Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Are American Cities Making The Possible Impossible?

It's sort of embarrassing when you read something you really can't add to much. Aaron Renn who has a great blog called Urbanophile was nice enough to allow an extended quote from his post, Impossibility City.

It should be self evident that people live in cities to be near other people and reap all the benefits of human interaction. Officials are starting to understand people conveniently getting to stores, schools and workplaces but often try to limit and control the unexpected interactions that make cities really valuable. Do they still pump in muzak on the T platforms? God forbid you heard a talented neighbor sing. God forbid they met a record producer.

"On the second front, I don’t think people truly get the link between a broad vision of what a city is, a large sphere in which individuals can pursue divergent activities and goals, and economic success. As Sam Jacob of FAT put it, “Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands.” The life of the small town or the suburb are rigidly circumscribed. They might not be about a single vision, but they are about a more narrow and defined view of what life should be. They demand conformity. A place like that, no matter how large or even how successful, is not a true city.

A collision of incompatible demands. What a great way to put it. It is in containing that collision within a geographical, political, social, and culture context that a city creates its meaning. Cities can resolve the paradox, reconcile the incompatible into something new and powerful. It isn’t always pretty. The results are sometimes messy or unpleasant. But its in that resolution process that we create the energy and innovation that moves the city forward and allows its residents, business, and institutions to reinvent themselves and their lives if they so choose.

Let’s put it in terms that are broadly understood, by considering this in the framework of Richard Florida’s “Creative Class”. I don’t think this is the end all, be all by any means. But clearly, in a nation pinning its hopes on an innovation economy to replace the jobs lost by productivity gains and offshoring in traditional sectors, and to power the economic growth of the future, you need to both have the talent and the catalyst to make innovation happen.

Florida’s simplified thesis is that successful cities are about talent, technology, and tolerance. The last point is usually taken to mean a tolerance for gays and various “bohemian” types. But tolerance isn’t about non-discrimination ordinances and it isn’t about gays. Tolerance is a mindset.

The dictionary definition of tolerance is “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own”. From this is clear that most advocates for “progressive” policies of the type advocated by Florida really aren’t tolerating anything. They might be about allowing differences, but it is seldom about allowing views or actions that are in actual conflict with their own values. Indeed, progressives can be as intolerant as anyone for beliefs or actions that differ from their orthodoxy.

We need tolerance properly so-called. We need an environment where we are willing to put up with things we don’t like in return for the same freedom for ourselves. We need cities where “live and let live” is the motto. Rules that stifle this in order to produce a perpetual suburban style family friendly or least common denominator view of what a city should be are ultimately counter-productive. They sap the city of its animating power.

This isn’t just an obscure philosophical point. It’s real and tangibly important. George Bernard Shaw famously said that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. Innovation requires non-conformity with existing ways of doing things. This requires not just the idea, but the mental fortitude to break away not just from our own patterns of doing things, but from the social pressure to conform. In a sense, all innovation depends on the outcast."

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