Brief Interviews with Hideous Cities

Urbanism, like any field, has its own dogmas, orthodoxies and raging controversies. It's both art and science, it affects almost everyone on a daily basis (whether they realize it or not), and it overlaps with a vast array of related disciplines.

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.)


Chachy said...

The problem with applying this dichotomy to urbanism is that urban planning "descriptivists" are not merely describing the organic result of development (as grammatical descriptivists describe the organic result of usage). There isn't anything organic about the sprawl of Southern Canlifornia or Phoenix or Atlanta - that sprawl is the result of policies which favor developers, and which extol commercial values over the values of community, place, and environment.

Indeed, it seems to me that many urbanist "prescriptivists" are actually interested in returning to an organic model of urban growth - one by which cities would be encouraged to develop in such a way as to benefit humans, rather than capital. These values - like those of the grammatical descriptivists - are humanist, as against the grammatical prescriptivists and urbanist descriptivists, whose values are abstract. And if there is a real dichotomy to be found here, I believe it is this humanist/abstract dichotomy.

Mike T. said...

I think that applying the Prescriptivist/Descriptivist of language makes for an interesting comparison but confusing and thereby fruitless. I think better labels are "de jure" (by law) and "de facto" (by fact) -- they're more intuitive and descriptive and, therefore, more accessible.

Drew Austin said...

Chachy: I'm not sure we disagree. I wasn't making a statement about why cities are the way they are--I was addressing how we react to whatever conditions we encounter in cities. Those conditions could be the products of policies or of individual actions, but in most cases it's a mixture of the two. A Prescriptivist who tries to implement his/her version of organic growth could potentially do more harm than good, depending on the circumstances. For what it's worth, I do think sprawl is driven by cultural forces and individual choices, although policies certainly enable it.

Mike T: More than one dichotomy can be applied to urbanism. I didn't intend to suggest otherwise. How was it confusing?

Chachy said...

Drew - I don't think I disagree with your non-disagreement. And it certainly seems to me that there will be "prescriptivists" and "descriptivists" who favor organic growth, as well as both p's and d's who favor unrestrained and unregulated growth, depending on their other values and philosophies. I was just trying to draw out the most natural analogy from Wallace's presc./descr. dichotomy. And what it comes down to, it seems to me, is like I said: a conflict between fundamentally humanist vs. fundamentally abstract values. So it's not that I disagree with what you said; I would just apply the analogy a different way. I would consider a descriptivist in the urbanist context to be one whose response to cities is based on the lived human experience of those cities; whereas a prescriptivist would be one whose response to cities is based on, e.g., the extent to which they accomodate economic growth, or support individual liberty, or something like that. (Though granted, there's plenty of fuzziness between those categories; you could say that valuing "human experience" is a hopelessly abstract value, for starters. But nonetheless, I do find in my personal experience that there is a significant dichotomy here that roughly tracks a dichotomy analogous to DFW's, and that it breaks roughly along the lines of those who care about aesthetics and community preeminently, vs. those who care about economics and personal liberty preeminently.)

But anyways, it was a very thoughtful post, and I loved the DF Wallace reference. I'm gonna go be sad that he's dead now.