Steven Dale on ‘The kind of problem a city is’

So here we are at the end. Or should I say “the beginning?”

When reading Chapter 22 I couldn’t help but reflect on how much more potent this chapter would be had it been the very first chapter of the book. Before embarking on a really massive and oftentimes confusing book, wouldn’t it have been valuable to know Jacobs’ viewpoint of what kind of a problem a city actually is?

Wouldn’t that have informed our entire reading of the text?

At its core, D&L is a polemic and plea to start the actual act of studying a city as though it were a biological entity. Jacobs ask us to spend time creating a taxonomy of cities; to understand its individual organs; to theorize and test our assumptions about how those organs interact; to learn the internal processes that make a city actually work; and how to diagnose, treat or prevent the diseases that inevitably will come to affect any given city.

Most importantly of all she asks us to stop thinking about a city in simple ways.

Cities are not two-variable problems where one can ignore “the minor influence of other factors.” In Jacobs world, the minor influences of other factors is the very definition of what makes a city a city – and we must contemplate them in this way. To her, a city is a “problem which involves dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole.

In other words, the city is a wonderful, beautiful, all-consuming hurricane. No single particle of it can be described or measured independent of every other particle. It eats, it breathes, it grows, it contracts, it’s born and it dies. And for better or worse, it dramatically impacts everything it touches.

Only the willfully ignorant would conduct an experiment within the eye of the hurricane believing the hurricane will cause no impact on his results. Yet that’s what we do all the time.

50 years after D&L’s initial publication we still tend to act as though urban problems are of the simple, two-variable kind. We preach simplistic theories as solutions to problems far more complex than we’re willing to admit. We show up to a towering inferno with a water pistol:

  • If we build transit in this impoverished area, the area will thrive!
  • If we build a park, people will have picnics!
  • If we build a bench on this sidewalk, the sidewalk will have pedestrians!
  • If we build an aquarium, tourists will flock to our decrepit downtown!
  • If everyone owns their own home, those homes will maintain and grow in value!
  • If we et cetera, then et cetera will happen!

It doesn’t happen like that, we know it and we need to admit it.

The more I turn this chapter over in my head, I can’t help but feel that Jacobs’ insights here are the greatest contribution D&L makes to the philosophy and theory of urban planning. Eyes on the Street might be popular and known – but Chapter 22 should be scripture.

Unfortunately it’s not scripture and I believe that making this last chapter the first could’ve changed that. Whether we wish to believe it or not, the majority of people who pick up D&L (for whatever reason) are unlikely to finish it.

That’s not because it’s a bad book or that people are lazy.

It’s because it’s a hard book and people are busy.

An observation as poignant as that found at the core of Chapter 22 needs to be more front-and-centre. People may disagree with me on this (in fact I’m sure people will disagree with me on this), but the reason Eyes on the Street became such an essential concept had as much to do with the the quality of the idea as it did with its appearance on page 35 rather than 429.

The usefulness of an idea, after all, is generally proportional to the number of people who encounter it.

Jacobs’ imperative to treat cities as living organisms may sound like a trite and naive holdover from the 1960’s but it’s not. It’s a call to abandon a planning culture that still uses leeches to balance our humours. It’s a call to change how we think about cities. It’s a call to adopt a more rigorous, honest and humble culture of admitting there’s a lot about these living creatures we call cities that we really don’t understand and need to learn about.

And we need to do that soon because like any living organism, cities aren’t forever. They get sick. They die.

Detroit and Cleveland are dying right before our eyes, in our lifetime, and yet we struggle to come to terms with it. We still throw out simplistic solutions like downtown baseball stadia and urban downsizing, yet certainly the problems are more complex than that.  There must be a way to save Cleveland! we pledge to ourselves, and maybe there is.

And maybe there isn’t.

Perhaps Detroit and Cleveland are past the point of no return. That’s the thing with a living creature – it can only take so much abuse before the family has to decide whether it’s time to pull the plug or not.

Or perhaps Detroit and Cleveland are afflicted by other unseen diseases such that only exhibit themselves as sprawl, economic inequality, little innovation and poor export prospects.

Or perhaps after closer analysis we discover that Detroit and Cleveland’s decay is nothing more than Jacobs’ natural slumming/de-slumming process writ large with an inevitable boom waiting just around the corner.

Or perhaps it’s something else entirely.

Trouble it, we don’t know which it is. But wouldn’t it be great to know?

Like, really, actually know?

Random Thoughts

  • If you’d like to learn more about organized complexity, there’s a great book by Phillip Ball titled Critical Mass. Warning: It’s difficult and wordy, but well worth the effort.
  • “(Planners) have inevitably come to regard “unaverage” quantities as relatively inconsequential, because these are statistically inconsequential. They have been trained to discount what is most vital.” Ilove this. Consider that quote in the context of the restaurant industry. On average, most fail within a few years. Those that succeed are in the minority. Were we to use the average as a guide for us, we would conclude that all restaurants fail. Instead, we should be examining why some restaurants thrive and apply those lessons to those that fail. We spend far too much time in our profession ignoring the outliers.
  • My page quoting is based on an old edition of the text.
  • Thanks to everyone who read along! I know it was tough going sometimes, but I hope it was worth the effort!
  • Anyone have any ideas for the next book?

One Comment Add yours

  1. I’ve often felt the exact same way, Steven, but Heather Ann pointed something out to me that made me understand why Jacobs organized the book this way:
    The structure of the book mimics one of her rules for study; it presents information inductively, from the most specific items to the most general, arriving at this very general chapter as the culmination of a process.

    I think we find it irksome partly because we’re so used to things being presented top-down, from concept to “manifestation.” Even in science where a concept is actually constructed by examining specifics, we describe these concepts as “laws,” as though nature follows our ideas, rather than the other way around.

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