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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ordering the City, Redux

Many thanks to Prawfs for organizing this discussion, and, especially to all of the book club participants for their insights.  I’ve been given much food for thought and ideas that will undoubtedly shape my future work.  Here are a few initial ruminations sparked by the terrific discussion yesterday:

On Complexity, Planning and Humility

Like Ben, I have, at various points, held “fairly strong doctrinaire positions” about many of the issues that I tackle in Ordering the City.  Indeed, I must admit that, in writing the book, I found myself struggling with these positions—especially Jane Jacobs’s intuitively appealing claims about the disorder-suppression effects of city economic life.  In a sense, the book beat some of these positions out of me.  My encounter with the empirical research linking commercial land uses with crime and disorder, which Lee discusses, was a particularly painful one.  But, in the end, Ben is right that I came to appreciate the complexity of the city—and of cities, because different cities are very different organisms.
Appreciating this complexity helps, I believe, to shed light on some of the core puzzles of urban policy:  What makes a city neighborhood work? (To quote from Jacobs, “why [do] some slums stay slums and other slums regenerate themselves even against financial and official opposition?”)  Are mixed-use or single-use neighborhoods better (and why and where)?  What is disorder?  Is it always bad?  Does it cause crime?  What policing tactics “work”?  Unfortunately, it seems that the answers to these questions prove as complex and the city itself—a complexity that is only amplified by the fact that, at least in my view, the answers frequently vary by context. 

That said, unlike Ben and Chris (and perhaps also Stephen), the reality of complexity does not lead me to wholeheartedly embrace planning.  

I continue to be a planning skeptic—both because cities are so obviously complex, and city problems so obviously contextual, and because past planning efforts have often so obviously failed.  If Jane Jacobs got one thing right—and I think she got many things right—it was that an organic order tends to be superior to a government-imposed one.  The history of city planning (and probably also policing) is riddled with colossal mistakes.   I gave a talk at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Southwest D.C. last week, and the neighborhood seemed almost palpably haunted by the memory of all the row houses that were demolished  to make way for “modern,” sterile cement monstrosities.  Closer to home, the city where I live—South Bend, Indiana—tore down most of its urban core during the urban renewal era and, as a result, the University where I teach—Notre Dame—had to build a “new” (and new urbanist) “college town” to make South Bend an incrementally more attractive place to live and work.  Today, if I was asked to provide city planners with one piece of advice, it would have to be to practice humility.   Thus, while I hope that governments do admit mistakes and change course quickly, I am nervous about Chris’s suggestion that the need to change course quickly weighs in favor of giving the government more flexibility to alter the existing built environment quickly.  In my view, Ben is right that “small government interventions might be better than [big ones].” 

I do, however, agree with Stephen that complexity (and humility) weigh in favor of land-use devolution, and I think it worth considering whether existing sublocal governmental institutions (for example, business improvement districts or even community policing meetings) might be adapted to perform land-use or quasi-planning functions.  It also might be useful to categorize ordering efforts as Lee suggests and to follow that categorization with a careful examination of which kinds of ordering efforts hold the most promise.  For example, I am not a big fan of bulldozers. As Chris points out, “physical changes to the built environment are hard to make,” and, I might add, even harder to undo.  Chris is also right, of course, that there are ordering success stories…and, ultimately, that it may be the case that physical/aesthetic changes are easier to accomplish than social ones.  Social capital is easily generated organically in healthy communities; but the government has a tough time kick-starting it in unhealthy ones. 

On Disorder and Economic Life

The question that I struggled with to the greatest extent in the book was the connection between economic activity, disorder and crime.  In the interest of full disclosure, I began the project convinced that economic activity was good for city life, and that mixed-use neighborhoods were preferable to single-use neighborhoods.  And I resisted evidence (including the studies that Lee discusses) to the contrary.  Here, again, I think the answer is context and complexity.  To begin, academic discussions of the defintionof “disorder” are frustratingly simplistic—although I am not sure my efforts at expanding the taxonomy of disorder was successful or not.  Laundry lists of “social” disorders frequently include economic activities—drug dealing, home businesses—that don’t seem to fit together.  As a devoté of HBO’s “The Wire,” I am convinced that the former is suboptimal for neighborhood life (although it might be more accurately categorized as criminal activity rather than social disorder).  Given the demonstrated costs of underemployment and economic stagnation in many urban neighborhoods, I tend to think that many home businesses don’t belong in the taxonomy of disorder—at least in some contexts.   Indeed, at least one study found that commercial land uses stabilize poor neighborhoods and destabilize wealthier ones.  (See also Stephen Clowney’s excellent article on “The Invisible Businessman” on this point.)  And, there is always the risk that our perceptions of economic activity (and disorder generally) are influenced by culture, race and class. Michelle’s reference to Lagos, for example, reminded me of a trip that I took to the Jamaica, Queens subway stop in 1996 to meet with my clients (who happened to be illegal jitney-van drivers).  I was initially horrified by what I saw – hundreds of passengers pouring out of the subway and rushing to unmarked vans, which zipped away as soon as they were full.  “Third-World chaos!” I mentally gasped.  But after about ten minutes of watching, I started seeing completely unscripted (by public authorities at least) order in the scene – the passengers knew which van to take; the drivers knew their passengers, and took time to help the elderly, disabled, and women with small children; drivers never accepted more passengers than they had seats; and there was a clear hierarchy of vans (with quality roughly signaled by the condition of vans).  The police stood by and watched, perhaps realizing that the necessity of the van service to the passengers outweighed its illegality.

Another complication is how to measure the “costs” of economic activity.  In most of the literature, scholars tend to use crime statistics (and surveys about perceptions of disorder).  But, as Lee points out, crime statistics tell the whole story.  If crime rates are slightly higher in busier neighborhoods because there are more people present in busier neighborhoods, then the increase might reflect a reduction in crime-avoidance (which itself imposes high social and economic costs).   Reliance on crime statistics would translate this arguable success into a failure—e.g., “commercial land uses increase crime, probably because they draw together victims and perpetrators.”   Moreover, if, as Edward Glaeser and Joshua Gottleib have argued, urban fortunes began to revive in the 1990s because more people developed a preference for urban life, then urban policies designed to suppress disorder and crime by suppressing commercial activity are arguably counterproductive.  Cities need to promote urbanness, not suppress it.   For more on this argument, see this interesting article on city v. suburban fortunes in the current recession.

On Disorder and Policing Policy

Measurement difficulties and crime-avoidance costs also complicate efforts to evaluate order-maintenance policing policies.  I’ve always been frustrated by the “nuh-uh!”/”uh-huh!” vibe, which Ben identifies, in the debates about order-maintenance policies.  Much of this debate is, again, driven by crime statistics, but I’ve always wondered whether the debate is missing the point.  “Safety” has both an objective component and a subjective one.  We can feel safe even when we are not … and we can feel unsafe even when we are.  (My eight-year-old son appeared at my bedside at 5 a.m. this morning, trembling with fear because he just had a dream that an evil monster lived in our house and was trying to destroy Indiana.)  I think that the perception of safety matters a great deal, and that it has been both neglected by policymakers and undertheorized in the academy.  Fear matters for a number of reasons.  Fear drives residents with economic means to the suburbs (or safer city neighborhoods).  Fear keeps us inside behind locked doors, as Lee and Stephen note, wasting money on security systems and relinquishing public spaces to bad guys.   Fear also undermines organic social capital and collective efficacy, which, as Chris notes, is very difficult to generate through public intervention.  (Indeed, one great irony of “Broken Windows”  is that, in his 1968 essay, “The Urban Unease,” William Julius Wilson disavowed efforts to use policing policy to build up community social capital.  “The difficulty,” he argued, “is that there is very little government can do directly to maintain a neighborhood community.  It can, of course, assign more police officers to it, but there are real limits to the value of this response.”)

An evaluation of the order-maintenance agenda based upon the perception of security—rather than crime statistics (which, it is worth noting, are both malleable and subjective, as recent events in NYC demonstrate)—might look very different than an evaluation of the order-maintenance agenda based upon crime statistics.   Disorder may or may not cause crime, but there is little question that it makes us fearful and undermines collective efficacy and social capital.  There is also significant evidence that certain policing tactics (especially foot patrols and community policing) reduce fear.  Thus, to borrow from Stephen’s post, “both land use policies and policing might ‘work’ even if they fail to reduce crime itself.”  Two important caveats:  (1) Perceptions of disorder are contextual and, as Tracy notes, influenced by race.  (2) Tactics that cause people to fear the police will backfire.  It turns out that fear of the police is also a major predictor of fear of crime. 

On Disorder, the Urban Poor, and Racial Minorities

Michelle, Stephen and Tracy are all correct to emphasize that “ordering” efforts have a disproportionate effect on the urban poor, and in particular on minority residents of urban neighborhoods.  There is, of course, no denying the history of racial discrimination in law enforcement and urban planning.   Abuses undoubtedly continue to occur, even as police departments become more diverse and better trained, planners consult with community members, etc.  But, the question remains—what policy prescriptions flow from these realities.  I close with a few thoughts on this final, and perhaps most complex, question.

First, as Tracy has forcefully argued in her own work, under-policing is a serious problem in poor minority neighborhoods, and minorities exercise their increasing political power to demand that urban officials prioritize public safety.  That said, not all order-maintenance policies are alike.  The available evidence suggests that foot patrols and community policing do the most to reduce the fear of crime and casts doubt on militaristic “swat team” strategies, which tend to alienate community residents.   Second, an obsessive focus on crime statistics likely generates bad incentives for police (see, again, recent events in New York City).  Third, an emphasis on what Lee calls “aesthetic order” likely works to the detriment of minority neighborhoods.  As Tracy points out, the aesthetic of the day—new urbanism—is clearly an elite one (despite promises of “charrettes” and community involvement galore).  Moreover, the new urbanist’s regulatory alternative to zoning (“transect zoning” or “form-based” coding) increases development costs and could well dampen development hopes in poor communities, which arguably need less land-use regulation, not more.  Fourth, the intersections between perceptions of disorder, race, and urban policy arguably weigh in favor of devolutionary approaches to both land-use and policing policies (see “On Complexity, Planning, and Humility”), above.  Finally, I agree with Stephen that that the ability of police officers to exercise force, combined with the possibility that the exercise of force will be unjust and discriminatory, is a reason to approach questions of police discretion with great caution.  But, I am not sure that Stephen is right that these realities weigh in favor of planners rather than the police officers as disorder-controllers.  My intuition runs to the contrary (and, despite Ben’s admonition, I am still a fan of intuition).  Planning and regulatory-enforcement have, as Michelle notes, worked to the detriment of poor minorities as well -- indeed, planning can devastate and even destroy entire communities.

Posted by ngarnett on March 23, 2010 at 12:09 PM in Books | Permalink


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