Our approach to localized economic development and social order may be sadly mislead. In part, I believe, it is because we have adopted the vision of order for our communities that is inherent, and perhaps natural, to the state. From some we hear about a need for increased policing, and from the other side of the political spectrum we hear a call for more tax dollars toward community development. However, in both these instances we find the view of the state being advocated, not necessarily what is best for those neighborhoods and their residents.
I have been reading (and enjoying immensely) James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, a wonderful examination of the perspective of the state and how that leads to certain hazardous schemes. The book starts, unexpectedly, with a discussion about forest growth. There, Scott demonstrates that states view forests often in regards to production beneficial to the state, such as certain types of commerce and material for defense. As a result, various states attempted to create forest to those ends, which meant uniformity and simplification was highly desired, in order to increase yields, which happened initially. Unsurprisingly, this created some unintended consequences, such as lower yields in subsequent years as soil conditions changed over time.
Scott later moves the discussion toward urban development, discussing how the high modernist vision became the ideal view of city organization. Clean organized lines, perpendicular intersections, open space, a modern aesthetic value all became part of the Utopian state vision. From the perspective of the state it all made perfect sense, broad roads are easier to police, property rights are easier to define and enforce with clean boundaries, and keeping track of citizens, business, and other activity is all facilitated with organizing the city according to those activities.
However, in practice this high modernist approach did not turn out as planned, much space went unused. And the cities that most effectively implemented these ideas, such as Brasilia, Brasil, ended up with the more organic city arising outside the established designed one. More importantly though, this ideal prevents desirable economic and social outcomes from arising to some degree.
In contrast to the high modernist view Scott, drawing deeply from a critque of high modernist design by Jane Jacob called The Death and Life of Great American Cities, described a more complex, diverse, and somewhat organic vision, where neighborhoods housed people, business, and leisure. Scott advocates this diverse view, as follows:
Like the diverse old-growth forest, a richly differentiated neighborhood with many kinds of shops, entertainments centers, services, housing options, and public spaces is, virtually by definition, a more resilient and durable neighborhood. Economically, the diversity of its commercial “bets” (everything from funeral parlors and public services to grocery stores and bars) makes ti less vulnerable to economic downturns. At the same time its diversity provides many opportunities for economic growth in up turns. Like monocropped forests, single-purpose districts, although they may initially catch a boom, are especially susceptible to stress. The diverse neighborhood is more sustainable.
And the benefits are not merely economic, but criminal activity is also stifled in this vision, not because of the government sanctioned, and controlled, police force but also because communities look after communities. Especially within communities that are diverse in their use and purpose. Critiquing again the high modernist view, that social order is derived from a state vision of order, Scott wrote while also quoting Jacobs:
Social order is not the result of the architectural order created by T squares and slide rules. Nor is social order brought about by such professionals as policemen, nightwatchmen, and public officials. Instead, says Jacobs, “the public peace- the sidewalk and street peace- of cities…is kept by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.”
These profound criminal justice policies implications can impact how we view communities and living space. It also sheds light on why state provided, designed, and allocated housing (known often as “the projects” or by some other colloquial term) fail so often to provide economic mobility and lower crime rates. Drab, uniform, single-use blocs are unlikely to possess the diversity of use in order to encourage community and meaningful social interaction.
This last quote from the book provides a fantastic summary of the inherent risk in top-down planning:
For Jacobs, the city as a social organism is a living structure that is constantly changing and springing surprises. Its interconnections are so complex and dimly understood that planning always risks unknowingly cutting into its living tissue, thereby damaging or killing vital social processes.
James Devereaux is an attorney and can be found on twitter @jcdevereaux1. All views are his own and not of any employer or affiliate.by