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Monday, March 22, 2010

Ordering the City

Set in a comparative planning context, a basic conversation about disorder might look like this. Order: Singapore is modern, clean, and green, with a ban on chewing gum that represents a planning school laughline regarding state oppression. Disorder: Lagos, as captured in a 2006 essay in The New Yorker, is teeming with poverty and desperation (“pandemonium,” fumes, filth) as well as with economic activity and entrepreneurialism (“the hustle never stops” and “everyone is a striver”).

Romaticization and vilification on both ends of the spectrum, sometimes by the same viewers. When Mayor Giuliani’s “quality of life” regulations tried to eliminate the street trades of poverty (from sidewalk selling of used handbags to homeless window washers), was he cleaning up the city for everyone or criminalizing the survival mechanisms of the poor? 
On questions of order and disorder, moral, empirical, and legal tensions (both real and perceived) abound: safety and cleanliness weighed against urban vitality and individualism, civil liberties as a constraint on crime control, urban recovery regulation as economic handcuffs on the struggling poor, and personal safety at odds with personal liberty.

Garnett, writing in the domestic debate, gives us organizing theory, vocabulary, and history to understand and manage order and disorder in the American City. In so doing, she manages to diffuse binaries and avoid naming heroes or villains.

As a matter of planning theory, Garnett’s setting is whether the rising tide of planning a la Jane Jacobs undermines policing policies that pursue the Broken Windows thesis.  In other words, does an emphasis on mixed-use planning, particularly the introduction of commercial establishments in residential areas, undermine policing that attempts to control minor acts of urban disorder that, when unchecked by the community and by law enforcement, lead to an escalation towards more serious crimes? The heart of that inquiry is among Garnett’s most important contributions in this book: Does commerce generate crime-causing disorder?

As a matter of law and politics, Garnett “sees like a state” by placing policing in the same arena as land-use controls/property regulation (everything from zoning controls to housing code enforcement). She frames the two approaches as local governments’ “two hands” in order construction and disorder suppression. In adaptation to judicial constraints on police discretion, cities have increasingly resorted to land-use and property controls as a means of disorder suppression. Cities mistakenly believe, she argues, that order construction is the same thing as disorder suppression, and in so doing, they discount the harms that order construction can impose on the intended beneficiaries of disorder suppression. For instance, planners should be wary that controls on small scale economic life, from street vending to shopkeeping, diminish social capital and economic opportunity for poor people who live in disorder-prone neighborhoods.

Normatively, Garnett doesn’t shy away from asking when (and how) cities should control urban disorder. She gives a specific but modest answer, suggesting ways to encourage small scale economic activity in cities (including home businesses), to preserve non-conforming uses, and to reduce regulation of mixed-use zoning and the rehabilitation of vacant buildings. She wisely cautions that humble and highly localized incrementalism, not grand plans and central theories, should be the stock and trade of urban revitalization.

If I have one criticism to make, it’s that sometimes, the “who” and “why” of land-use and property controls gets lost in the shuffle of the book. Garnett is conscientious about noting who tends to be targeted as disorderly by community policing efforts—particularly minority groups and young people, and even more particularly, minority youth. But when it comes to land-use and property controls, there are other actors and intentions on both the government and citizen side: Who is writing the rules that suppress disorder? Whom do they target, and who implements them?

Housing code enforcement, for instance, has been used as a tool against black and immigrant landowners to punish deviations from norms of segregation, but it has also been used as a tool against landlords that collect rent for uninhabitable premises in low-income areas. In both cases, the law may ostensibly address housing dilapidation or other issues of physical disorder, but in the first instance, its purpose is to sanction social disobedience and maintain racial homogeneity. As we know from the policing context, the devil may be in the discretion.

Nevertheless, by tying community policing to land-use controls, Garnett sweeps broad terrain. She does so with great depth in both the empirical and theoretical literature. Along the way, her readers will enjoy highly readable, educational vignettes of American urban policy. You’ll find stories (such as Mayor Giuliani’s attempt to reduce the presence of street vendors in New York City), ideas (from gang injunctions to empowerment zones), and historical chronologies (like the life, death, and reconstruction of American public housing). It was a learning experience and a pleasure.

Posted by Michelle Wilde Anderson on March 22, 2010 at 06:03 PM in Books | Permalink


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Such a nice book! Such a confusing response to it!

Posted by: anon in bellevue | Mar 23, 2010 10:13:37 AM

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