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Monday, March 22, 2010

Ordering the City

Nicole Garnett’s important book covers a tremendous amount of ground, and does so very skillfully.  It’s a must-read for anyone who cares about urban issues.  I want to focus my initial remarks on two facets of the project.
The first is taxonomic.  In Chapter 3, Garnett offers a “four-category taxonomy of disorder” that includes “physical disorder,” “social disorder,” “crimes,” and “economic activities.”  Her well-taken point is that there’s disorder and then there’s disorder; not all phenomena answering to that name pose equivalent threats, or perhaps any threat at all.  Yet her analysis emphasizes that disorder is not only heterogeneous, but also at least partly in the eye of the beholder.  For example, Garnett cites Sampson and Raudenbush’s 2004 study (http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/soc/faculty/sampson/articles/2004_SPQ_Raudenbush.pdf) finding that perceptions of disorder are significantly influenced by racial and economic factors.  Given the level of subjectivity in perceived disorder, one wonders whether any effort to separate “bad” disorder from “good” disorder for policy purposes is doomed to produce unmanageable blurring of the lines between these subcategories (cf. “blight” in eminent domain). 

Since the book as a whole grapples with the extent to which governmental efforts to impose (various sorts of) order add or subtract value from urban areas, it might be interesting to approach the taxonomic task from a different angle by classifying not disorder but ordering efforts.  The categories might look something like this: “aesthetic ordering,” “social ordering,” and “law and order ordering.”  Again, the lines between the categories are not clear-cut, and a given law or policy might be motivated by more than one objective.  Nonetheless, it seems useful to bring out into the open the fact that not everything that passes as order maintenance has as its true objective the maintenance of either law and order or pleasing aesthetic environments.  Land use controls have long been wielded to maintain a particular type of social ordering that has a particular set of distributive consequences.  Garnett’s approach optimistically suggests that if we could only figure out what kinds of disorder are objectively benign, we could alter policy incrementally to reduce the costs associated with unnecessary forms of disorder suppression.  I am less optimistic.  The most potent barriers to change may stem not from insufficient knowledge about the nuanced and multifaceted nature of disorder but rather from political power and entrenched economic and social interests.  It is also worth emphasizing that not all ordering is imposed by governmental bodies.  Instead, the various sorts of governmental ordering collectively produce the conditions under which interdependent locational decisions are made by individuals and businesses; this governmental role in structuring self-ordering deserves policy attention as well.
The second facet of the book that I want to highlight involves its discussion of mixed-use neighborhoods.  Although sympathetic to Jane Jacobs’ intuition that the larger number of “eyes upon the street” in mixed-use areas will reduce crime, Garnett discusses a body of empirical work, regularly ignored in the legal literature, that challenges Jacobs’ thesis.  Some studies suggest that mixed-use areas do not, in fact, enjoy lower crime rates than single-use residential districts.  While these results complicate the question of how to arrange urban life, they do not necessarily suggest that single-use zoning is superior.  The reason is simple, but often overlooked in discussions about urban ordering:  we care about more than crime levels.  Garnett brilliantly invokes Guido Calabresi’s approach to accident costs to make this point.   As Calabresi explained, we do not want to avoid accidents at all costs; rather, we want to minimize the sum of accident costs and accident avoidance costs.  Similarly, we should be concerned not just with reducing crime, but rather with reducing the sum of crime costs and crime avoidance costs.  As Garnett notes, a huge but hidden set of crime avoidance costs involves simply staying home.  Policies that make areas feel safer help to draw people out, reducing those costs.  Even if crime levels stay the same or increase, the change may well have been worthwhile when crime avoidance costs are considered as well. 
I would take Garnett’s argument further and observe that the social stratification that accompanies single-use zoning, to the extent it is motivated by fear of crime, represents an enormously costly crime-avoidance apparatus, and one that delivers its benefits quite unevenly.  Here again, however, we must confront the possibility of political barriers to change.  If a reconfigured urban landscape could reduce the overall costs of crime and crime avoidance but would also alter the distribution of those costs, we would expect resistance from those who stand to lose.

Posted by Lee Fennell on March 22, 2010 at 10:08 AM in Books | Permalink


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