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Monday, March 22, 2010

Order and the Poor

It’s a pleasure to be part of this discussion of Nicole Garnett’s impressive Ordering the City.  The book is so rich and packed with goodies that it’s difficult to know which sail to hoist first.  One of the surest strengths of the book is that it puts some theoretical meat on the definition of urban “disorder.”  Competing groups of scholars have shouted themselves hoarse arguing about whether small disorders lead to more serious crime—yet coherent explanations of what disorder is remain in short supply.  Garnett attacks this hole in the literature on several fronts.  Most importantly, she argues that economic activity—especially in poor neighborhoods—is too often seen as a harmful disorder, rather than an essential part of the vibrancy that distinguishes city life.  Her examples of the different street vendors in New York City are comprehensive, nuanced, and engaging; they make for a real academic page-turner.  Garnett also brings home the idea that disorder is contextual.  The busway walls covered with Steelers murals that are the source of so much pride in Pittsburgh would certainly be considered a sign of urban decay in my fancy Lexington neighborhood.

Like Ben, I also found the discussion on the costs imposed by the fear of crime deeply enjoyable reading, full of many “a-ha” moments.  This section begins by cataloguing how the fear of crime undermines urban life; communities waste billions of dollars on private security systems and social capital erodes as neighbors stay indoors.  Backed by this information, Garnett makes a surprising intellectual move; she posits that the principal function of order maintenance policies is to reduce the sum costs of crime and the costs of avoiding crime.  Thus, both land use policies and policing strategies might “work” even if they fail to reduce crime itself—dissolving the fear of crime has real, tangible benefits for communities. 

While the great contribution of the book is in fleshing out the meaning of disorder and how it affects cities, Garnett also teases out a broader historical narrative from this material.  More specifically, she argues that municipalities have adopted land use regulations as a (inferior?) substitute for order maintenance policing strategies that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in the 1960s and 70s.   Most of my quibbles with the book come out of this argument.  First, I think Garnett is simply more confident in the ability of police to exercise discretion without abusing their power.  I think I might prefer a planner enforcing order not because a policeman can throw me in jail, but because a policeman can shoot me with so few consequences.  Second, I’m not entirely convinced that the rise of property regulations as order-maintenance strategy is tied to the constitutional revolution of the Warren Court.  Arguably, at least, the jump in trespass-zoning schemes results from the constitutional blessing provided by the Supreme Court earlier in this decade.  This might simply be an example of power-starved local officials jumping at any regulatory tool they can get their hands on.        

A final thought: I would have liked to see Garnett focus her lens on how municipalities should navigate the tension between elites and so-called ordinary people when setting order maintenance policy.  In so many of the conflicts described in the book—the rise of the new skid rows, the regulation of street vendors, and the ban on home businesses—the good of poor neighborhoods seems at cross purposes with a city’s desire to compete against suburbs for middle class residents.  During the first part of the book I felt the argument was building toward a defense of land-use devolution—turning over more land use power to neighborhoods.  Garnett acknowledges devolution as a possible solution but doesn’t it give the full-throated defense that I thought her insights warranted.  Why?      

To sum up, Ordering the City is a fascinating read and makes a huge contribution to the literature on the urban form.  For too long land use issues have existed beyond the realm of criticism in political discourse.  Hopefully, the convincing arguments provided by Nicole Garnett will begin to change that. 

Steve Clowney

Posted by Steve Clowney on March 22, 2010 at 11:10 AM in Books | Permalink

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