Last week, author Richard Sennett visited the University of Maryland to give the Urban Studies and Planning Program’s annual LeFrak Lecture. I had previously posted a review of one of his previous works, The Uses of Disorder. I wrote the following in response to his lecture.
I recently read an economist’s definition of a city as “an absence of distance between people and firms.” Such a definition will seem odd to anyone who cares about cities, because it defines the city by what it lacks instead of what it has. Most of us who live in or visit cities define them by what they are. Cities are places where visitors are confronted with strangers, a place of cultural and economic innovation, where the latest technology and styles are created and take root. It is in this vein we encounter Richard Sennett, who insists on thinking of the city in terms of its unique attributes. For Sennett, a city is a place of strangers, interaction, and ultimately conflict. To Sennett, the city should be understood as a psychological experience, not an economic or historical phenomenon.
An Urbanism of Disorder
From his perspective, the shape of the physical city should be understood as a “symptom” of a particular mindset, not a cause. In his 1970 classic The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life, he specifically rejects economic arguments explaining the origin of suburbs, casually tossing aside the forces contemporary historians point to in order to explain suburbanization: zoning, mortgages, highways, and automobiles. He argues instead that the suburbs are the product of American’s psychological desires to minimize conflict and create ideal places.
In some ways, he’s right. If they seek long-term success, American city advocates can’t simply shoe-horn people in more urban environments with technology (light rail) or policies (smart growth), but must cultivate an urban sensibility that demands such policies and tools because they demand a certain type of lifestyle. In Sennett’s view the key to cultivating this sensibility is reinforcing what makes the city unique, including those things that many planners have long thought undesirable: complexity, disorder, and conflict. Thus the rationalizing impulse of planning to order the city—with highways, zoning, and “centers” of all types directly conflicts with what we should be encouraging in our cities. Only planning that encourages urban disorder and conflict will create dynamic, healthy cities that will attract people.
Sennett’s ‘Architecture of Justice’
During the lecture last week, Sennett described the city that results from this kind of modern obsession with order as a “city as closed system,” saying the art of designing cities has declined precisely because the picture of the city became more total. The result of the bureaucrat’s “horror” of change has been a “brittle city,” that is static, rigid, and ultimately disposable and not adaptable to change. The closed city stifles the interactions and conflict that define and drive the city forward. He then argues the contemporary ideology of sustainability comes from this way of thinking. He argued we’ll never get to where we want to go in terms or environmental sustainability if we only seek to mimic nature and simply “get things in balance” (as William McDonough would have us believe).
What is needed is quite different than a carefully ordered system, but instead a radical destabilization that convinces us to desire less. In fact, truly great cities already do this by convincing people to live in smaller and lower quality housing, restricting their mobility, and sometimes giving up automobiles, with precisely the lures Sennett says we should celebrate: diversity, interaction, and perhaps conflict.
In an “open city,” rupture, discontinuity, and even conflict would be encouraged. Such an “architecture of justice” would hold jarring contradictions and surprises for its residents (perhaps like parking day). He suggests planning that deliberately seeks to bring various groups into close contact by placing an immigrant market near wealthy homes and one that jars its citizens by inserting an AIDS hospice into a shopping mall. I would argue it would also be a planning focused on efficiency and minimums catering to fine-scale variety, rather than ideal end states and onerous rules benefiting large-scale development. In some ways it might be similar to the “agile planning” advocated by participants in the UCLA PropX competition whose proposals often have as much to do with questioning or reducing existing regulations as they do with creating new ones.
The Uses of Sennett
There are, I think, several points to be raised here. First, modern order-obsessed planning from the modern era seems forever gone. Municipal fragmentation, powerful advocacy groups, and ideological diversity within the profession have introduced inconsistency and diversity into both our plans and our cities. While perhaps still overly controlling and bureaucratic, it is not hegemonic. Second, his casual disregard for the very real economic and legal forces determining the character and form of the city undermines his argument. Once suburban subsidies were instituted, it left practical urban residents few choices. Even if they desired conflict and disorder, bland suburban homes may just have been more practical. Here we are left with a chicken or egg problem about which came first: cultural values or the policies that embody them. Ultimately his approach does not appreciate the very real inertia of public policy. Like previous urban critics including Louis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, Sennett is advancing a cultural critique based in urban ecology, not one based in political economy. (To use categories described by Becky Nicolaides in a recent article)
Lastly, at first glance, recent trends in American urbanism celebrating diversity and contrast seem to challenge Sennett’s view of closed cities locked down by order-obsessed zoning and planning. However, most of the new urban innovations—mixed use and form based zoning, New Urbanism, and even ratings systems for sustainability—are in fact deeply regulatory and bureaucratic. As an example, in College Park the Route One Sector Plan that seeks to create a dense, mixed-use corridor contains hundreds of pages of minutiae about setbacks and allowed uses. Most of the neighborhoods it seeks to replicate evolved under no zoning and minimal regulation. While there are some notable exceptions of plans that are thankfully minimalist on paper, in practice almost all are overly controlling and heavy-handed in implementation.
There are a few themes I could develop further, not the lease of which is how all of this relates to the type of justice I am most concerned with: social justice. One writer who has considered how conventional regulatory planning and our urban policies redistributes urban wealth to middle and upper classes to the detriment of the poor is David Harvey, in his classic work Social Justice in the City, a type of analysis only carried forward only by a small group of contrary and little-known academics. One of the continued problems with the field of contemporary planning is its lack of a critical self-awareness about how conventional local government planning deepens divides between rich and poor.
Finally, in some ways Sennett’s arguments are largely irrelevant to much of the contemporary urban debate, dominated as it is by analysis based in political economy. Sennett helps us appreciate how reductionist this approach can be, largely missing the qualitative attributes that define and explain the value of urban life. This is the relevance of Sennett: to question whether regulatory approaches to sustainability and urbanism are sufficient to create the cities we desire.
The illustrations of the works of Julie Mehretu, whose works contain references to public spaces like buildings and stadiums, inscribed with personal narratives. A show of her work titled City Sitings recently opened at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where she questions the “truthfulness” of maps (and, by extension, cartographic plans) and, the DIA believes, “demonstrate her fervent preoccupation with multiple, often conflicting, viewpoints.”