Plains, Projects, and Alleyways: The Problem of Environmental Determinism in Architecture & History

Figure 2: An illustration from Defensible Space, explaining Newman’s ideas about surveillance, safety, and the physical arrangement of highrise housing projects.

Years ago, I saw a man at a Quaker meeting stand up and say, “Who you are begins with where you are.” To some this assertion may be self-evident, while for others it says entirely too much. One could say identity started any number of places other than place itself—in genetics, in culture, in social interaction. As such, the Friends’ meeting house provides a good point of departure for a discussion of the notion that people’s ideas and behavior are shaped by their physical surroundings. This “environmental determinism,” like so many determinisms, has been decried as too causally simplistic, for intruding too much on the ability of people to make their own world rather than being made by it.[1]

All the same, many historians have been unwilling to subtract setting completely from their stories about the past, and some have attributed considerable significance to the physical milieu of history in shaping people and their actions. These scholars, whether explicitly or implicitly, embrace an idea called “possibilism,” which suggests that the environment does not dictate the countours of human experience but provides a certain range of possibilities within which people choose what they will be and do.[2] The physical setting is still present as a character in these stories, but its role is not that of a protagonist.

sod house on the plains

Possibilism may have mitigated the excesses of raw, unvarnished environmental determinism, but it still leaves some questions unanswered. How does a setting set the terms of human experience? Do some environments allow more than others, and can we sort settings by the range of possibility they create? Environmental determinism has often been invoked when thinkers look at “natural” or “rural” landscapes, but some historians have also explored how a suburb or a prison might define the experience of the people living there.[3] Why scholars tell different stories about these varying environments and how people relate to them can reveal much about how the ideas of “determinism” or “possibilism” have been used. As work on several drastically different settings—the American Great Plains and various types of housing for the urban poor—will show, the lines of possibility do not run, more to less, from natural to manmade places.

The story instead hinges on the flexibility of any setting, rural or urban, to the interventions of individuals and groups, or how the physical structure and social situation of a place conspire to foster or constrain human ingenuity. Furthermore, how scholars think about people’s relationship to their environments has much to do with how they tell about them, and the shape these interactions take in historiography depends at least partly on the narrative form in which the story is cast. From urban ghettoes to Plains farmsteads, the natural and built environments interact with people—as residents, farmers, workers, policemen, legislators and policymakers, each contributing in their own way, with varying degrees of power, to shape an environment that, in turn, shapes those who are subject to it.

For instance, historian Walter Prescott Webb’s work on the Great Plains has made him both a pioneer and pariah where environmental determinism is concerned. Webb believed that Americans experienced a cultural transformation as they encountered the continent’s arid, treeless midsection. Earlier Americans possessed a “forest culture,” he argued, that could not handle the new environment and thus had to change dramatically, causing some innovations and a good many peculiarities in farming, politics, literature and other institutions.[4] Environmental historians have often cited Webb’s 1931 The Great Plains as an early forerunner of their subdiscipline. As Alfred Crosby noted, “Its concentration on climate, flora and fauna, wild and domesticated, of the grasslands of North America definitely represented an environmental approach.”[5]

walter prescott webb the great plains

Specific assertions in The Great Plains, such as the idea that cattle ranching was born on the Plains, have received wholehearted embrace or at least nodding acceptance by a range of scholars. At the same time, others have meticulously exposed the factual errors in Webb’s arguments and, perhaps by extension, disdained his general outlook. Terry Jordan, for instance, went to considerable lengths to demonstrate that migrants brought ranching with them from the Lower South to Texas and the Plains. He pointed out that Webb did not footnote his statements very often, and suggested this was so because the great plainsman had already made up his mind. “He was an unapologetic environmental determinist,” Jordan wrote. “In his eyes, the ‘Great American Desert’ made ranchers out of farmers, and that was that.”[6]

Walter Prescott Webb was certainly unapologetic, as he stood by the notion that the Plains environment induced changes in everything from technology to temperament. In response to a devastating assessment written by Fred Shannon in 1937, Webb wrote, “There is but one thesis or hypothesis developed in the book, unless I failed completely in my purpose. The thesis is that conditions on the Great Plains were such as to exert a powerful influence on human beings.”[7] In the course of five hundred pages this single idea found wide application. At the ninety-eighth meridian, he argued, advancing settlers found that the timbered, humid regions of the eastern United States opened into an utterly different region for which they were poorly prepared. “Civilization was left on one leg – land,” he wrote. “It is small wonder that it toppled over in temporary failure.”[8] Americans stumbled at first, but soon discarded their old ways for new ones, better tailored to the environment. If land was civilization’s only good leg, then people learned to lean all their weight on it; the small farms of the East became the sprawling estates of cattle ranching. In a land without trees, people learned to make fences out of wire.[9] In a land without water, they made windmills.[10]

Walter Prescott Webb map
Figure 1: Webb’s map of physical regions of the United States, with the all-important 98th parallel

But they also made jokes. The Plains environment did not just produce a revolution in material culture, for the twin forces of the physical environment and the material adaptations it forced worked their way into the people’s psyche, creating a new culture from the ground up. Webb noted one minor manifestation of this in a new sense of humor: “There has sprung up in the Great Plains country a grim humor which has to do with the tragedy arising from the want of sufficient moisture for men to carry on the ways of life after the manner to which they had long been accustomed.” One fellow said that the Plains would be a nice place to live if only there were water. The other man responded, “So would hell.”[11] The stamp of material conditions is all over the ideas and actions of Webb’s plainspeople. Responding to the exigencies of their harsh environment taught the makers of the “cattle kingdom” to innovate and, in a cultural sense, shoot from the hip. Webb stressed the point again and again that the Easterner could not understand the new person who emerged. “One carried his law in books, the other carried it strapped round his waist,” he wrote. “One responded to convention, the other responded to necessity and evolved his own conventions.”[12] The Easterner could not understand why plainspeople needed such large landholdings, but the Westerner rebuffed this misunderstanding with a hint of a new aggression. The man who only owned 160 acres became “merely… an obstacle to those who knew ‘what the country was good for.’”[13] Webb went so far as to discern different species of literature for differing terrains of the region, with Hamlin Garland exemplifying the realism of the Prairie Plains and Bill Hart the romantic genre of the more arid “Wild West.”[14] He spoke of Plains history as one of a physical base and a “literary and mystical superstructure.”[15]

The history of urbanization suggests that people could encounter a novel environment with equally dramatic, but dramatically different, results. Oscar Newman, for instance, argued that the mad rush to house the people of America’s cities created settings that both undermined traditional ways of living and worked against the kind of cooperative culture that people most needed to survive in the new situation. “We have become strangers sharing the largest collective habitats in human history,” Newman stated at the outset. “The physical environments we have been building in our cities for the past twenty-five years actually… discourage the pursuit of a collective action.”[16]

Oscar Newman in Show Me a Hero
Newman: U R doing it wrong

Readers may recognize Newman from his portrayal in the wonderful HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, about the struggle over desegregation and public housing in 1980s Yonkers. In the show, Newman is depicted as a fuzzy-bearded housing wonk. (As one character said of Newman, who was strolling the projects with a bundle of blueprints in his hand, “If them off-brand professor-looking bitches be police, ain’t nobody getting caught doing shit.”) It is ironic, perhaps, since he is perhaps best known as a chronicler and analyst of such public housing’s pathologies. Newman’s 1972 book Defensible Space sought to diagnose and explain the problems of public housing projects, particularly those mammoth structures built in the 1950s and 1960s.[17] Highrise developments like St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe or Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes quickly became synonymous with urban blight, and Newman cited the recklessly conceived physical structure of these living spaces as the cause of the residents’ affliction. “In our rush to provide housing for the urban immigrants and to accommodate our high population growth rates,” Newman said, “we have been building more without really asking what?[18]

The what of Pruitt-Igoe and its notorious cousins was an architecture that fostered victimization by preventing a community from exerting control over its own space. Oscar Newman defined these highrise projects by their lack of “defensible space,” a form of housing “which inhibits crime by creating the physical expression of a social fabric that defends itself.”[19] Newman did not completely reject the larger sociological causes of crime among the urban poor, but he did deemphasize “a poverty of means, opportunity, education, and representation” as the root of trouble in urban housing.[20] A community made up of any social class could live in peace and security if they enjoyed an appropriate physical environment. For instance, Newman admitted that society, acting through government, had contributed to the problems of the poor by isolating them in structures of such ugliness, so starkly different from their surroundings that they bore a mark of social stigma.

Defensible space
Figure 2: An illustration from Defensible Space, explaining Newman’s ideas about surveillance, safety, and the physical arrangement of highrise housing projects.

However, he insisted that physical structure went far beyond the social reading of architectural style. “Architecture can create encounter and prevent it,” Newman wrote. “Certain kinds of space and spatial layout favor the clandestine activities of criminals.”surrounded by windows of various apartment units could be safe because any entrant would be under the surveillance of the community. Highrise projects, in contrast, offered numerous points of vulnerability, a labyrinth of anonymous hallways, secluded stairways and isolated elevators.[22] A healthy community could extend the natural sense of “territoriality” in the home unit itself outward into all the common spaces of a development, but highrises closed off spaces; fear led to abandonment, which in turn led to greater danger.[23] Newman spoke, for example, of the “forced disassociation” of playgrounds between towers and living quarters: “Their lack of security results eventually in total nonuse and accompanying withdrawal, all of which serves to make them more dangerous still.”[24] These lines of social interaction were laid out in concrete and steel, leaving the residents “hapless victims” of their environment and each other.[25] Versatility and innovation meant little in Newman’s picture, for the environment so determined social behavior that no creative options existed.

Defensible Space, then, tells an environmental determinist story with all of the obstacle and none of the overcoming seen in The Great Plains, a distinction that might result from the differences between urban and rural settings. Perhaps there is greater room for invention in what God or nature made than in the things people made. This hypothesis looks reasonable enough on its face, for a housing project or a suburb could be viewed as an interaction between people and two variables, a layer of culture resting over the basic physical setting. The vast plainness of the prairie might be seen as a tabula rasa upon which people could interact with an environment unmediated by culture.

Such a division proves problematic from the first. A voluminous historical literature exists on how people in general and historians in particular define and construct nature.[26] This issue has received considerable attention from environmental historians, for whom, William Cronon observed, “the boundary between the artificial and the natural is the very thing we most wish to study.”[27] Sharp distinctions between the two presuppose that human beings are not animals, themselves a part of nature. Problems persist even if one substitutes “nonhuman” for “nature” to rationalize the division, since few landscapes have gone completely without human intervention. In order to speak of a purely nonhuman world at all one must usually reach back very far into the past and, even then, one might misunderstand or misrepresent the place of humans within the development of life.[28] Scholars have connected notions of “pristine” or “virgin” nature with colonial, ethnocentric and modernist discourses that skirt recognition of long-standing human involvement in the physical world by lumping traditional populations (“natives”) into the natural world itself.[29] Human beings had already been affecting the Plains environment long before the ambitious forest dwellers of the East sauntered forth, a fact that Webb partly acknowledged by devoting sections to the earlier experiences of Native American peoples and the Spanish.

Nature is essentially a red herring in this discussion, but if landscapes only differ in their degree of human intervention then the fortunes of human agency might still be plotted along a continuum from rural to urban. The city could close off options with layer upon layer of culture, and the countryside could leave the field of possibility more open. However, the history of the Plains is just one idiosyncratic example of rural experience, and the unfortunate cases of Pruitt-Igoe and company represent an even more extreme and particular instance of city life. Bringing another urban example into view can complicate the picture sufficiently to illustrate that the complex relationship between people and their environments goes well beyond human/nonhuman or urban/rural dichotomies. James Borchert’s Alley Life in Washington is particularly helpful because it offers a strikingly different vision from Defensible Space even though both deal with similar populations living in “substandard housing.”

In Alley Life, Borchert aimed to reveal the inner world of an earlier form of poverty housing that was nearly as maligned in its time as the highrise apartments were in Oscar Newman’s age. Before the days of public housing and transportation, poor urbanites found homes in alleys nestled behind the fine residences of better off Washingtonians. According to Borchert, “Alley houses… faced directly onto the alley and were separated from the block’s outward-facing houses by a narrow alley, fences, and sheds.”[30] Black people made up the vast majority of the alley population, while white people thoroughly dominated in the visible homes of the main streets. The result gave the statistical impression, at least, of integration – a single neighborhood might precisely reflect the general population of the city in its own racial composition – but the alley system actually created a more dispersed pattern of segregation than the United States would see in later years.[31] Ghetto pockets existed throughout Washington, out of sight of white neighbors and often out of mind.

The origin of this form of housing remains unclear. The residential arrangement partly reflected the former institution of slavery, as forced laborers were often housed in inconspicuous places adjacent to the homes of slaveowners. However, James Borchert suggested that most alley housing had not actually been slave quarters in the past. He found some evidence to suggest these small homes had been slapped together by landowners to house poor workers, white or black, who had come to the city and lacked the means (in money and transportation) to live on the periphery.[32] The early inhabitants were a mixed bunch, although, following the Civil War, successive waves of black migrants came to Washington and the alleys quickly became a “ghettoized” space.[33]

While reformers regarded the “secret city” of the alley with suspicion, James Borchert treated this housing as a private enclave in which black people could live by their own norms and shield their culture from outside hostility. The secrecy that so unnerved white activists becomes a physical and social asset in Alley Life. Oscar Newman had derided the distinct isolation of immense housing projects from the surrounding landscape as another marker of the social stigma attached to the poor and, particularly, to black people. Borchert also spoke of separateness, of a “sense of isolation from the surrounding streets” that resulted from the physical layout of the neighborhood.[34] Black residents developed a sense of “turf” in this enclosed space, and used the structure of the alleys to protect one another. In such a small, narrow area any outsider could be spotted and turned away by questioning from the residents, whether an insurance man or an academic intruder.[35] If members of the community were illictly drinking or gambling, they would post a “sentinel” near the entrance of the alley to warn the others of an approaching policeman.

Borchert alley map
Figure 3: A map designed by reformers to explain the harmful effects of alley housing on human life.

Borchert took up a lonely place in calling this a healthy community. Such behavior might smack of anomie, and outside critics viewed the residents’ lives as filled with “pandemonium.”[36] Indeed, the difficulties of the police make for a striking contrast between Newman and Borchert. “In one high-rise project – a labyrinthine profusion of corridors, fire stairs, and exits,” Newman wrote, “police report great difficulty in locating apartments, to say nothing of pursuing criminals.”[37] Compare a close parallel in Alley Life: “Many police were allegedly afraid to enter the alley alone, and even when accompanied by reinforcements they generally kept their ‘pistols at the ready.’ Since many alley dwellers had little love for the police, or for any stranger in their alley, gaining accurate information could not have been very easy.”[38] Both housing situations created problems for law enforcement, but James Borchert did not interpret this as a sign of disorder or degradation. Rather, he insisted that, while alley dwellers could tolerate behavior that offended white norms, they also stuck to a moral order that forbade harming other members of the community.[39] Borchert argued that the physical structure of the alley allowed its residents a freer hand in creating their own way of life: “Alley dwellers were able to delineate the social and moral boundaries of their community, and to maintain its values and worldview.”[40]

How is it that two urban situations – both composed of enclosed space, shabby housing and sometimes unlawful behavior – received such different interpretations from historians? James Borchert and Oscar Newman actually agree more than may at first be apparent. The former cited the concept of “defensible space” in Alley Life in Washington, even though the people were defending themselves against the police rather than criminals. The alley world embodied some of the principles that Newman said were lacking in highrise projects, as Borchert’s “turf” is not far from Newman’s “territoriality.” Newman argued that people were safer when they could exert, as a group, control over surrounding space, and the alleys made possible a similar sort of surveillance. “Because of the relatively few alley residents, the propinquity of their houses, and the common alley property,” Borchert wrote, “all alley residents probably knew each other quite well… making the presence of outsiders as well as the activities of neighbors common knowledge.”[41] There were few places in the alley that permitted the vulnerability and victimization experienced by many in the lonely elevators and hallways of highrise buildings.

The difference between a Pruitt-Igoe and a D.C. alley hinges on the flexibility of space. The public housing projects that housed later generations of black urbanites barred social adaptations that enabled their predecessors to survive. We have already seen how black people used space to ward off advances by the police and other agents of white power, but their relations with landowners also facilitated more freedom and, subsequently, social innovation. According to Borchert, alley residents were both physically and socially remote from their landlords: “The actual contacts between landlord and tenant or sublessor and sublessee seem to have been extremely limited and tenuous,” which meant that residents could use the property much by their own lights.[42] People could employ strategies to mitigate the effects of their poverty, such as taking in boarders. This practice meant that more people would have to live in fewer rooms and often led to serious overcrowding, but the residents could afford to pay their rent or survive the vagaries of the market for black labor. [43] Borchert argued that black people drew strategies from their cultural heritage to weather the effects of poverty, citing Eugene Genovese’s work on slave life: “Slaves often took orphans, old people, or single friends in to live with them rather than leave them to a barracks-like existence.”[44] The public housing projects, with their close regulation of occupancy and family history, furnished the barracks but few of the options that allowed alley residents to adapt creatively to their circumstances.

Of course, subsequent scholarship from Sudhir Venkatesh, Rhonda Williams, and others has shown that projects gave rise to dense social networks of their own, especially among women who supported and protected each other, but the predominant narrative in the historiography still suggests that social structures attenuated in the Northern ghettoes—an argument advanced, perhaps most influentially, in Nicholas Lemann’s 1991 The Promised Land. Even the seminal 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth—a notably revisitionist take on public housing—supported the same notion of a fraying social fabric in public housing. “The strong, tightly knit communities and families in which I grew up had begun to shatter around the people who were displaced in a Northern city with few supports,” sociologist Joyce Ladner, who studied Pruitt-Igoe during her graduate research, observed in the film.

Perhaps the range of possibilities profferred by an environment depends on how susceptible a space is, physically and socially, to the cultural innovations that humans devise to improve themselves. Culture and environment form a sort of dialectic in which two often antagonistic factors – for people of the Plains, the alleys, and the projects encountered challenges and difficulties in their settings – interact to produce a new synthesis, which is the unique culture of a particular place. A “culture,” however, is not just the values that the people in question bring, but also the web of social relations in which they are enmeshed. For example, the physical layout of the alley provided an incubator in which black people could sustain and use their own cultural inheritance to survive; the projects curtailed a similar practice not only in their rigid physical structure, but also because public housing was situated differently in a social, indeed legal, structure. Had its residents enjoyed greater socially-defined freedom they may have fared better, but Pruitt-Igoe would likely have had many of the same problems if the small-scale, close-knit communities of alleys or other “slums” were crammed into its “anonymous hallways.” The alley enfolded people into a safety of togetherness and visibility, while the project elevator made the individual vulnerable, out of the reach of other community members.

In some ways, James Borchert’s story resembles Walter Prescott Webb’s more nearly than the topically related Defensible Space. Both The Great Plains and Alley Life in Washington tell stories of people overcoming environmental challenges and developing new behavior tailored to their settings. Moreover, both stories develop from the interaction of a culture with a unique environment and a people’s particular place in relation to others. “We had in the West a rapid evolution of human society in a land nakedly simple in its physiographic features,” Walter Prescott Webb wrote. The openness of the physical environment contributed to the peculiar development of the local culture, but the reduction of social constraints also contributed: “In other areas, say in New England, the application of the method would be far more difficult.”[45] It was not just openness of the land itself but its remoteness from the constraints of tradition and history in the East that helped make the Plains people distinctive.

A deeper cultural explanation flows under the surface of Webb’s narrative. Although he was lambasted as an utter determinist, slaving humans to the dictates of environment, he did not overlook the cultural basis for the innovations of the Plains. After all, Webb examined the earlier experiences of the Native Americans and the Spanish in the West, and the aggressive capitalist tradition of the American settlers may explain why their encounter with the Plains turned out so differently. E. Cotton Mather later observed that the culture of the Plains, which he called “megalophilia,” can be interpreted as an amplification of American tendencies in general.[46] “Foreign observers often indicate that these propensities are American, and are not limited to the Great Plains,” Mather wrote, “but the Great Plains represents these features in exaggerated form.”[47] He also slyly pointed to a social factor that Walter Prescott Webb neglected, a condition that conspired with the physical demands of the Plains to create a strong penchant for large estates. “‘Cream always rises to the top’ is a phrase not unknown to the beef ranching areas of the Great Plains,” Mather wrote. “Many Americans assert that the large landholdings have resulted from farm mechanization. In this region, however, large landholdings preceded mechanization; the latter simply accelerated the process.”[48] In other words, local preference for hugeness did not originate only in dry farming and technology, but also in the social advantages of those Sam Houstons and Stephen Austins who enjoyed massive holdings from the start.

We can acknowledge that people are not utterly enthralled to the influence of their environments – that they are not determined, in the neatest sense of that word – but to erase space and place from our pictures of history will not do. The structure of a physical setting can close off options for human beings as well as open them up in ways that may not be immediately apparent, particularly to outsiders – politicians and reformers, critics and academics. I refer to the flexibility of both culture and environment in the dialectic because the arrangement of space can yield more or less to human actions and intentions, but the social arrangement in which people meet matter also bears on the range of possible results.

Take the old alleys of Washington, D.C. for example. One could look at the closed-in, isolated space of these homes as a detractor, analogous to the separatedness of Pruitt-Igoe and the Robert Taylor Homes. Walls are generally thought to be limits, and limits are generally thought to be limiting. However, the structure of the alley aided the efforts of black people to choose their own way of being and create community together. The relative inattention of landlords and other white powers, as a social feature of the environment, also contributed to the alleys’ potential. Taken together, the physical and social attributes produced a situation rather different from the public housing projects of later years.

These ideas of flexibility and a social-physical dialectic can help explain the parameters of possibilism, but I would like to suggest two further factors that influence how people talk about the history of place, or how historians decide how much was possible in past situations. The first is political bias and the second – which may be a deeper rendition of the first – is narrative form. Histories of setting have been peculiarly liable to political and moral metaphor. “When we describe human activities within an ecosystem, we seem always to tell stories about them,” William Cronon wrote. “Like all historians, we configure the events of the past to give them new meanings… In so doing, we move well beyond nature into the intensely human realm of value.”[49] Cronon was discussing different tales of the Great Plains and the Dust Bowl, puzzling over how two historians who “dealt with virtually the same subject [and] researched many of the same documents,” could suss a comedy and a tragedy out of the material.

To complete the confusion, both books appeared in the same year.[50] Paul Bonnifeld’s The Dust Bowl was a tale of courageous and talented people who drew on their inner strength to survive the ecological tragedy of 1930s Plains agriculture and build a new world. Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl portrayed a bleak Malthusian mess in which parasitic capitalism wrecked a natural environment. “In both texts, the story is inextricably bound to its conclusion,” Cronon observed, “and the historical analysis derives much of its force from the upward or downward sweep of the plot.”[51]

One can find William Cronon’s sweeps and slopes throughout the three books under consideration. Before chapter one of Alley Life in Washington commences, a quotation from Johann Gottfried von Herder serves as a signpost of the romantic musings to come. Herder asked, “Who would trouble himself with the songs of the people on the streets, in alleys and fish markets, in the simple roundelay of the peasant rhymes?”[52] The book, of course, is Borchert’s answer. He wrote Alley Life against a widespread “breakdown thesis” that one finds in works as different as The Promised Land and The Pruitt-Igoe Myth—the idea that the migration of families to the city led to the destruction of their traditions and a dissolution into crime and disorder. Scholars and social critics had applied the idea to the “wild Irish slums of the nineteenth century,” and the declension story has more recently appeared in popular diagnoses of the black family’s alleged illnesses.[53] Borchert had much to overcome if he were to capture “the songs of the people” without the condescension and condemnation of past understandings, and some critics have suggested, not without reason, that he went too far by painting urban poverty in rose colors. In any case, he set his upward slope against an avalanche of downward ones.

Juxtaposing Defensible Space and Alley Life in Washington suggests just how much Oscar Newman echoed the savage critics of alley life who Borchert quoted and denied. Social reformers in Washington, DC frequently denounced alley housing as a danger to society. Seclusion, they argued, bred “crime and disease to kill the alley inmates and infect the street residents.”[54] John Bauman has shown how reformist attitudes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries moved from a “social cost” outlook – focusing on the threat to the richer, whiter street residents – to a welfare perspective that concerned itself with the deleterious effects of bad housing on the poor. “Less individualistic than the social cost approach,” Bauman wrote, “the welfare orientation presumed that bad, unsafe, unsanitary housing constituted a social failure, which by enmeshing its occupants in squalor and ignorance barred them from full participation in the urban community.”[55] Although Newman grazed concerns about the projects as a threat to the population at large, he fell more squarely into the welfare camp. Like earlier critics of alleys and slums, he also muted individualism in favor of a structural squalor and considered the housing a barrier to full integration in the broader community. In Defensible Space one finds the familiar declension story updated for mid to late twentieth century circumstances.

In the story of environmental interaction, much will turn on how the author judges the people about whom he or she is writing. This observation may not surprise if one thinks of the centrality of the culture which engages an environment in determining what behaviors and adaptations emerge in a particular setting. For instance, Oscar Newman did not think much of what others called the “culture” of the urban poor who lived in public housing. “Defensible space, it may be charged, is middle-class thinking,” he said. “The poor have their own culture… They don’t want the values middle-class society wishes to foist on them.”[56] Among these bourgeois values were the desire for property and security and a disdain for violence and communality. “This romantic view of the poor is without foundation,” he said, citing interviews with residents who yearned for peace and stability in their surroundings.

Still, Defensible Space is laced with sidelong observations of some kind of cultural deficiency in his subjects. Newman noted that highrise children had “a poorly developed perception of individual privacy and little understanding of territory.”[57] Newman, no doubt, attributed this behavioral flaw to the effects of highrise housing, but James Borchert interpreted such idiosyncrasies as more of a cultural asset. He quoted planner Chester Hartman’s analysis of residents’ attitude toward the alley space: “We tend to think of this other space as anonymous and public (in the sense of belonging to everyone, i.e., no one) when it does not specifically belong to us. The lower-class person is not clearly so alienated from what he does not own.”[58]

Newman said that middle-class people were easy to keep secure because of their healthy attitudes toward property and space. It is not surprising, then, that he viewed contrary qualities in residents not as their culture or their adaptations, but as the afflictions they received from their environment – maladaptations, in fact. Principles of defensible space aside, Newman likely would have found something amiss in the alleys that Borchert lionized, taking his place among forerunning reformers with whom he shared values and a storyline.

The Great Plains also hews closely to the outlines of a familiar story. If Newman was writing in the tradition of the breakdown thesis and Borchert against it, Webb cast his lot with a long and venerable line of Western conquest stories. He held close to his heart the intrepid plainsmen who got up from the initial catastrophe of their environmental encounter to build a new civilization. Indeed, they were his own, and he was of that civilization. “This book is a part of all I have been and known,” Webb wrote in his acknowledgements. “In childhood my father and mother gave me a thorough course in Plains life by the direct method, one that enabled me to understand much that I read and to see beyond some of it.”[59]

His wagon hitched to pioneers and stories of conquest, it is little surprise that Walter Prescott Webb fit The Great Plains into a narrative of the impressive dominations of Western men. According to Carolyn Merchant, Western people have often told of the imperial expansion of Europe as an echo of Eden and the biblical Fall, in which an encounter with an unforgiving world is turned to the good by hardworking and ingenuous men. “The concept of recovery, as it emerged in the seventeenth century, not only meant a recovery from the Fall but also entailed restoration of health, reclamation of land, and recovery of property,” Merchant wrote.[60]

Webb’s work exemplifies this narrative pattern. In later life he went on to write The Great Frontier, which conceptualized all of world history since 1500 as the triumphal outward sweep of Europeans into the “open” lands of a frontier created by exploration and imperialism. The overabundance of new land and material wealth destabilized traditional European culture, in a magnified version of the westward break in American culture, spawning new cultural forms such as democracy and capitalism. A miniature of this same process and motion, The Great Plains portrays a great story of struggle in which white men recover from a fall – the initial, disastrous encounter of “forest culture” with the Great American Desert – and then, through their hard work and ingenuity, transform the barren outer world into a new garden. Interestingly, in light of Merchant’s analysis, Webb devoted two pages out of five hundred to the role of women in the Plains story. Female settlers were so paralyzed by their fear of a landscape with no hiding places that they could not possibly engage in the transformative work of male progress.[61] They threatened to derail the whole operation in their anxiety and love of company. “If we could get at the truth we should doubtless find,” Webb asserted, “that many a family was stopped on the edge of the timber by women who refused to go farther.”[62]

One sees in each of these stories a Fall. How historians select aspects of the human-environment interaction to explain their mutual determination depends largely on how the critical moment of encounter is understood. Every one of these stories tells of people greeting a physical environment of considerable challenge, and the slope of the story usually pivots on this point. Webb looked at Eastern settlers meeting a dry, treeless place that bore no resemblance to anything in the European experience, while Borchert followed the fortunes of primarily rural black people who encountered the city for the first time and lived in the unique space of the alleys. Newman situated his highrise residents in the largest “collective environments” on record and architectural inventions with almost no antecedent in human history. All three instances involved a fall, but in Webb’s and Borchert’s cases the people rebounded from the break and, through the strengths of their own culture, took the limitations of the setting and turned them to their advantage. In falling, the people of Defensible Space only fell prey to their environment.

Philosophers of history and geography have identified a handful of basic narrative patterns that could help explain the discrepancies between these stories of plains, alleys and projects. In his World Hypotheses, Stephen C. Pepper offered the concept of a “root metaphor,” or a particular vision of how the world works. Each root metaphor is a distinct way of simplifying and representing information about reality, and this mode of understanding is the first leap people make from perception to sensemaking in language and other forms of expression.[63]

Although Pepper acknowledged many such metaphors, he named four as the most valid and common: formism, mechanism, contextualism, and organicism.[64] Anne Buttimer has discussed the career of these basic schema in the field of geography, showing, for example, how formism – the metaphor of similarity, according to Pepper – had its time in the heyday of maps.[65] Early on in geography’s history as a discipline, formism’s “correspondence theory of truth” led scholars to assume that a map was a direct representation of what actually existed out in the real world.[66]

The metaphors of mechanism and organicism are most relevant to the works of Webb, Newman and Borchert. “Radical arguments for societal change and/or rational reconstruction have often been couched in mechanistic language,” Buttimer observed. “Both anarchists and conservatives have shown preferences for organicist conceptions of world reality.”[67] Oscar Newman was no radical, but he did advocate a “rational reconstruction” of the urban landscape. He sought to outline the mechanisms through which buildings and their surroundings could produce division, vulnerability and predation. If living spaces are structured in such a way, he suggested, people would behave according to predictable patterns. James Borchert, although also opting for structural explanations of behavior, mapped a looser, multifarious space. As Hayden White wrote, “The Organicist attempts to depict the particulars discerned in the historical field as components of synthetic processes,” and we can find such synthesis in Borchert.[68] The social, if not physical, remoteness of white society and norms, black folk traditions, and the structure of the alley itself converged to produce an emergent property, a distinctive whole Borchert called “alley life.”

Walter Prescott Webb might represent the conservative constituents of organicism, but the old plainsman still betrayed a bit of the anarchist streak, as evidenced by his disdain for the strictures and conventions of the East, for the New Englander and his lawbooks. The Great Plains celebrated what could be accomplished by people if they were freer, though no less challenged, and saw a new culture as the noble fruit of human survival. The settler’s capitalism mingled with both the distance from social bounds and the demands of land resistant to life to bring forth a new type of person. These modes of comprehending the world, mechanism and organicism, are the conceptual underpinning of the political sense that Borchert, Newman and Webb brought to their work, whether liberal reformer, anarchist academic or conservative Texan.

Possibilism has offered students of the past an idea of human freedom within bounds, but determining exactly how those bounds work in history and historiography has not been easy. “Careful thought reveals that human behavior is affected by environmental forces only insofar as the environment provides resource alternatives in light of given technologies and perceptual attitudes of the social groups in question,” geographer John A. Jakle wrote. “In studying man’s relationship to his environment the focus rightfully belongs on man and his cultural inheritance.”[69]

I suggest, however, that a single focus does not do justice to specific people in specific places, and the way they both recreate each other in novel ways through time. People do choose how they will work with their physical givens, but the outcome of culture and environment’s interaction depends largely on how susceptible the structure, whether “natural” or explicitly manmade, is to the innovations and strategies of humankind. How we pick apart this complex relationship and make sense out of walls and doors matters a good deal, for, as William Cronon wrote, “A powerful narrative reconstructs common sense to make the contingent seem determined and the artificial seem natural.”[70] How we read the struggle, success or failure of people with their physical setting may depend on what kind of story we want to tell, whether it is the fall and rise of white people on the prairie or the pure obstacle of poor people in public housing. Who you are may in fact begin with where you are, if only as beginnings go. But we could also awkwardly rework the Friend’s dictum, and say, “Who you write begins with where you are.”

Further Reading

Bauman, John F., Roger Biles and Kristin Szylvian, eds. From Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Borchert, James. Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Buttimer, Anne. “Musing on Helicon: Root Metaphors and Geography.” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography 64 (1982): 89-62.

Cronon, William, ed. Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.

—. “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative.” Journal of American History 78 (1992): 1347-1376.

Crosby, Alfred. “The Past and Present of Environmental History.” American Historical Review 100 (1995): 1183.

Fairweather, Leslie and Sean McConville, eds., Prison Architecture. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2000.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

Glacken, Clarence J. Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Grove, Richard H. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Jakle, John A. “Time, Space, and the Geographic Past: A Prospectus for Historical Geography,”American Historical Review 76 (1971): 1084-1103.

Jones, Emrys. “Cause and Effect in Human Geography.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 46 (1956): 369.

Jordan, Terry G. “The Origin of Anglo-American Cattle Ranching in Texas: A Documentation of Diffusion from the Lower South.” Economic Geography 45 (1969): 64.

Limerick, Patricia. “Disorientation and Reorientation: The American Landscape Discovered from the West.” Journal of American History 79 (1992): 1022.

Mather, E. Cotton. “The American Great Plains.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 62 (1972): 254.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

Newman, Oscar. Defensible Space. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Pepper, Stephen C. World Hypotheses: Prolegomena to Systematic Philosophy and a Complete Survey of Metaphysics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1942.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

Willems-Braun, Bruce. “Buried Epistemologies: The Politics of Nature in (Post) Colonial British Columbia.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87 (1997).


[1] Emrys Jones, “Cause and Effect in Human Geography,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 46 (1956): 369.

[2] Alfred Crosby, “The Past and Present of Environmental History,” American Historical Review 100 (1995): 1183.

[3] For examples, see Robert Beuka, “Just One World… ‘Plastics’: Suburban Malaise, Masculinity, and the Oedipal Drive in The Graduate,” Journal of Popular Film & Television 28 (2000): 12-22; Leslie Fairweather and Sean McConville, eds., Prison Architecture (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2000), 31-48.

[4] Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains: A Study in Institutions and Environment (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1931), 507.

[5] Alfred W. Crosby, “Past and Present,” 1182.

[6] Terry G. Jordan, “The Origin of Anglo-American Cattle Ranching in Texas: A Documentation of Diffusion from the Lower South,” Economic Geography 45 (1969): 64.

[7] Webb, “Comments on Shannon’s Critique,” in Fred Shannon, ed., An Appraisal of Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains: A Study in Institutions and Environment (New York: Social Science Research Council, 1940), 125.

[8] Webb, Great Plains, 9.

[9] Webb, Great Plains, 270.

[10] Webb, Great Plains, 319.

[11] Webb, Great Plains, 320.

[12] Webb, Great Plains, 206.

[13] Webb, Great Plains, 393.

[14] Webb, Great Plains, 482.

[15] Webb, “Comments on Shannon’s Critique,” 123.

[16] Oscar Newman, Defensible Space (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 1-2.

[17] Newman, 14.

[18] Newman, 6-7.

[19] Newman, 3.

[20] Newman, 11.

[21] Newman, 12.

[22] Newman, 33.

[23] Newman, 19.

[24] Newman, 25.

[25] Newman, 2.

[26] The concept of nature got a thorough working-over from multiple angles in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, as Cronon, Donna Haraway, Richard White and scholars from many disciplines examined Western and often American attitudes toward the nonhuman world. Earlier works include Roderick Nash’s seminal Wilderness and the American Mind and Clarence J. Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century, both published in 1967. Richard H. Grove’s Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1800 explored the relationship between imperialism and the ideas about nature that later underpinned the environmentalist movement.

[27] William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” Journal of American History 78 (1992): 1350.

[28] Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995), 83; Patricia Limerick, “Disorientation and Reorientation: The American Landscape Discovered from the West,” Journal of American History 79 (1992): 1022.

[29] Bruce Willems-Braun, “Buried Epistemologies: The Politics of Nature in (Post) Colonial British Columbia,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87 (1997): 21, 29.

[30] James Borchert, Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 25.

[31] Borchert, 12.

[32] Borchert, 26.

[33] Borchert, 4.

[34] Borchert, 103.

[35] Borchert, 129.

[36] Borchert, 131.

[37] Newman, 12.

[38] Borchert, 44-45.

[39] Borchert, 136.

[40] Borchert, 141.

[41] Borchert, 129.

[42] Borchert, 42.

[43] Borchert, 85.

[44] Borchert, 81, citing Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, New York: Vintage Books, 1972, 524.

[45] Webb, The Great Plains, 124.

[46] E. Cotton Mather, “The American Great Plains,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 62 (1972): 254.

[47] Mather, 255.

[48] Mather, 254.

[49] Cronon, “A Place for Stories,” 1349.

[50] Cronon, “A Place for Stories,” 1347.

[51] Cronon, “A Place for Stories,” 1348

[52] Borchert, xxiii.

[53] Borchert, ix-x.

[54] Borchert, 3.

[55] John F. Bauman, “Introduction,” in Bauman, Roger Biles and Kristin Szylvian, eds. From Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 7.

[56] Newman, 19.

[57] Newman, 13.

[58] Borchert, 113.

[59] Webb, The Great Plains, vii.

[60] Carolyn Merchant, “Reinventing Nature: Western Culture as a Recovery Narrative,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, 133.

[61] Webb, The Great Plains, 506.

[62] Webb, The Great Plains, 505.

[63] Stephen C. Pepper, World Hypotheses: Prolegomena to Systematic Philosophy and a Complete Survey of Metaphysics, 84-114.

[64] Pepper, 141.

[65] Pepper, 151.

[66] Anne Buttimer, “Musing on Helicon: Root Metaphors and Geography,” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography 64 (1982): 91-92.

[67] Buttimer, 93.

[68] Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 15.

[69] John A. Jakle, “Time, Space, and the Geographic Past: A Prospectus for Historical Geography,” American Historical Review 76 (1971): 1086.

[70] William Cronon, “A Place for Stories,” 1350.