The Problem of Assessment: Part III | Common Place

In our previous two posts, we identified some downsides and pitfalls to current methods of assessment.  So what might a more constructive approach to assessing urban life look like?

How to Think About the Kind of Problem the City Poses

To begin to answer that question, we turn first to a classic of urban studies. In her widely hailed book, The Death and Life of Great Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs titled her concluding chapter “The Kind of Problem a City Is.” The chapter served as a plea to planners and other urban experts to reconsider some of their most deeply (and often tacitly) held assumptions about the nature of cities. The insights behind her plea continue to challenge us today.

Jane Jacobs, chairman of the Comm. to save the West Village, holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles streets. (Credit: Library of Congress)

Jacob asked her readers to consider how all cities are in a constant state of flux, which is as true now as it was then. People, goods, ideas, interests, symbols, fashions and so much else circulates in various densities and velocities. People live and die, move in and out and about, businesses and industries wax and wane, the physical environment constantly evolves as buildings are constructed, remodeled, and eventually demolished.  Some sections and segments of the city may seem rooted and unchanging because of particular historical, cultural, and racial legacies, but these too evolve, though often over longer time-frames.

Jacobs described the net effect of all this dynamism as a problem of “organized complexity.” The city is “organized” because of its self-generating and self-ordering quality; it is complex because of all the moving and interacting pieces. In an argument quite radical for its time, Jacobs asserted that a city consists of a great many interacting and self-organizing elements, generated by the countless encounters and ritual interactions of individuals and institutions within its boundaries.

Unfortunately, city planners relied, as many still do now, on a dominant epistemological mode of “disorganized complexity.” From this perspective, planners view cities as a large number of discrete, randomly related variables. Cities become problems of aggregation, coordination, and risk assessment—think of predicting traffic patterns or rates of traffic fatalities—which need to be ordered and controlled by single, comprehensive plan. Beneath this thinking lies an urge to domesticate the chaos of city life through its conversion into statistical symmetries. Perceived through such a lens, planners and other experts have approached cities through methods based on technological mastery and statistical and probability analysis, confident that by such techniques they could rationally manage and administer modern urban life to the benefit of all.

via The Problem of Assessment: Part III | Common Place.


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