Sunday, March 4, 2012

Knotted Cities, Planning, and Embracing Messiness

I had a fascinating exchange on twitter this morning with my classmate, RJ (@rjkoscielniak, follow him). He posted an article from the New York Times looking at Rio's central command center designed by IBM. It's an integrated command center that takes data from around the entire city through a series of sensors, GPS trackers etc and brings it all into one area where the city can, ideally, react to disasters in a coordinated fashion, better manage large events (like Carnival) and get a better hold on the city as a whole.

The planner and geek in me absolutely LOVES reading stuff like this. I'm a sucker for the rationalist/managerial approach and I think it has its place and necessity, especially in a world where we have cities of 10, 15, and 20 million people. When you have that many people, combined with cities that are often more informal than formal, trying to exert control over it is a natural (and I would argue, good) instinct.

What RJ pointed out to me, well of the many things he pointed out, was that systems like this give a false sense of security because it does not recognize the inherent complexity and messiness of lived urban life, at all scales. To quote him,"...complexity is hidden in a sea of panoramic data". What systems like IBM's ignore is the constitutive and adaptive nature of cities. This system works in one direction and imposes rules and linearity to a system that flows in multiple directions up and down scale and is "knotted". To put it as RJ did,"...systems like this ignore the natural dialogue between cities and its residents". People adapt and use the city as they need to every day. We walk across empty lots or through buildings to get to work, we have rooftop or windowsill gardens, we open up fire hydrants in the summer, we have rent parties or block parties. We also steal, salvage, scrap, tag, and burn the our cities. We have deep networks of residents, neighborhood leaders, elders, cops, politicians, teachers etc that all play into how we interact with our cities and our governments. Top-down approaches (and as a planner I am often engaged in designing and thinking about top-down approaches) often ignore this incredibly complex urban milieux in an attempt to tame it, to control it, and, ultimately, to predict and guide it.

As I said, I'm sympathetic to the planner here, it's what I am. But RJ made a great point about residents and the city being constitutive (one affects the other and vice versa) and adaptable and how planning does not adequately speak to that, and in an attempt to exert control over the city and its operations it has to obscure or ignore these forces. We cannot grasp the city as such, the more tightly we attempt to grasp it, the faster it flits away. Even in a world where London is under constant scrutiny and surveillance by an intrusive state, you can still have catastrophic subway bombings or riots. The only way to "tame" the city is to become totalitarian, to monitor everyone and to remove all choice and freedom. There are some who insist that planners are seeking to do this or that the past decade has seen us take bigger steps towards that ultimate outcome. I do not believe this is so, but the critique and implications are strong.

We cannot "solve" the city. It is ultimately unknowable, and I'm ok with that. But given this insolubility, we have to better respect the lived experience of city residents at all levels. A building that collapses due to neglect and people stealing its bricks and piping is a natural part of urban decay. The city consumes and recycles its own wastes. Just as "informal" housing (also known as "slums") is a sign of city's natural, informal, chaotic growth. What I think planners should do is to find a way to include these areas and actions into their understanding of the city and into their "interventions". Are slums and favelas huge issues in many cities? Most certainly. But the answer is not blight clearance and displacement but to find ways to include and absorb such areas and respect the fact that people live and flourish there. Mapping schemes, infrastructure advancement, the opening of clinics to assist with health...these are positive steps that recognize and cooperate with the informal and the messy.

RJ says that one of his many goals is to tear down the separation between the "informal and formal". While we often butt heads on how far we should go, I do believe that planners, as well as "urbanists" (whatever they happen to be), need to respect the lived experience of those who are already here. We need to embrace the complex messiness of the city. Otherwise we are simply hoping to grasp shadows, reflections of reality that comfortably conform to our assumptions and rules.


Kristen said...

You are very right in that we can't "solve" the city. However, so many people want to and feel like they have to. I think when CNU was founded, they had to gloss over the city. Now, we have things like Tatical Urbanism(pop-up retail, parks, yarn bombing)which are impromptu, but still somewhat codified. Although the authors of the Tatitcal Urbanism book invite other ideas, for many cities, they will use it as a novelty. Also, I'm going to push that the next volume includes things like slums and outdoor church services and other activities that have been going on without prodding for years, but account for how people function in metro areas.

Me said...

Fascinating read. I have a side interest in urban geographies, particularly their impact on knowledge production. Space and place matter to everything. Thanks!

Surly Urbanist said...

I think we should move away from necessarily trying to codify everything. We find things like slums and church picnics and block parties arising on their own. To a certain extent, we just need to let people live and do their thing. Let's respect the forces and the people behind them and in certain instances let's work on formalizing some of these relationships. But we don't HAVE to plan for these, you know?