Steve Lawton sent to the Practice of New Urbanism list a few choice lines about recent scenes from Downton Abbey. He notes the care with which an aristocrat addresses the proposals of a developer, circa 1922 (I think), to build houses in Downton village. Keep in mind that Lord Grantham’s family owns the village, and like many noble families of the era was heavily in debt with the cost of maintaining estates like Downton. Many, even then, would have leapt at the chance to make money without investment.
Lord Grantham’s deep concern for creating value into the future was quite instructive. Here stands before you a man who is the living example of a quasi-feudal institution of landholding. His concerns are those of the institution: a sincere desire and absolute ability to prevent short-term profit extraction. There he is, in the flesh, annoyed, asking questions and sending the fast-talking developer away. He will be sure that any houses here will be well-built.
In contrast, of course, is the American experience of land holding. Land rights here did not descend from aristocrats, lords or dynasties. We simply took it and used it, without reference to any larger institution. It is a textbook, in a few scenes, of how the American experience in settlement was literally ungoverned by concern for the future.
I learned a lot from just those few scenes of the man in the very nice hat.
The idea is not to put aristocrats up on a pedestal but to learn from a segment of society that has all but disappeared. I think that the new book by Nikos Salingaros and Michael Mehaffy has something to say on this score, which is not a little bit Burkean – his famous passage on “little platoons” relates to how society functions primarily by interaction at its most intimate scales. Our 1 percent has nothing to teach the Downton clan. It’s not just the beauty of Downton’s classicism, but the wisdom of its stewardship that impresses.