As Jacobs explains in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities:
Artists, whatever their medium, make selections from the abounding materials of life, and organize these selections into works that are under the control of the artist…the essence of the process is disciplined, highly discriminatory selectivity from life. In relation to the inclusiveness and the literally endless intricacy of life, art is arbitrary, symbolic and abstracted…To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life. The results of such profound confusion between art and life are neither art nor life. They are taxidermy.” (1961: 372-3, emphasis original)
So how do we avoid turning the results of urban design into taxidermy and killing off a city by planning? I think the short answer is that we avoid it by recognizing that there’s a tradeoff between the scale of a design and the degree of spontaneity, complexity, and intricacy in the resulting social order that the design allows.
Now, saying that a city cannot be a work of art doesn’t mean of course that a city cannot be beautiful or that deliberate design can never enhance that beauty. But I am suggesting that beauty that is designed as a work of art is fundamentally different from the undersigned beauty that emerges from a lifetime of experience. The skillfully made-up face of a fashion model and the face of a 90-year-old grandmother are both beautiful, but in profoundly different ways.
Niels Gron, quoted in Gerard Koeppel’s City of a Grid: How New York Became New York:
Before I came to this country, and in all the time I have been here [circa 1900], it has never occurred to me to think of New York as beautiful…We expect of her power and magnificence, but not beauty…The kind of beauty that makes Paris charming can only exist where private rights and personal liberty are or have been trampled on. Only where the mob rules, or where kings rule, so that there is at one time absolutely no respect for the property of the rich and at another time for the rights of the poor can the beauties of Paris be realized.
And I’m not saying that small is always beautiful, either. What I am saying is that there’s a reason why mega- and giga-projects tend to be more beautiful the farther away from them you are, while the deep beauty of a living city becomes visible, as I said, up close on the street.
When she wrote that a city cannot be a work of art, I believe Jacobs was thinking less about aesthetics per se and more about the problem of social order – about how a city manages to solve the problem of achieving social cooperation among thousands and millions of strangers. And for the same reason she didn’t think that a city could be a work of science or engineering. Both the engineering perspective and the aesthetic perspective abstract from an organic whole; both substitute the vision of a single mind for the intricacies of a system that is the result of many minds. These reasons parallel those of F.A. Hayek (1967) who warned of the dangers of conflating planned orders for unplanned or “spontaneous orders.”
The economist Richard E. Wagner (2010) draws the same distinction in his contrast between “piazza and parade.” In a parade, each person follows an explicit, pre-assigned set of commands consciously constructed by some kind of overall planner. While any social framework constrains individual choice to some degree, a parade, on the street or especially on the football field, is perhaps the most extreme example of this. To achieve the pre-ordained pattern, no marcher can deviate from her assigned movements and her individuality must be submerged into the collective. Individual choice in this context, aside perhaps from the choice of the marcher to join the parade in the first place, must be ruled out. Individuality, the freedom to deviate from one’s role in the collective, would spell disaster and therefore it can’t be tolerated. The relations among the marchers have to be formal and narrowly constrained.
People also relate to one another in a piazza, of course. Whether sitting, standing, or walking (or dancing), there are rules each person needs to follow in order to preserve order. But those rules are typically informal, tacit, and negative in the sense that they tell you what you cannot do rather than what you can do. Perhaps you’re not allowed to toss trash into the fountain or play loud music or assault passersby. Anything else not forbidden – bathing in the fountain or singing to soft music or talking to strangers or whatever – is allowed. The scope of what you can do in this hypothetical piazza is infinitely broader than what you cannot do, indeed must do, in a parade (e.g. take five steps forward, turn 90-degrees to the right…).
A spontaneous order is a stable set of relations among individuals that is sufficiently coherent to enable them to form and carry out plans with a reasonable expectation of success and that emerges unintentionally from those individual plans. It is in this sense that Hayek refers to a spontaneous order as “the result of human action but no of human design” (Hayek 1967: 96-105) The people whose actions constitute the order may or may not be aware that their choices contribute to the pattern, but they do not know precisely how their choices do so. Examples of spontaneous orders include language, culture, legal interpretation, market prices. Quite a wide-ranging list!
In fact, because of the central role of cities in the development of so many spontaneous social orders, I believe we should view a living city as a spontaneous order par excellence. The city is a social order that breeds and sustains most of the most important, spontaneously generated social orders that constitute civilized society.
That’s why Jacobs was so harshly critical of highly centralized, heavy-handed 1950s-style urban planning, which was an attempt to transform piazzas into parades. Indeed, her criticism was essentially that planners are typically unaware of the difference between the two. We need look no further for examples of such practices than to Brasilia or more recently to China’s “ghost cities.”
She was no less critical of urban theory. The paradigm is Louis Wirth’s (1938: 18) model of a city as a 3-variable problem – population, density of settlement, and degree of heterogeneity – with which he argued it was possible to “explain the characteristics of urban life and to account for the differences between cities of various sizes and types.” In contrast, Jacobs saw a living city as a problem of “organized complexity,” which involves “dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole” (1961: 432).
Much more congenial to her way of thinking were the design theories of Kevin Lynch (1960) or William H. Whyte (1980) or Jan Gehl (2013); or the novel traffic policies of “shared space” that is spreading across Northern Europe today. All of which pay careful attention to what real people do and how they interact with each other and with the built environment. Each of these people, to some degree, understood with Jacobs that a city is a spontaneous order.
Now, what about those tradeoffs? (To be continued.)
[In this space I’ll be posting quotes, ideas, and excerpts relating to a book I’m writing (thus far untitled), which I might describe as “What I have learned from the economic and social theory of Jane Jacobs.” My hope is to get thoughtful, informed feedback that will be useful in shaping the book.]