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Create Community, Design by Diversity

April 06, 1986|Paul Sterling Hoag | Paul Sterling Hoag is a fellow in the American Institute of Architects

Scratch a city planner and you'll get a number, because city planners have been numbers-oriented for 100 years. Scratch him again and you'll almost certainly find the number has to do with density--the number of people per square mile; the number of square feet of an office building's floor space per square foot of the land built upon, and on.

Density is the city planner's preoccupation, understandably so. Density numbers explain why we are caught in street-gridlock and in long commutes on what we persist in calling freeways, why we can't find parking when we arrive, why police too often answer calls too slowly, even why supermarket lines are so long.

Density is also something that planners seem to shift from place to place. The suburban housing tracts to the east are now solid almost all the way to Riverside. A resident from out there speaks of a three-hour commute during the "rush hour." Some hour.

A century ago, modern hermits renounced the city. But we have the power to fashion cities into places of civility and delight, safety and productiveness. The planners crowd numbers through their computers at an ever-increasing rate and out come mandates for "downgraded" zoning at lower densities wherever the complaints are loudest. But babies keep being born and new residents keep moving in and old people aren't dying off quickly enough. The image is one of a water bed: press hard here and it rises over there.

What to do? Well, realize that the trouble is numbers. Numbers are reasonably accurate but human behavior is not analyzable by them. Machines and the physical sciences are measured by the numbers--in this case called statistical analysis--but not people. The natural scientists know a different approach is needed to understand organisms, humans being the supremely complex organism.

Two people in the last 50 years seem to best understand the complexity of human communities: Warren Weaver, a Rockefeller researcher in the 1940s and '50s; and Jane Jacobs, a brilliant generalist from the social sciences whose landmark study, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" stunned planning professionals in the early '60s. Stunned them insufficiently, alas, for they have ever since continued marching in the lock step of numbers.

Weaver and Jacobs use the terms "disorganized complexity" and "organized complexity" to describe the difference between people and things. For example, a hard thrust of a cue into a mass of balls nearly covering a billiard table will scatter them in "disorganized complexity," but a computer can predict, analyzing averages, the resulting arrangements of balls on a table. But if the billiard balls were people they would never have been sitting there, immobile, in the first place, waiting for the cue to strike. They would have developed relationships, one to another, of great complexity not susceptible to analysis by computers.

This is not to say that planning professionals' statistical analysis is not essential to solutions for urban problems. But it is to insist that this must be the second step, a follow-up to empirical analysis of cities as "organized complexities" where variables are interrelated in an organic whole.

Who can possibly do this for our city? A single planning director cannot, even if he is a certifiable genius. What evidence suggests it can be done? Jane Jacobs' book contains 448 pages of evidence, not theory--descriptions of the many places it has been achieved plus observations made as an occupant and participant in the life of dense communities over a period of years. Her hard evidence indicates that rethinking our attitudes toward classic zoning and redevelopment can bring about dramatic relief from our major city ills.

The late Robert Hutchins suggested a solution in his description of a democratic community as a self-governing community. Every member must take part in important political decisions. Education is each member's only way of understanding political issues well enough to act wisely. Communication with fellow members is the only means each has for discussing and debating these issues.

Then what models maximize communication of this quality? The answer--within a neighborhood or district--is a model encouraging great diversity. Each neighborhood must be a complete organism of healthily functioning parts-- residences, retail shops, services, restaurants, bars, churches, parks, theaters, offices, libraries, schools--even manufacturing places if they do not mar the environment.

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