Jane Jacobs’ organized complexity, and why we keep failing to deal with it well.

Some of you (the planner types) may have already seen the article by Michael Mehaffy that ran in Planetizen about Jane Jacobs….or maybe you did like me, and said for cryin out loud, another Jane Jacobs article?  Give it a rest, people….  Refreshingly, though, this article turns out not to be another is-the-cult-of-Jacobs-off-base-or-not piece, but a thoughtful review of a key element that runs through Jacobs’ work –and often gets overlooked by planning professionals and academia.

As Mehaffy articulates it,

[Jacobs] was the first to apply a dawning new human understanding of the natural world to cities – an understanding that even now is slow to be grasped by built environment professions. It’s an understanding of “organized complexity,” as she called it – the dynamic inter-relationships of systems, of processes, of self-organization. This was not a mysterious world, but a comprehensible one – it was just a different kind of world than we had been envisioning. A city, certainly, was a different kind of problem than we had thought. And therein she identified a huge obstacle to learning and progress, and one that is largely still with us.

The element that Jacobs supporters and deflators often miss is that the time Jacobs spent intently watching her community, whether from her window while rocking a baby or agitating for her community’s survival, allowed her to realize that it was the interconnection of the elements of city life, the complex interactions among people within the context created by the city environment, that made an urban community work.  Her opposition to massive, monolithic building projects, whether a highway or a public housing complex, wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to losing old buildings or messing with a familiar way of life. The thread that runs through her work, from the first books to the last, is the underlying conviction that it is the city’s power to enable that web, to foster that rich blend of interconnections that must be protected and fostered.  Jacobs believed that the danger of those big Urban Renewal type projects was their monolithic-ness, the degree to which they cut off opportunities for those kinds of interactions at the knees.

Of course, some big-name urban thinkers have espoused and elaborated on these ideas, most notably Richard Florida and Ed Glaser.  And most planners, regardless of flavor, will pay obeisance to the virtues of mixed use, street activity, pedestrian-friendliness, etc.  But, as I and others have written, our efforts as planners and urban designers sometimes seem to be more notable for their failures to create or support the kinds of communities Jacobs observed than for their doing so.  Mehaffy makes an argument that I have made here previously:

[Jacobs] was not, let me assert, a blind theoretician or ideologue, but a good empiricist, using theory as a helpful tool along the way.   This may be part of the problem. After all, the professions of planning and architecture, to which I myself belong, do not have a particularly good history when it comes to escaping ideological or ex cathedra thinking. We don’t seem particularly good at learning from the evidence of our mistakes – even when they are explained to us in painfully lucid detail….

[A] city is a diverse mix of people and processes, with its own self-organizing dynamic. We can exploit this dynamic by design, but this is a different idea of design, perhaps. Top-down interventions can certainly be part of this process (Jacobs mentions, for example, the use of public projects as “chess pieces” to trigger other changes) but we understand that we have to pay attention to multiple factors and multiple relationships. We have to use different tools for different conditions – “tactical” urbanism as it has been called. We have to figure out where – and how – to change the “operating system,” the rules, processes and standards that constrain and corrupt our intended outcomes. And we have to plan with self-organization, in a way that exploits its inherent capacity to solve our problems.

This approach may not have the compelling simplicity of big-thinking, “silver bullet” solutions; but history shows it can achieve stunning success over time, where the big plans often lead to slow unfolding disasters. History also shows this approach can be extraordinarily hard to implement by siloed professionals accustomed to specialized, linear formulas and templates. But that too is a dynamic problem, to be studied and remedied.

Part of the problem is our tendency to default to “silver bullet” solutions (I’ve often referred to “magic pills” – same thing), and part of our problem is our failure to adapt or create the tools for systems thinking that other professions have done (Mahaffey describes approaches in economics and medicine in the section I cut out of the quote).  But….

We’ve known all this stuff in some form for decades.  Planning books from the 1970s will recite to you the virtues of mixed-use environments, and the mostly-failed pedestrian malls of the 1970s and 1980s were designed in response to an understanding dating back to the 1950s that planners had to get people out of their cars in order to have anything resembling the age-old shopping environment (an understanding that, in a great example of unintended consequences, led to the downtown enclosed shopping mall).

So what’s with us? Why haven’t we developed a way of thinking professionally that facilitates organized complexity?

I don’t know.  But let me propose some hypotheses:

  • People who call themselves “planners” represent an exceptionally wide array of professional approaches.  We have “planners” who have been trained and practiced almost exclusively in physical design, and we have planners who have never designed anything in their lives.  We have “planners” who spend their days managing social services, and we have planners who spend their days measuring setbacks on zoning code applications.  We have “planners” who could just as well be described as belonging to any one of six other professions, but call themselves planners because that’s what was on their diploma.

 

  • As a result of that, the term “planner” may mask as much as it reveals.  Two people who identify themselves as planners may have less in common in terms of the lens through which they view the world than two people from different professions.  Take an urban design-type planner, and put that person with an architect or with a social services planner.  How will the conversations go?

The framework of assumptions and expectations that make up the framework of a person’s worldview is sometimes called a paradigm – check here for a great recent article about the impact and limitations of paradigms on another part of the professional world.

I think one of our biggest limitations as planners may be our lack of awareness of our own paradigms.  Since we don’t see our own blind spots, and can’t deeply learn from professionals who don’t share our paradigm, we miss large pieces of that organized complexity, and we set ourselves up for those unintended consequences without realizing that this is what we are doing.

Having said that, here are two Big Things (as in, can’t be solved in a one-hour session at your next APA conference) that we need to start doing to enable us to deeply convert to a web way of thinking:

  • We need to become aware of the ways in which we as planners are working out of different world views.  We have not tackled the tough work that many other professions have of systematically laying bare our paradigms and forcing ourselves to be conscious of our assumptions.  That’s critical, not only to understanding why other planners do the screwy things they do, but to understanding where the limitations of our own assumptions are.  As planning’s history of unintended consequences shows, we have not been very good at anticipating where our plans may gang aft agley, and much of that may be because we have allowed one paradigm to put blinders on us when it comes to our own seemingly brilliant solutions. If what we were doing or designing was a beacon on a hill and wasn’t ultimately part of that organized complexity, our blind spots wouldn’t matter as much, but because they are, the limitations of our different world views can crash into reality in unexpected and unpleasant ways.

 

  • We have done a lousy job of learning from other social sciences and professions.  Too many of us have not read what sociologists and organizational theory specialists have discovered about what makes groups of people react, what empirical economies have found about how local economies actually work, or the methods education professionals have developed to create group experiences that change minds and grow knowledge.  We need to become conversant in these and other disciplines – we need them to become a more integral part of our undergraduate and graduate planning education programs, and we need to all build our ongoing understanding of what others outside of planning have learned about how people and communities of people really work.  To contort an already overused metaphor, we need to not only break down our silos, but we need to replace the silo walls with sponges to suck in the wisdom we could be gaining from others that we will never encounter at a planning conference.

 

The most ironic aspect is that, as a profession of the whole, planners are uniquely qualified do this.  Planners as are expert as anyone in the professional realm at making connections between seemingly unrelated elements, at finding the common ground between differing ideas, at working with people of every possible perspective and paradigm to find community solutions.

 

The challenge to us is not to build a new toolbox.  The challenge to the planning profession, the challenge of an organized complexity world, is to get better at understanding the uses and limitations of the tools we have in our box — and to know enough of what’s in the neighbors’ tool box to know when it makes more sense to knock on their door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A city, certainly, was a different kind of problem than we had thought. And therein she identified a huge obstacle to learning and progress, and one that is largely still with us.

Other fields of thinking and action have made great progress on these insights: ecology, biology and medicine, to name a few. There are astonishing things happening today in genetics, in network theory, and in mathematics and computer science. Even economics, a field that has historically been more dominated by ideology than most, is beginning to use more reliable evidence-based theories of how complex economic interactions actually work. Such models seem essential in learning to make more successful, more sustainable cities.

But all these fields are informed by what Jacobs called a new “web way of thinking” – employing not simple formulas or templates applied from above, but catalytic changes to a network of dynamic relationships. Doctors do this kind of thing routinely when they give medicine to boost the immune system, or prescribe changes to diet – or indeed, when they recommend that a patient adopt a healthier lifestyle or environment. They are changing the dynamic mix of variables within a complex, interactive web, going on a testable, refinable idea of how that will turn out.

 

So, too, Jacobs argued, a city is a diverse mix of people and processes, with its own self-organizing dynamic. We can exploit this dynamic by design, but this is a different idea of design, perhaps. Top-down interventions can certainly be part of this process (Jacobs mentions, for example, the use of public projects as “chess pieces” to trigger other changes) but we understand that we have to pay attention to multiple factors and multiple relationships. We have to use different tools for different conditions – “tactical” urbanism as it has been called. We have to figure out where – and how – to change the “operating system,” the rules, processes and standards that constrain and corrupt our intended outcomes. And we have to plan with self-organization, in a way that exploits its inherent capacity to solve our problems.

 

 

http://www.planetizen.com/node/53128

 

 

http://www.planetizen.com/node/53128

2 thoughts on “Jane Jacobs’ organized complexity, and why we keep failing to deal with it well.”

  1. Jacobs was brilliant. I’ve read all of her books and her insights into economics, politics, business, etc are exceptional. It is a shame that people are so quick to pigeon hole her into “Death & Life of American Cities”/anti-modernist role. I wonder how many of her detractors have read any of her work?

    At the very least, “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” should be required reading for everyone in this era of the collapsing euro.

  2. Excellent piece, particularly like your discussion of “people who call themselves planners.” Walking through the logic of your piece I saw an alley that could be illuminated, and that is the relationship of organized complexity to what is often referred to as “Jacob’s spillovers.” A great discussion of this phenomenon can be found in Pierre Desrochers chapter in the book, “What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs.”

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