“Thinking has its strategies and tactics too, much as other forms of action have…all problems cannot be thought about in the same way. Which avenues of thinking are apt to be useful and to help yield the truth depends not on how we might prefer to think about a subject, but rather on the inherent nature of the subject itself.”
The opening words to the final chapter of Jane Jacobs’ work The Death and Life of Great American Cities came to mind as I sat thinking about why we as a nation seem to be stuck in a loop. An exaggeration perhaps, but we seem to apply the same failed problem-solving principles and accompanying solutions to so much of what we do. Perhaps the problem is not a lack of effort or good intentions, but rather a failure of philosophy.
Two words come to mind to describe the attitudes and behaviours of decision-makers in so many of the key agencies and institutions that govern society: "paternalistic" and "disciplinarian."
The former is represented by a condescending and callous attitude towards members of the public, in which their intelligence, rationality, and ability to make logical choices is dismissed. The latter is represented by attempts to apply rules and regulations strictly without consideration for the inherent logic of the measure, or its actual real-world impact.
These disciplinarian and paternalistic decision-makers have little interest in understanding the nature of people and of complex problems, that is, their subject matter. As Jacobs put it, “the trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.”
In trying to explain to a friend why we are failing at urban planning as a society, one answer came to me: we have dismissed or misunderstood the effect of the physical environment, and the rules that govern its development, on the functioning of society. When we decide that it does have an impact – or that urban planning is even a useful endeavour – we force our own pre-conceived notions of what that impact should be, rather than seeking the truth of what it actually is.
It is evident in our approach to national land use, where we apparently believe that a nation can prosper (in the absence of heavy subsidisation from the exploitation of non-renewable resources) without at least one relatively highly populated, thriving city. One could assume that we care little about what and where we build, and the overall functional implications of such, but rather choose to believe that the act of construction, in and of itself, is what leads to a healthy economy.
We expect to intentionally decentralise people and economic activity out of our city centres and into the suburbs at low densities, while simultaneously expecting a dynamic economy. Of course, this completely ignores the established connection between agglomeration economies, which result from dense concentrations of people and enterprise, and high levels of productivity and innovation – and therefore, the natural inclination for people and enterprise to cluster and converge.
At the same time, we expect to achieve urban revitalisation, while ignoring the fact that a vibrant city requires a critical mass of residents. Where do these residents come from when your national population is relatively static, you have no strategy to increase the population through planned immigration, and you keep decentralising housing?
What about the segments of the population who even prefer to live in and would thrive in a densely populated, walkable city centre? Policy-makers have decided that choice is overrated and that the one-size-fits-all suburban lifestyle is the best antidote for the masses.
Reality does not seem to matter. What matters is that a suburban pattern of development, upheld through land-use regulations, has been imposed on just about everyone, and it is reality, not decision-makers, that must make the necessary adjustments to suit. Everything else that we want to achieve as a nation must be possible given this choice.
Who cares if history, replete with centuries of civilisation, has taught us that progress is facilitated by dense cities, and that it was Florence, not some leafy suburb on its outskirts, that was at the heart of the Italian Renaissance?
Alas, paternalists and disciplinarians have a superpower that allows them to bend the universe to their will, warping reality to reflect their wishes. If progress is not your thing, and you enjoy living in a time loop, then you are probably grateful for this display of magic.
Ryan Darmanie is a professional urban planning and design consultant, and an avid observer of people, their habitat, and the resulting socio-economic and political dynamics. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or email him at email@example.com