Back when I was in college, I lived in Austria as part of a study abroad program. I remember on our week off my wife and I hopped on a train and traveled south over the Alpine passes into Italy. We planned to visit all the great sites of Italy—Venice, Assisi, Florence, and Rome—but on the very first leg of our journey we got stranded because the Italian train workers went on strike after we arrived in Venice. Venice is a series of islands off the mainland accessible only by train, so we ended up spending way more time in this city than we intended.
Of course, there are worse places in the world one could be stranded. We made the best of our time wandering the city streets and bazaars, and chatting with local Venetians.
In conversations with the locals I learned there are no locals in Venice.
What I mean is that Venice has no real residents so to speak of. For one thing, there are no residential districts. The “Bride of the Sea” was once home to thousands of people, but as it transformed from a vibrant commercial metropolis into a mere tourist center, residential districts gave way before a relentless onslaught of hotels, shops, restaurants and other tourist traps. A Venetian “house-as-shop” became more profitable than a “house-as-house,” that is to say, the residential districts became commercial districts until there were no legitimate residential districts left to speak of. For a time many shop owners and restauranteurs lived above their storefronts. But after World War II, residents fled as the advent of airplane travel made tourism more lucrative. Second floor apartments became hotels. When I asked a few shopkeepers, if they lived in Venice, they laughed, and said, “nobody lives in Venice.”
At sunrise trains bring in the thousands of shop owners and tradesmen who run shops in the city. As darkness descends, they lock up their shops, hop on their trains and evacuate the island. All that remain are the tourists in their hotels and the small army of street people and beggars that crouch perpetually in the Venetian alleys and beg at Venetian bridges. Venice is a city without people and—despite the beauty of its buildings and grandeur of its famous waterways—without real, living, and breathing residents.
In my years of public service on various boards, I have seen commercial interests expand at the expense of residential interests more times than I can count. I have seen residential districts commercialize and vacant land commercialize, but I have never seen commercial districts transformed into residential ones.
It seems we have a paradox. While residential life is the heart of the city, it is also the most fragile; more often than not, growth happens at the expense of residential areas, which once gone, seldom or never come back. I suppose that in boom times the decline of residential neighborhoods in one part of town may be offset by new developments on the outskirts; but in cities without outskirts, like Venice, or many old cities that no longer have space, building out might not be an option.
This paradox could be seen in light of the general distributist preference towards the landowner rather than the hireling. In cases where commercial and residential interests clash, it seems a distributist orientation would give primacy to the residential. This doesn’t mean we don’t want to promote business and growth; certainly we do; but we must also remember that “growth” need not always equate with breaking new ground and pushing dirt.
Cities generally want to be seen as “business friendly.” But we also need to take care of our residential areas in any potential conflict of interest. Therefore, while we want business to thrive, we have to weigh the pros of any new commercial operation against any possible detriments to residential neighborhoods. When commercial operations affect residential neighborhoods, here are some questions to ask:
- Will the new use change the traffic patterns in adjacent residential neighborhoods?
- Will the operations of the proposed business disrupt the peace of the neighborhood?
- Will there be sufficient green space, trees, or fencing to shield the operation from the view of nearby homes?
- Will it negatively affect the aesthetics of the neighborhood?
- Is the proposed commercial operation in keeping with the character of the neighborhood?
- In general, how do neighbors and residents feel about the proposed commercial operation?
Only if the questions above can be answered in a satisfactory manner is it a good idea to allow new commercial operations adjacent to residential areas.
I mentioned above that protecting residential neighborhoods is very important because of their inherent fragility. When we talk about preserving or protecting our residential neighborhoods, people always jump to talking about blight. It is commonly believed that by preventing blight, we can prevent neighborhoods from declining or vanishing. Ironically, when I have observed the diminishing or vanishing of residential neighborhoods, it is not blight, but creeping commercialization that do them in. Even in cities with real blight problems, like Detroit, the blight is only a symptom of other problems; Detroit did not collapse because it was blighted; it collapsed for other reasons and as a result became blighted.
Every City needs business. But there is a natural primacy of the residential over the commercial, and therefore, commercial uses ought to be judged against the bar of residential concerns.
The schism between commercial and residential land uses is an unfortunate byproduct of the industrial revolution in general, and capitalism in particular. From a distributist standpoint, the best situation is when local business owner are also residents, whether living somewhere else in town or maybe above their shop. When this happens, it becomes much easier for commercial and residential interests to coalesce and harmonize, because they coalesce within a single person who is both owner and resident. We ought to look highly on this sort of thing, because it promotes a kind of “double-investment” in the community, as well as a society of ownership, which is a good in and of itself. It’s not extremely common these days, but it is an ideal. And like any ideal, even if it is not perfectly realizable, it serves as a compass to show us the direction we should be going.