Ken Greenberg on cities as ecologies

Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder

(This post is adapted from my book, Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder.)

Jane Jacobs was one of the first to identify clear parallels between the complex workings of cities and the ecology of natural systems. She developed an appreciation for complex, “self-organizing” survival mechanisms and was frustrated with the kind of institutional wrong-headedness—bureaucratic, political and pseudoscientific—that impedes the creative process of human adaptation. She argued for the fundamental efficiency of cities that used pre-existing resources to provide shelter and sustenance and to produce goods and services. Though couched in different language, her observations presaged the current focus on sustainability.

Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City

Jacobs’ arguments posed the most fundamental challenge to the still-potent antiurban values and pervasive imagery rooted in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. In contrast to these seductive visions of cities in an idealized end state, this determined inductive observer demonstrated that there were more sophisticated processes at work in real existing cities, which consisted of perpetually unfinished, intensely interactive webs of relationships. She was dislodging the underpinnings of modernist thinking.

Borrowing from American scientist and mathematician Dr. Warren Weaver, Jacobs identified three types of problems: problems of simplicity, which deal with two variables; problems of disorganized complexity, which deal with more variables that are not connected; and problems of organized complexity, which deal with more variables that are connected in subtle ways. Her conclusion: cities are not simple mechanical constructs, nor are they randomly chaotic. Instead, as if better understood through the science of living organisms, cities are problems in organized complexity. This insight came not from nostalgia for a city lost to history but from the intellectual pursuit of hard-headed and practical answers. Jane Jacobs perceptively saw an order to the city reflected in the productivity of heterogeneous wetlands (to be richly described in works like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which came out in 1962). The parallel, which was initially ridiculed and took some time to be fully appreciated, is described in the seminal last chapter of Death and Life (entitled “The Kind of Problem a City Is”).

“While city planning has thus mired itself in deep misunderstandings about the very nature of the problem with which it is dealing,” Jacobs wrote, “the life sciences . . . have been providing some of the concepts that city planning needs. . . . And so a growing number of people have begun, gradually, to think of cities as problems in organized complexity—organisms that are replete with unexamined, but obviously intricately interconnected, and surely understandable relationships. . . .”

Boston’s North End

Other important urban observers were also getting back down to street level. The Urban Villagers (1962) by Herbert Gans chronicled Boston’s fabled North End and contributed to saving it and its lively street life from the wrecking ball. Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects (1964) illustrated the cultural richness, ingenuity and adaptability of vernacular architecture. It offered provocative glimpses of the kinds of urban places that emerge from methods of construction that use locally available materials and traditions of design that have evolved over time to reflect their environmental, cultural and historical contexts. Such points of view represented the polar opposite of the modernists’ universal formula of mass-produced towers in the park. Later, William H. “Holly” Whyte, author of The Organization Man, produced a number of seminal works, including The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980). In this modest tome, Whyte used techniques like time-lapse photography to illustrate the sterility and relative emptiness of many so-called urban plazas that lacked the qualities that foster active street life. His Street Life Project began in 1969 while he was assisting the New York City Planning Commission in their attempts to understand why some public spaces were consistently well used, while others remained relatively empty throughout the day. Despite being over three decades old, many of Whyte’s conclusions and proposed antidotes are still essential ingredients for creating successful public spaces: paying close attention to sitting space; providing sun, wind, trees, and water; taking care of the need for food: and allowing for “triangulation”—those third things that provide the pretexts for bringing people together.

These works, along with Death and Life, were, collectively, a revelation. Here were more fresh eyes that keenly observed what the modernists had overlooked. Their perspectives offered more compelling arguments for keeping and protecting the traditional city and provided ammunition for the many citizens who intuitively understood that there was something wrong with emptying their cities and rebuilding them in unappealing ways.

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