Our images of the city contain many assumptions about its nature and its purpose. From places of innovation and cultural development, to sites of capital accumulation and resistance, or even the living sum of its people and their desires, these conceptions in practice decide who, or what, the city is for. However, the most damaging among them is perhaps the misguided vision of the city as an engineering problem—a view that drastically limits the moral and social dimensions of our communities. We need a new rendering of the city. Yet instead of a typical urbanist, it’s a Kentucky farmer that has some lessons for us all.
Popularized by Jane Jacobs in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, organized complexity is the study of interrelated patterns and systems of city life. A prominent theme today in urban thinking, Jacobs’ ecological ideas oppose the modernist view of seeing the city as a reductive industrial machine whose only terms of understanding are profit and efficiency. However, Jacobs is not the only writer to champion an ecological framework.
Wendell Berry, the agrarian poet-activist, has long understood the human and natural interrelationships of the world. Berry’s rendering of human settlements in his essay, “Solving for Pattern,” takes a holistic view of the natural, technological and human interdependencies of our world. In it, Berry sharply criticizes the industrial view of agriculture that has harmed as much as helped. Berry’s essay moves us away from the instrumental vocabulary of efficiency and profit and pushes us to use a moral one.
Berry’s articulation of industrial thinking is not limited to simply agriculture. It’s the same kind of thought that guided the infamous Pruett-Igoe housing project. Built in 1954 as a solution to overcrowding in downtown St. Louis, its design was animated by the modernist architectural principles of Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City.” Le Corbusier envisioned the city as an efficient machine producing the order necessary for a higher standard of living. However well intended, the mechanical order of Pruett-Igoe isolated residents from the life of the surrounding neighborhood. The resulting vandalism and violent crime eventually led to its demolition only 20 years later.
People don’t thrive in a world built only for machines, so why did Le Corbusier treat cities as an engineering problem? He didn’t consider the historical, institutional, and cultural complexities of urban life. His was a kind of epistemological arrogance that doesn’t register the requirements of human flourishing because it misses the important connections among people and place.