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.
(Photos from Flickr users jamessmke and Roadsidepictures. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photos.)