Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Drew Austin: Brief Interviews with Hideous Cities

Urbanism, like any field, has its own dogmas, orthodoxies and raging controversies. It’s both art and science, it affects almost everyone on a daily basis (whether they realize it or not), and it overlaps with a vast array of related disciplines.

In short, urbanism has a lot in common with language.

People have been calling attention to this similarity for ages–Christopher Alexander’s pattern language is a prime example–but David Foster Wallace may have unknowingly revealed the most useful facet of the relationship in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” by probing the conflict between linguistic Descriptivism and Prescriptivism. Prescriptivists are those who believe in objective, fixed rules to guide the usage of language; Descriptivists, on the other hand, seek to define a language by how people actually use it. DFW ultimately concludes that the English language depends upon the former group, although any would-be Prescriptivist must establish credibility before publicly defining what’s right and wrong.

It turns out urbanism has its own versions of Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: Professional planners, architects, academics, media and city administrators tend to develop consensus about what makes cities work. Density, mixed-use development, and transit become components of an urbanist orthodoxy; a freeway through a vibrant neighborhood troubles the urban Prescriptivist in the same way an “ain’t” irks the English teacher.

Meanwhile, every urban dweller is routinely playing the twin roles of critic and planner in many small ways. Cities are created by the sum of individual choices to live in certain neighborhoods, shop at certain stores or occupy public spaces, and everyone forms an opinion about what’s good and bad in their own urban environments. Urban Descriptivism would hold that these millions of collective actions and opinions are right, whether experts agree or not–even if those actions produce strip malls, car culture and isolation.

Urban Descriptivism is probably more interesting, and it’s certainly easier. Robert Venturi and Reyner Banham have glorified the neon signs, freeways and sprawl of LA and Las Vegas, choosing to find beauty in those environments because they’re already there anyway. Venturi may have coined the Descriptivists’ mantra when he wrote, “Main Street is almost all right.” Their approach teaches us to treasure someone else’s trash, enhancing the urban experience without necessarily building anything.

Clearly, each extreme has severe flaws: One leads to hubris and utopian fantasies; the other ignores social pathologies in favor of intellectual entertainment. Hence DFW’s conclusion. We can’t assume those planning our cities are credible just because they’re making the plans. But we need rules and guidance—an entirely hands-off approach will create interesting cities with multitudes of serious problems.

Maybe this is why urbanists keep returning to Jane Jacobs. She reconciles these approaches in The Death and Life of Great American Cities by merging a Descriptivist’s eye for the way cities actually are (not how they should be) with a Prescriptivist’s desire to make cities better—by nurturing what’s already good in those cities rather than trying to recreate them. David Foster Wallace writes that every language needs its authorities; Jane Jacobs tells us that stepping outside and thoughtfully considering one’s surroundings are the first steps toward becoming an authority on the language of urbanism.

This post originally appeared in The Where Blog. Reprinted with permission of the author.

9 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design

9 Responses to “Drew Austin: Brief Interviews with Hideous Cities”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    It’s a little weird that you’re only considering the reality of 2010 here. In the 1950s, the planners were big on freeways and urban renewal; Jacobs’ writings were a clarion call for descriptivism, showing how the existing neighborhoods the prescriptivists decried as slums actually worked well. Her approach to urbanism is similar to Labov’s approach to language. It only appears to be conciliatory because modern urban planning has taken some of her descriptive insights and turning them into prescription.

    Now, urban planning’s modern prescriptions haven’t really had a parallel in sociolinguistics, which has worked out the grammar of nonstandard dialects but has remained strictly descriptive. But still, people who look at LA and say “This is beautiful” are no more descriptivist than people who worship modern-day aristocratic speech. In both cases, the implication is that any alternative is to be deprecated.

  2. It seems to me that calling LA “beautiful”, or “ugly” for that matter, is a value judgment which is outside the scope of descriptionism. A descriptionist would note LA’s freeways, its land use patterns and density, its socio-economic segregations, etc.–and catalogue these things, perhaps noting what works well and not; but calling LA (or received pronunciation) beautiful is a question of values, not of observation.

    What the proper role of inertia is in planning, though, is an interesting question. Are the pre-freeway urban neighborhoods a natural state of affairs, and modern autosuburbia a distortion? Perhaps, but the distortion is presently the status quo in many places, and there are many extant things which reinforce this status quo–getting back to what was before (and getting rid of what exists today) would require significant political, social, and technical upheaval. Just as many who lived in urban neighborhoods facing the bulldozer fought the construction of freeways through their backyards (and the richer and whiter ones tended to win these fights; the poorer and darker ones not so much); were the freeways which exist today to be removed, similar resistance would be encountered.

    Not that I wouldn’t like to see some of it happen… :)

  3. John Sterr says:

    Engineer, Yes the upheavels required for removing poor planning decisions and bleak suburb developments will require significant effort, but it is worth it. While freeways are not going away, and shouldn’t in my opinion, we now know that the worst of suburban planning and development is actually harmful to our health both as individuals and as a community.

    At the very least what we need to take away from Jane Jacobs is the realization that suburan schemes and rules do not work as the basis of planning for cities. Those that choose suburbs, let them go. We must continue to foster dynamic environments in our urban cores that work for them, in order to truly provide a choice for people. If we try to become more like the suburbs to compete with them we will never win, because we can never truly be a suburb and this path will alienate those who appreciate the city for being exactly that.

  4. Panglott says:

    This comparison is unfair to what you call “prescriptivism” in urbanism. Language prescriptivists usually champion blindly stupid rules that show a complete ignorance of the English language, or maintain weird old rules for English derived from Latin (not English) grammar. DFW is certainly guilty of this. Descriptivists object because these rules tend to be spectacularly stupid and uninformed, the result of some self-appointed mook pulling stuff out of their ass.

    http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2010/01/03/pronouncing-2010/

    http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/tom-torriglia-is-going-to-have-a-best-seller/

    http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/national-grammar-day-2010-ten-more-common-grammar-myths-debunked/

    http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/guest-post-the-kind-of-logic-in-language/

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1939

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1854

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=5

  5. Alon Levy says:

    The analogy is apt. The old-style prescriptivists understood cities to about the same extent language SNOOTs understand English usage. They even displayed the same class bias and condescension against urban life that wasn’t sterile upper-class rowhouses.

    From the middle of the 19th century onward, the urban SNOOTs regarded the slums not only as places of poverty, but also as environments that bred social and civic isolation. In reality, most of those slums actually had high levels of social participation, organized along ethnic or class lines, in contrast to the suburbs that were supposedly where immigrants would learn to be proper Americans. More often than not, the SNOOTs’ urban reforms were semi-plausible attempts at solutions to the slum problem that didn’t involve higher wages, shorter working hours, or unions.

  6. I’m with the other commenters here, in that what struck me about this paragraph is that the *real* era of the prescriptivists was the one that wrought “urban renewal” and was all about putting freeways through neighborhoods that the professional’s lens of the time didn’t allow them to see as vibrant:

    It turns out urbanism has its own versions of Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: Professional planners, architects, academics, media and city administrators tend to develop consensus about what makes cities work. Density, mixed-use development, and transit become components of an urbanist orthodoxy; a freeway through a vibrant neighborhood troubles the urban Prescriptivist in the same way an “ain’t” irks the English teacher.

    Have we now become too rigidly, prescriptively, orthodox the other way ’round? I don’t know… clearly it seems the “experts” (and I’m not one) are at least much more self-aware, in this post-Jane-Jacobs era, about their prescriptivism than they were in the mid-20th-century, and (maybe) more inclined to base their prescriptions in real ground-level empiricism.

  7. Jarrett has an interesting thread going (several, actually) on the question of what mode of transport is most appropriate for Vancouver, BC’s Broadway corridor–a SkyTrain extension, or some sort of surface rail solution. In the linked-to posting, he addresses work done by Pat Condon, an architecture prof at the University of British Columbia, in favor of surface rail (some from of streetcar).

    The crux of the debate, essentially, concerns the urban form for inner-city Vancouver, and seems to involve an urbanist vision which excludes the concerns of residents or commuters outside the inner city. There are quite a few students attending UBC on the west end of the line, who live out in Vancouver’s eastern suburbs (and generally cannot afford to live closer in) for whom a SkyTrain extension would be higlhy beneficial–but there exists a thread of urbanism that essentially says–screw ‘em; if they wanna live in the ‘burbs, they deserve a long slow bus ride.

    Given than inner city Vancouver is already built-up and highly dense, other than a few wealthy enclaves west of downtown (and a large swath of parkland just east of the university), my personal thoughts are that the opportunities for streetcar-wrought urban transformation are limited. The area has extensive bus service, which is extensively used; converting this to rail doesn’t really help (other than perhaps a capacity improvement owing to larger vehicles). Obviously, I come down on the SkyTrain side of this particular debate.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    EngineerScotty: it’s weird that you frame this debate as Skytrain-suburban, LRT-inner-urban. Condon may see it that way, kind of, but local troll Zweisystem sees it in the opposite terms: Skytrain is expensive and can only serve a few corridors, whereas LRT is cheap enough to build that it can go deep into suburbia.

  9. I was thinking of Condon, who is a person of some influence on the debate. I wasn’t considering Zwei at all–much of his schtick scarcely merits serious attention or comment.

    And obviously, my comments shouldn’t be construed as anti-LRT (or anti any mode in general); just that I think there’s little benefit (other than a potential capacity improvements) to adding streetcars or tramways to the corridor in question. The broadway corridor needs true rapid transit, and Vancouver is fortunate to have a technology that once built, offers significant operational advantages.

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