that their only reason for existence, their only reason to be in a community, is to capture market share and to do what it takes to accomplish that. And that they tend to be single-minded about that and to pay relatively little attention to civic structure of the community. Their mode of operation is not to compete, but to kill out the competition.
Editor: The basic premise of your book is that individual city (or city-state) - and not the nation-state - is the fundamental building block of political decision making. In applying that to Oregon's statewide land use planning program, would that argue for a more decentralized, even regionalized, approach to land use planning?
Kemmis: First of all I am very hesitant in any way criticize the Oregon approach because it clearly more progressive than the Montana approach. On the other hand, I think that in the long run it may prove to be the case that some areas of the state are going to need more flexibility than a statewide system gives them. I think its very important to - at the very least - always assure that a statewide system creates a kind a floor, but that you're able to build a more localized structure on top of it.
One of the things that really intrigues me is the idea of an urban growth boundary' seems to me to have a kind of fundamental importance to it. And it sort of reminds me of something we lost a few centuries ago. That is it used to be that cities had walls and you knew where the city ended. Gun powder essentially destroyed that feature of cities and then the automobile destroyed in a whole new way. So we've got this phenomenon of sprawl and the city now has no inherent way of contain itself. So the state imposition of a growth boundary accomplished something that seems to me to be very important. I would a whole lot rather figure out how to give citi-states the power to do that for themselves. But lacking that power, lacking any modern equivalent of the city wall, then the best alternative is a state imposed wall.
Editor: You quote Christopher Alexander as saying "Every increment of construction must be
made in such a way as to heal the city." How can land use planners realistically translate this idea through the most basic unit of city development - the residential subdivision?
Kemmis: I think that in general that really is the key question. We should have ways of both reviewing subdivisions and of encouraging developers to create subdivisions which hive regard to the w iv that this subdivision relates to its neighborhood. Does it in fact build a stronger neighborhood or doesn't it? If you have a subdivision that is basically a cul-de-sac that guarantees that the people will never see anybody except the people in this subdivision, then you created a particular kind of living arrangement that probably isn't building neighborhood. How does it sit in relation to the larger body of the city. Does it make that larger body more whole, more integrated, more satisfying or less so.
Editor: You say that "Federal environmental laws are another example of how our overemphasis on the abstract has led to serious alienation from the public." Oregon, has had to make number of economic tradeoffs in order to meet federal mandates under the Endangered Species Act. In your book you talk about Missoula and the federal Clean Water Act. What alternative do you see to these federal mandates?
Kemmis: I think that what we need to do is to move increasingly in the direction of having environmental regulations imposed by the level where the threat comes from. In the case of global warming, the only place it can come from is some kind of global power. And we have moved in that direction at Rio. Some issues are continental. Many issues are bio-regional in nature. I think that most water quality issues need to be dealt with in drainages and within basins. There is no reason why the Columbia River drainage can't protect itself. I don't believe that in the long run that we need any larger entity protecting it. And then the protection of species I think will work better to the extent that we are able to move in the direction of bio-regional control.
Editor: Are you saying that the Feds should not be setting those kinds of requirements and that a group of people from that drainage basin should address those issues? They may not give a damn about the drainage basin.
Kemmis: That's to their long-term detriment. It's their problem. I think that it fact that very quickly that people in drainages, interests in drainages would come to understand that the sustainable prosperity of the region depends upon the protection of the environment and that we would get about that business in a way that's appropriate to that particular area.
The image is one of sort of living organism. There will be differences just as there are always differences within any ecosystem. And a certain amount of diversity, a certain amount of experimentation would take place. To the extent that there is any kind of in-built momentum in the direction of sustainability, then regions - simply in raw competitive terms - those regions that do a good job of taking care of their ecosystems are going to be gaining competitive advantage of those who don't.
Editor: You say in your book that "none of the other paths to reform will reverse the decline of democracy until we begin to understand the political importance of events like the Missoula
Farmer's Market." What do you mean by that? What is so important about a farmer's market?
Kemmis: The farmers' market, for one thing, plays that role that good public places have always played throughout history. It creates an opportunity for people to be together and to do really a tremendous amount of public business. If you want to look at it in that way. So that idea of good public places is something we've tended to overlook.
Editor: Do you consider the latest trend people talk about like "reinventing" or "reengineering" government to be just so much structural tinkering -- like term limits?
Kemmis: We spend a lot of time in Missoula looking very closely at how we go about governing and so we do a constant job of reengineering and restructuring. I guess what I'm really saying is that I believe that what we're dealing with is a sort of systems problem. And it's sort of like a family system. What we have learned is that in a dysfunctional family, where there might be an alcoholic let's say, that you don't actually ever fix the problem just by fixing the alcoholic. It's the (family) system that has to adjust. And I think that's true of the political culture, it's not just that government needs to be reengineered as if it were the alcoholic. The citizenry need to rethink its role at the same time.
Editor: Any closing ideas?
Kemmis: In the book, I play a little with the idea of the "Golden Mean". And I think there is something there. There's something about the classical sense of proportion that I think we need to pay attention to again. I believe the Greeks were on to something tremendously important with the idea that when you have something very small trying to relate to something very large that you have to have sort of elegant intermediary structures that allow for that relationship to establish itself. So that which is small doesn't feel overwhelmed, that it feels like it operates in a context in turn can allow it to relate to the larger context.
I think that the fundamental measure is the human being. That is what we are dealing with. The question is how do you build in such a way that an individual being feels at home in this larger context. I mean the classical question is if you have an individual here and a mountain there, what do you build in between that makes the individual feel at home against that background. I play - in a strictly mathematical sense - in the book with the idea of really applying the Golden Mean of the individual against the background of the population of the earth. That is just overwhelming - when we think about being one of over 5 billion - you just collapse. But then, the whole purpose of the Golden Mean is to pick you up again and say "here is a way to think about that." And what it would say is the Golden Mean between 1 and 5 billion is 70,000 roughly.
Editor: The exact population of Missoula, Montana!
Kemmis: Well yes, but that's just a coincidence. What the teaching would be is, if it's possible for an individual to somehow feel effective within a community of 70,000 people, then it is equally possible to imagine 70,000 communities around the globe relating to each other in a meaningful way.