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Shaping Cities contribution, “Of Systems and Purposes: Emergent technology for the skeptical urbanist”

I am very pleased, and every bit as proud, to announce the publication of the latest SUPERTOME to emerge from the Urban Age process, Shaping Cities in an Urban Age, and with it my essay “Of Systems and Purposes.” It won’t contain anything to startle those of you who have been following my work for awhile — you’ll see, for example, that I once again return to the Beer well — but I do think it’s a pretty neat distillation of my thought about cities and technology as it’s developed over the past several years. I reprint it here for your enjoyment.

I’m particularly delighted that my work is featured alongside that of so many urbanists I respect enormously, in such a physically beautiful edition. My congratulations to Ricky Burdett, Philipp Rode, and especially the book’s indefatigable production team.

The legendary technologist Alan Kay once said that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
 
Kay could perhaps be forgiven for the comment’s Promethean hubris, central as he was to the intellectual life of Xerox’s celebrated Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where so many of the interface conventions we continue to rely upon today were invented. The plain fact of the matter is that an ensemble of techniques invented or extensively developed at PARC, over a period of a very few years in the early 1970s — among them the graphical user interface, the mouse, the windowing system and the kind of multitasking it enabled, laser printing — remain at the core of home and office computer use some forty years down the line. The tools and techniques that Kay and his colleagues at PARC experimented with for their own use really did change the way we all work, think and play, generating a multitrillion-dollar market in the process of doing so.
 
This unimpeachable set of facts certainly does seem to legitimate the premise at the heart of Kay’s claim: that collective futures are something that can be architected at will by the sufficiently visionary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the heroic role it casts them in, this notion has been embraced by successive generations of technologists, very much including those now busily at work “disrupting” the processes that have defined urban life since time immemorial. Judging from the frequency with which Kay is invoked in their PowerPoint decks and TED talks, at least, their various interventions in commerce and mobility, self-presentation and socialization, and production, distribution and consumption are consciously intended to realize coherent visions of the future.
 
But which visions? Where Kay’s work at PARC was at least liminally inspired by the liberatory ethos of the Bay Area 1960s — an intellectual current nurtured by the work of thinkers like Illich, Marcuse, Carson and Fuller, the upwelling of the Black Power, feminist and gay-rights movements, the anarchist Diggers and their experiments with Free Stores, Clinics and crashpads, the encounter with mystical-ethical systems of the East, and above all copious amounts of high-grade LSD — his latterday descendants appear to imagine futures of a rather different stripe. Those taking the boldest strides to transform urban life today range from explicit neo-Randians like Uber’s Travis Kalanick, to the avowedly technolibertarian developers of Bitcoin and the technology undergirding it, the blockchain, to those whose political projects — beyond a clear commitment to the standard tenets of entrepreneurial capitalism, as it expresses itself in the neoliberal period — are as yet unclear, like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.
 
From the public comments, commitments and investments of these and other would-be disruptive innovators of their ilk, it is possible to assemble at least a rough picture of the world they wish to call into being, and therefore the urban forms and rituals that are likely to predominate in that world:
 
Where on-demand, local digital fabrication of goods (via 3D printing, numerically-controlled laser cutting and milling, etc.) is not possible, conventionally-manufactured products will be shipped, warehoused and distributed to the consumer via an almost fully automated supply and fulfillment chain. While it won’t be possible to do without human labor completely, entire job categories — warehouse worker, commercial truck driver, deliveryperson — will disappear from the economy, never to be replaced.
 
The means of production will be held (and such employment contracts as remain necessary issued) by distributed autonomous organizations, corporations manifested in and as self-directing software. With the greater part of the built environment networked at high resolution, and truly economic microtransactions enabled by digital currency, every market for mobility and commercial or residential space is “liquified,” or ruthlessly optimized for efficient, moment-to-moment value extraction. Access to space (microflats, single rooms, or even workstations) will be leased by the minute, while very, very few spatial resources will escape being harnessed for revenue generation.
 
For those who can afford it, on-demand, point-to-point mobility will be undergirded in most cities by a permanently orbiting fleet of autonomous vehicles. And all the while, thanks to the myriad sensors of the so-called internet of things, everything from physical location to social interaction to bodily and affective states becomes grist for the mill of powerful machine-learning algorithms set to anticipate a wide range of needs and desires, and fulfill them before they quite breach the surface of awareness.
 
In this world, the art of governmentality has been refined to a very high degree. Custodial organizations, State or otherwise, are furnished with a torrential flow of information about our choices, and the unparalleled insight into human motivation that can be gleaned from analysis of that flow. Prudent behavior on the part of the consumer-citizen is enforced by an array of personalized performance targets, incentives and disincentives presented in the form of brightly-gamified “social credit” schemes — networked carrots and sticks sufficient to keep all but the irredeemably anti-social acting within permissible bounds.
 
If this sounds like a grim, dispiriting and airless set of possibilities — and it certainly does to me — it is fortunately unlikely that this particular future will unfold in quite the way imagined by those now busily engaged in the attempt to realize it. Several decades’ accumulated experience with networked technologies suggests that whatever actual impact they do have in the fullness of time often bears little to no resemblance to the visions of the people who devised them, or indeed the concrete experiences of their earliest adopters. It would be profoundly foolish to suppose that technologies like 3D printing, the blockchain or machine learning will have no bearing on the form or function of large-scale urban environments. They undoubtedly will. But when would-be innovators promise that their inventions will directly drive radical change — whether undermining material scarcity and the commodity form (as the inventor of the RepRap 3D printer originally imagined his device would do), stripping bias from the operations of the criminal justice system (as the promoters of risk-assessment algorithms promise) or even allowing exchanges of value to abscond from the visibility of the State entirely (as ideologues of the blockchain hope) — we have reason to believe that circumstances will conspire to confound or even subvert their intentions.
 
Recall Steve Jobs’s astonished comment, upon being shown the algorithmically self-righting Segway scooter for the first time, that “they’ll architect cities around these things.” With this technology in hand, the prospect of undoing at least some of the damage done to cities of the twentieth century by the internal-combustion engine suddenly seemed a great deal more credible. The formless sprawl, the environments legible only at speed, the dependence for mobility on capsular vehicles that isolated occupants from their surroundings and one another, above all the air pollution: in the minds of its earliest advocates and enthusiasts, all of these circumstances stood to be transformed by the Segway. But compare this rather pleasant vision to the world we actually live in some two decades downstream from the Segway’s commercial appearance, where the vehicles remain limited to ferrying around annoying platoons of helmeted tourists, and perhaps the occasional airport security officer. Instead of compelling any gross transformation of the urban environment, let alone the way we collectively think about urban mobility, thus far the Segway’s primary contribution to everyday life has been inspiring the cheap, Chinese-made “hoverboards” whose lithium-ion batteries burst into flames with distressing frequency.
 
Or consider what eventually happened to Craigslist — when it first emerged in the San Francisco of the late 1990s, a virtually utopian space in which goods, skilled services and shelter circulated for free. A passionate community of users grew up around the early Bay Area Craigslist, and something very close to a true gift economy sprung into existence among them: a functioning ecosystem of exchange founded on goodwill and mutuality, in the very heart of the late-capitalist West. For these early users, much of what they’d previously resorted to accomplishing at retail was, for a time, furnished by a single humble, all-but-rudimentary website.

And yet, for all its promise and sustaining optimism, this apparition of an entirely different mode of citying somehow failed to take the rest of the world by storm. Putting the indifferent stewardship of its management team to one side, Craigslist was ultimately undone by nothing other than scale. As the userbase drawn by the enticing prospect of free or ultra-low-cost services spiked beyond the Dunbar number — the notional upper bound of a human community in which all the members know one another by name — the bonds of implicit trust necessary to any agalmic community became first harder to sustain, and then impossible to construct at all. And this was replicated in city after city, as the service was rolled out across the planet’s major metropolitan markets, in accordance with the build-once/deploy-many-times ethos that drives the software industry and the logic of unlimited scalability that governs the network. In many ways a victim of its own success, Craigslist just about everywhere soon became cluttered with nakedly commercial listings — listings whose propositions were virtually impossible to verify independently, which flowed onto the site at such implacable velocity that they crowded out the community-generated posts that had so strongly characterized its early days. (What’s more, the platform badly undercut the classified advertising-based business model most free local weeklies depended on, driving many of them to extinction.) None of this looked anything like the neighborly, human-scaled, practically utopian community of exchange its gentle founder Craig Newmark had intended to realize. The Craigslist at scale that we know today, harbor for slumlords, haven for scammers and human traffickers, isn’t so much a negation as an outright renunciation of its initial promise.  

Some technical innovations, of course, actually do result in profound alterations in the form, tenor and distribution of city life. For every internal combustion engine, safety elevator, tungsten-filament lightbulb or mobile phone, though, there are dozens of Segways or Craigslists. It is striking, furthermore, how often the technologies with truly transformational implications for the city were originally intended to address some other order of challenge or problem entirely. I very much doubt, for example, that Jeff Bezos had the cratering of high-street retail, the choking of big-city streets with parcel-delivery traffic or the staggering reduction in demand for warehousing labor in mind when he sat down to draft his first plans for an online book market.

This is a history we might wish to bear in mind when inventors, developers and other interested parties present us with claims that some new technology on offer will surely give rise to radically new (and invariably radically better) permutations of the city. We would be wise to consider that the things they propose will invariably be constrained by what the philosopher Jane Bennett thinks of as “the material recalcitrance of cultural products.” Deeply entrenched systems, structures that are psychic every bit as much as they are political or economic, lay in wait to capture and redirect the energies unleashed by emergent technology, and very often the result of this encounter is something starkly other than any innovators had intended. In this light, we should consider the possibility that Kay’s promise might have been little more than bravado all along, and the successful scaling-up to worldwide hegemony of the ensemble of tools he helped to develop at PARC a one-time, more or less irreproducible fluke, with no particularly salient implications for innovators in other times or places.

For all the sweep and verve of his framing of things, then, I personally prefer the perspective offered by another technologist: the great British cybernetician Stafford Beer, who argued that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” We should evaluate a technology, that is, by considering the outcomes it is actually seen to produce when deployed in the world at scale — and not the reputations of its authors, their intentions, institutional affiliations or prior successes, or the ostensible benefits that supposed to attend its adoption.
 
Applying Beer’s bracing realism, the most pernicious words in the technologist’s vocabulary are “might,” “could” and “can,” and the only meaningful test of a proposed technical intervention are the conditions it empirically gives rise to when deployed into a recalcitrant world. We oughtn’t properly even be speaking of “potential”; the only way to ascertain whether or not a given technical or techno-social proposition is indeed within the space of possibility is to build a prototype, deploy it, and await the results. And what we learn when we consider past innovations in the light of this unremitting standard is that technical development, for all its rigors, is the easy part of inventing the future. Seeing an innovation bedded in at the core of some longer-lasting transformation requires the much harder work of making space for it in all the interlocking systems that give shape to our lives: systems of law, governance and regulation, infrastructures both physical and financial (e.g. insurance), social conventions and practices, language, even entrenched habits of mind.
 
And this is perhaps truer still for those who intend to realize progressive urban futures. It is still possible to dream of cities in which the flows of matter and energy necessary to an equitable distribution of goods and lifechances are sustainable over the longer term, in which the rather abstract, Lefebvrian “right to the city” is made concrete in accessible, universal mobility and participatory political processes, and above all in which dignified, decent lives are possible. But translating these aspirations into conditions on the ground will require urbanists to develop fluency with a set of conditions that by and large remain opaque to them, even threatening.
 
We must in the first instance have the courage to think the city in the light of the more outré technical possibilities suddenly available to us. Just what does public space look or feel like, when each of the people occupying it is surrounded at all times by a cloud of semi-autonomous servitors and companions, virtual as well as materially embodied? What remains of high streets, Main Streets or malls once retail as we have known it, with all its ability to communicate, seduce and gather, is exploded into ten thousand separate acts of on-the-spot production or just-in-time fulfilment? What do prospects for entry-level or otherwise unskilled employment look like in that unbundled world, and how will that be felt in the tenor of street life? The ways in which these questions come to be answered will set the boundary conditions for everyday urban life, for the kinds of political struggle that are possible in the urban frame and for the subjectivities and selves that arise there.
 
As we reckon with the lines of flight that now open up to us, however, we must retain the clarity and integrity to ground these possibilities against everything we know about the fate of interventions past. We need to understand the captures, detours and reversals that perennially afflict emergent technologies at the point where they intersect with existing ways of doing, making, dwelling and being, taking note particularly of the fact that technologies that prosper and find traction in the world are very often those which reinforce existing inequities of power. What this implies for urbanists of a politically progressive stripe is that, for a given struggle, conventional community organizing may offer a far better return on investments in energy, effort or other resources than an attempt to drive change via technical means.
 
Working fluently with technology means stripping it of its unearned gloss of neutrality. All technologies are, without exception, expressions of one or another set of values, and therefore by any sane accounting ought to be contested terrain. When Uber becomes popular in a given city, for instance, and that popularity is explicitly cited as justification for not maintaining an adequate level of investment in public transit, we can be sure that what we are seeing is somebody’s values being enacted, if not necessarily our own.

Like any other professional or disciplinary community, the adepts of network technology hold tacit beliefs in common. They hold certain conceptions of the just, the true and the beautiful, think the world in certain distinct ways. If they cannot always realize their aims directly, it still behooves us to know what they believe, and understand what it is that they are trying to achieve.

Further, the particular set of values inscribed in a technology may have a great deal to do with its fortunes in the world, and how well it is able to function as a purposive invention of the future. Uber is a particularly resonant example; whatever else it may be, it enacts a kind of propaganda of the deed, or what the media scholar Alison Powell calls the argument-by-technology. The vision of hyperindividualism, invidious interpersonal competitiveness and unlimited-convenience-for-those-who-can-afford-it inscribed in the service dovetails perfectly with — one might even say “embraces and extends” — the neoliberal ethos that has prevailed in the developed world for the past four decades. And this perhaps explains why it has been realized, where the rather more humane visions undergirding Craigslist or the Segway plainly have not been. Wherever services like Uber go unchallenged, the imposition of these values is effectively a fait accompli — and with future resource commitments tending to be entrained by path dependence, that achievement sets the initial conditions for everything that follows in its wake.

In the end, perhaps the crucial insight is this: urbanists can no longer ignore the impact of developments like machine learning, large-scale data analysis and automation, or treat them as something external to our field of inquiry. Operating at every scale and level of urban life, from vehicle guidance to the mediation of sociality to the aesthetics of the built environment, they are clearly set to exert the most profound influence on the physical spaces of our cities, the things we do in them, the ways they generate meaning and value, and the very selves we understand ourselves to be. It’s no longer tenable for anyone who cares about the life of cities to hold this set of facts at bay, especially those of us who nurture some remaining hope that the master’s tools can be used to build other sorts of houses entirely. And while we needn’t and oughtn’t build our practices exclusively around this class of technologies, we might want to consider how to fold a nuanced, properly skeptical engagement with them into our approach to the design of urban space and experience.

What I’m consuming of late, roughly 1H18

It’s always healthy, I think, to have a considered look at what it is I’m taking in. This is what I’ve been reading, watching, listening to and thinking about lately.

First and last

I’ve spent a truly inordinate amount of time reading the MetaFilter megathreads documenting the ongoing Trump travesty in real time. In all honesty, these threads have been far and away my primary intake of content by volume since the time of the Brexit referendum just about two years ago now (!), and my inability to tear myself away from this transatlantic (shitshow, trainwreck, dumpster fire, act of civilizational suicide — choose your metaphor, they all amount to the same thing) over this entire period has put a major dent in my ability to think, write or get any meaningful work done.

Books

Nonfiction
– James Bridle: New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
– Owen Coggins: Mysticism, Ritual and Religion in Drone Metal
– Peter Godfrey-Smith: Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
– Graham Harman: Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything
– N. Katherine Hayles: Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Unconscious (Among the best of its type.)
– Humphrey Jennings: Pandæmonium (Simply wonderful.)
– Mateo Kries, Mathias Müller et al., eds.: Together! The New Architecture of the Collective
– Caroline Maniaque-Benton with Meredith Gaglio: Whole Earth Field Guide
– Mauvaise Troupe Collective, tr. Kristin Ross: The ZAD and NoTAV: Territorial Struggles and the Making of a New Political Intelligence
– Elaine Mokhtefi: Algiers, Third World Capital: Black Panthers, Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries
– Norman Ohler: Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (Wildly entertaining.)
– Moshe Safdie: Beyond Habitat
– Elizabeth Sandifer: Neoreaction A Basilisk (Essential to understanding the shape of our moment.)
– Lynne Segal: Radical Happiness
– Richard Vinen: The Long ’68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies
– Matthew W. Wilson: New Lines: Critical GIS and the Trouble of the Map
– and finally, got over my aversion to TED-style popthink and picked up
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow

Fiction
– Anna Kavan: Ice
– Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer
– Kim Stanley Robinson: New York 2140 (Contains an incidental, paragraph-length ode to the place of “Heroin” in the consciousness of true New Yorkers that no lie brought me to tears, though I was admittedly at 38,000 feet at the time.)

Poetry
– Bejan Matur: If This Is A Lament

Film

– (hush) Black Panther
Funeral Parade of Roses
Homo Sapiens
– (cheating a little bit, actually saw it toward the end of last year) Gulistan, Land of Roses
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
– The usual, compulsive rewatches of, like, , Bande à part, Day of the Jackal, The Italian Job, etc.
– I’m sure there are other films I’ve gone to see in the cinema, but they’re slipping my mind. I’ll make another cup of coffee (see below) and see if I can’t remember.

TV

Oh, OK…I watch Westworld, I Love Dick, The Handmaid’s Tale and Love. Don’t @ me. (The casting for Westworld, in particular, is dialed in. Gorgeous Thandie Newton, Tessa Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Giancarlo Esposito, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Peter Fucken Mullan? Sold American. I even like those dudes what play the bickering nerdling technicians. And the costuming, set design, etc., is [smacks fingers].)

Music

Listening to a lot of Bong, Eluvium, Dopelord, Windhand, Electric Wizard, and so on, in addition to the usualcrew in permanent heavy rotation (Nancy & Lee, Staple Singers, Magazine, Minutemen, Velvets, James Cleveland, etc.); the best live acts I’ve caught in the past six months were Nadja and Taman Shud. Suuuuper looking forward to Zeal & Ardor in just a few weeks. [UPDATE: Zeal & Ardor was exceptionally good, with the new material off Stranger Fruit just tearing jagged little holes in me. Also, I finally got around to the new Sleep, The Sciences, and it is in every last way a stone motherfucker.]

Exhibits, etc.

Haven’t been getting out as much as I should. I did see the comprehensive Forensic Architecture show now on at the ICA — huge congrats to Eyal and crew on your Turner Prize nom — as well as “The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945” and “Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins,” both at the Barbican and both great. (The 1:1-scale recreation of Moriyama House at the former was one of the most wisely considered and squeeful things I’ve ever experienced in a gallery space.)

Drug of choice

…remains caffeine, delivered in the form of high-test black coffee, brewed in a Chemex. (Yeah. All it took was a single cup of pourover brewed for me at the Reserve counter in the Starbucks above Gangnam Station — instant conversion experience. I went down to longtime favorite D&Department in Itaewon and picked up a three-cup version and some filters to take home with me. When I got back to London, of course, I had to futz around with acquiring the various pieces of twee hipster kit you need to rock pourover in the Chemex — the precision grinder, the Hario scale, the gooseneck kettle and so on, all in matte black, as well as a little shibari-inspired black leather thong to customize the Chemex itself, ’cause it was like two quid and I’m a total dork. Thank god Nurri already had the digital kitchen thermometer. You can see why Buy Nothing 2018 was dead before it left the table.)

Unshakable lust object

I keep slinking back to Velorution to gaze slackly upon this exquisite Moulton AM GT Mk III, and thereupon to dream and plot — first how to afford such a recockulous expenditure on a bike, then how to justify it. (NB: I understand full well that even should I sell a kidney to gin up the necessary dosh/consign myself to penury for some extended term thereafter, it is almost certainly beyond any conceivable justification. Nevertheless, there are worse midlife crises.)

On counter-hegemony, or: “I got it! We’ll have them write hit songs.”

At the moment, I’m neck-deep in my Verso stablemates Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s still-newish book Inventing the Future; things remaining more or less stable schedulewise, I’ll most likely finish it later on today, or tomorrow at the latest.

It’s a strange book, Inventing. You may have caught some of the buzz around it, and that buzz exists for good reason. (It’s not just the superspiffy totebags Verso had ginned up for it, though I’m sure those do not hurt one whit.) At its heart a passionate argument against work and for an end to neoliberalism and its reality control — forged along the same rough lines as those Paul Mason and the Fully Automated Luxury Communism kids are currently touting — Inventing is a genuinely curious mixture of crystal-clear analysis, righteous provocation and infuriating naivety. If you’re even remotely interested in what emergent technologies like machine learning and digital fabrication might imply for our capacity for collective action, and especially if you think of yourself as belonging to the horizontalist left, you should by all means pick it up, read it for yourself and form your own judgments. (Here’s Ken Wark’s take on it; I endorse most of his thoughts, and have a great deal of my own to add, which I’ll do in the form of my own forthcoming book.)

Late in the book there’s a passage concerning the stance Srnicek and Williams feel the postcapitalist left needs to adopt toward the mainstream media: if the “counter-hegemonic” project they describe is to have any hope of success, they argue, “it will require an injection of radical ideas into the mainstream, and not just the building of increasingly fragmented audiences outside it.”

Well. It must be said that this is not one of the book’s high points. In its latent suggestion that the only reason Thomas Piketty and Donna Haraway aren’t cohosting a lively, popular Sunday-morning gabfest on NBC right this very moment is because we, the progressive public, are somehow not trying hard enough, or have failed to sufficiently wrap our pointy heads around the awesome conditioning power of the mass media, in fact, it’s somewhere between irritating and ridiculous. (It’s hard for me to see how Srnicek and Williams’s argument here is substantively any different from that stroke of market-savvy inspiration the beloved but famously marginal Minutemen skewered on the cover of their second-to-last album. And now you know where the title of this post came from.)

Nevertheless, they’re onto something. Though that more-than-faintly patronizing tone never quite dissipates, S&W eventually find themselves on far firmer ground when they argue that “[l]eftist media organizations should not shy away from being approachable and entertaining, gleaning insights from the success of popular websites.” I was able to shake off the momentary harrowing vision I had of Leninist Buzzfeed, and press on through to what I take to be their deeper point: radical thought can actually resonate broadly when care is taken to craft the language in which that thought is expressed, and still more so when insular, self-congratulatory obscurity is avoided in the design of its containers. I endorse this notion wholeheartedly. This recent appreciation of Jacobin hits many of the same notes; whatever you think of Jacobin‘s politics, it’s hard to deny that its publishers consistently put together a sprightly, good-looking read. (I’d call it “the Monocle of the left,” but that would be to imply that Monocle‘s content is far more compelling than in fact it is.)

You might still argue that S&W ought to spend a little more time with McLuhan. My own feeling is that there’s more to distrust about the “mainstream media” than merely its overtly political content — that consuming information in the form of tweets, listicles, Safety Check notifications, screens overloaded with crawlers, and possibly even glowing rectangles themselves is hard to square with the kind of awareness I at least find it necessary to cultivate if I’m to understand anything at all about the way the systems in which I’m embedded work.

But ultimately, these are quibbles. I agree with S&W when they argue that overthrowing the weaponized “common sense” of the neoliberal era is an explicitly counter-hegemonic project; that developing a functioning counter-hegemony is something that requires longterm commitment; and that those with truly radical programs need to reconsider the relationship between “pop,” “popular” and “popularity” if that whole hearts-and-minds thing is ever going to work out for them. (I’m honor-bound to point out that Saul Alinsky said as much fifty years ago, but perhaps that too is a quibble.) So: no. I have no problem at all with presenting complex and potentially challenging ideas accessibly, so long as they can be rendered accessible without dumbing them down. If successful counter-hegemonic media looks a whole lot more like a Beyoncé video than some preciously anti-aesthetic art installation, so much the better. Bring on the hit songs.

Antecedents of the minimum viable utopia: Cliff Harper’s “Visions” series

Clifford
Clifford Harper, Vision 1: Collectivised Garden, in Radical Technology, 1976.

Twenty-five years ago, just after the outbreak of the first Gulf War, I moved into an anarchist co-op in the Upper Haight. (If you know the neighborhood at all well, you’ve almost certainly stood beneath my room: the bay window jutting directly above the ATM on Belvedere Street, at the time and for many years thereafter the only one for over a mile in any direction.) Though its every fiber was saturated with the sad pong of sexually deprived male bitterhippies in early middle age, the flat nevertheless (/therefore?) boasted one of the most impressive specialist libraries I’ve ever encountered.

No doubt because many of the flat’s residents had historically been associated with the Haight’s anarchist bookstore, Bound Together, its shelves had over the years accumulated hundreds of rare and unusual books on squatting, DIY technique, self-housing, revolutionary syndicalism, the politics of everyday life and so on. Among these was a curious 1976 volume called Radical Technology. Something between a British Whole Earth Catalog and an urban Foxfire book, Radical Technology presented its readers with a comprehensive and detailed blueprint for self-reliant, off-the-grid living.

Each of the book’s sections was fronted by an elaborate illustration depicting what typical British spatial arrangements — terraced housing, allotments, council estates, parish churches — might look like after they’d been reclaimed by autonomist collectives, in some not too terribly distant future. Unlike some of the more heroic imaginaries that were floating around in that immediate pre-Web epoch, you could readily imagine yourself living in their simple everydayness, making a life in the communal kitchen and sauna and printmaking workshop they depicted. From the material-economic perspective of someone residing in a shabby flat in the Upper Haight circa 1991, struggling to eke out a living as the city’s worst and clumsiest bike messenger, it would clearly be a good life, too: austere, perhaps, in some ways, but fulfilling and even generous in every register that really counts. (To be sure, this was a sense the illustrations shared with contemporary real-world outcroppings of late hippie technology in both its particularly British and its Bay Area variants, and I’d seen traces of it crop up in squats and urban homesteads back East, wherever someone resident had been infected by the Whole Earth/Shelter/Pattern Language ethos.)

I clean forgot about Radical Technology for a quarter century, but I never did forget those drawings. I had no way of reconsidering them, though, let alone pointing anybody else at them, until the other day, when Nick Durrant recognized my vague handwavings for what they were: a description of the “Visions” series anarchist illustrator Clifford Harper contributed to the mid-70’s British journal Undercurrents. (These issues of Undercurrents were subsequently anthologized as the book I’d come across; here’s scans of Harper’s entire series.) I had to smile when I read the account of “Visions” on Harper’s Wikipedia entry, as it could not possibly have been more on the nose:

These were highly detailed and precise illustrations showing scenes of post-revolutionary self-sufficiency, autonomy and alternative technology in urban and rural settings, becoming almost de rigueur on the kitchen wall of any self-respecting radical’s commune, squat or bedsit during the 1970s.

My memory of Harper’s “Visions” returned with such force not because I’d suddenly developed nostalgia for the lifeways of alternative San Francisco in the first ripples of its death spiral — though those house-feedingly enormous vegetarian stir-fries sure were tasty — but because the way of doing and being they imagined seems relevant again, and possibly more broadly so than ever before.

Something is clearly in the air. The combination of distributed, renewable microgrid power with digital fabrication, against a backdrop of networked organization, urban occupation and direct action, seems to be catalyzing into a coherent, shared conception of a way forward from the mire we find ourselves in. Similar notions crop up in Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, in Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society (the particular naivety of which I’ll have more to say about in short order), in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, and the same convergence of possibilities animated my own first pass at articulating such a conception, a lashed-up framework I rather cheekily called the “minimum viable utopia.”

These conceptions of the possible are all pretty exciting, at least to those of us who share a certain cast of mind. What they’re all missing, though, to a one, is a Cliff Harper: someone to illustrate them, to populate them with recognizable characters, to make them vivid and real. We need them to feel real, so when we print them out and hang them on the walls of flats where the rent is Too Damn High and the pinboard surfaces of the cubicles where we grind away the mindless hours, we remember what it is we’re working so hard to bring into being.

At the very least, we need them so that those who follow us a quarter century from now understand that they too belong to a lineage of thought, belief and action, just as anyone who’s ever been inspired in their work by the Harper illustrations does. Some days, just knowing that line through time exists is enough to get you through the day.

“Gee, Officer Krupke”: A close reading in the governmentality literature

In my weekly dispatch not so long ago, I’d mentioned that I’d been reading Mitchell Dean’s Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. This might at first blush seem like an odd choice for summer reading, but you know me: as long as I live, I’ll be immersed in the autodidact’s permanent project of filling in the gaps in my own understanding. The Dean book, if dense, really is superbly lucid. I found it hugely useful, and enjoyed it greatly.

At the time, though, I’d also mentioned a text I’d described as “far and away my favorite in the entire governmentality literature”: a song called “Gee, Officer Krupke,” from the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story. This wasn’t a throwaway joke. As we’ll see, “Krupke” is such a concise, vivid and memorable encapsulation of governmentality theory that it could readily be used as an introduction to this entire line of thought.

But first, for those of you who don’t generally dork out over such things, it’s probably best to spell out just what it is that I, at least, mean when I use the strange word “governmentality.” As Dean explains, this is a way of thinking about the art of state administration that Michele Foucault first presented in a series of lectures given at the Collège de France in the winter of 1977-78. There’s a specific problem Foucault is trying to address in these lectures, which is how power works in the modern, Western liberal democracy — specifically, how can a state guarantee the compliance of citizens who are at least nominally free, and upon whose ability to act freely the entire economic order is in fact predicated?

As Foucault describes it, the ultimate aim of liberal governmentality is the production of subjects who do not require much in the way of active administration, because they administer themselves. Most of us, most of the time, do not literally have a gun to our head, and yet we continue to act in ways that continuously reproduce and legitimate certain conceptions of State power and our own relation to it. Foucault’s project was to ask just how these conceptions came to be, and how we ourselves came to internalize them.

In order to do this, he undertook a genealogy of the successive ways in which power has been seen to work throughout the history of the West, and the conceptions of citizenship, self and subjectivity that corresponded to each of them. Broadly speaking, the main modes of power he identified were sovereignty, which is the naked power to kill or let live, originally founded in the divine right of kings; discipline, which originates in the detailed training and regulation of human bodies and becomes a series of (predominantly spatial) technologies for the production of docile, compliant and useful subjects; and eventually biopolitical govermentality, which is concerned with maximizing State power by optimizing fertility, longevity and other biological processes at the level of entire populations. In his exegesis, Dean is careful to emphasize that though these modes emerged historically, they aren’t strictly speaking periodizations: liberal power will always consist of some admixture of sovereignty, discipline and biopolitics, though the proportions will shift from state to state, and over time within a single polity.

Just to add a layer of nuance and complexity, in the Collège de France lectures Foucault also contrasted the essentially pastoral model of administration inscribed in the Christian tradition (the “shepherd/flock game”) with an earlier, Greco-Roman model of public virtue that he calls the “city/citizen game.” The distinction is between whether individuals are primarily understood as sentient beings with needs and a potential for wellbeing that must be discovered via the development of detailed knowledge, or as citizens, with freedom, rights and obligations that are negotiated through legal and political processes. The former conception implies a burden of care on the part of a benevolent (“welfare”) State, but also the necessity of submission to that State’s fundamentally paternalistic administration; the latter is perhaps better suited to a political community composed of fully autonomous individuals, but lacks any organic commitment to those who are unable to shift for themselves. The one is total in every sense, a vision of the beloved community that yet patronizes its members; the other is atomized, but also liberating. Autonomy, in other words, both giveth and taketh away. (Dean’s framing of the tradeoff is stark: in a notional society of “juridical and civil equals, there are no grounds for a right to assistance but nor are there grounds to issue commands.”)

And all of these complicated and, at times, fundamentally incompatible ways of constructing subjectivity are interwoven in the contemporary governance of the liberal state, as well as in the institutionalized contestation of the right to govern that we think of as party politics. (In fact, we can understand a great deal about policy — from military conscription and abortion law to subsidized public transit for the elderly and proposed limits on the sizes of sugary soft drinks that can be sold — by trying to identify which historical conception of citizenship it’s appealing to.) The necessity of arriving at some kind of modus vivendi on a day-by-day basis means that in practice this unstable hybrid is patched together, but the fault lines remain and they run deep.

As I read it, anyway, those faults re-emerge whenever society encounters a situation it defines as a “problem.” Different modes of institutional expertise are brought to bear, each of which proposes its own way of framing the problem, and therefore the wisest course of action for its resolution — but again, always with a mind toward restoring society to a condition of self-regulation. So-called nudge theory is perhaps the most recent elaboration of this way of thinking, but the tendency has been evident in Western societies for the better part of a century.

And this brings us to “Gee, Officer Krupke,” as sung by Action, Snowboy, Diesel, A-Rab and Baby John — members of a working-class white street gang called the Jets, whose “turf” occupies a few square blocks of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. The song is about their encounter with the agent of State power they are most familiar with, NYPD patrolman Krupke, and their sarcastic, exhausted explication to him of the various modes of expertise brought to bear on them as living, breathing exemplars of a social problem.

In “Krupke” we’re not quite at biopolitics yet, concerned as it is with the administration of the processes of life at the scale of entire populations, but just about every other element of governmentality theory is given a turn in the lyrics. In fact, the song is so point-by-point compliant with Foucault’s schema that I’ve half convinced myself he had Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics in mind when he first composed his lectures.

Here, I’ll show you what I mean:

ACTION
Deeeeeeaaaaar kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It’s just our bringin’ upke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks!

[First, the problem is named. Urban America in the immediate post-war period will be haunted by the specter of the juvenile delinquent — the JD, the punk, the hood. The JD is, by definition, an adolescent (or more distressingly a post-adolescent) with poor impulse control, mired in anomie, addicted to “kicks,” and therefore unregulable and virtually unemployable. Corrupted by a lumpen culture of comic books and dangerously sexual jukebox singles, this figure and his lifeworld are vividly depicted in Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, amped up to a feverish 11 in Harlan Ellison’s short story collection The Deadly Streets, and of course later parodied by the Ramones.

The problematic of juvenile delinquency and its management will become one of the main obsessions of American mass media and government alike, in the years before the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the emergence of a putatively “New Left” furnished them with more urgent concerns.]

ACTION AND JETS
Gee Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents,
We’re misunderstood.
Deep down inside us there is good!

ACTION
There is good!

ALL
There is good, there is good,
There is untapped good!
Like inside, the worst of us is good!

[Again, as a distinctly liberal art of management, governmentality is concerned with the production of subjects whose behavior does not require detailed administration by the State, because they self-administer. The events of the play will demonstrate that the State clearly still has quite some way to go toward achieving this goal, but the seeds of a nascent social contract are already present in the Jets’ protest that they are good. Far from rejecting the State’s claim to a legitimate interest in their behavior, they here express the desire to be recuperated as usefully contributing members of society.

The Jets further propose that the question of delinquency will be decided on the terrain of the social, a sphere of human activity discovered by the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though conditioned by State power and the dynamics of an economy which is itself conceived of as natural and autonomous, the social is properly external to these. The contours of the social can most clearly be discerned at the scale of individual families, hence the Jets’ insistence on the significance of familial dynamics in explaining their failure to conform.]

SNOWBOY (spoken)
That’s a touchin’ good story.

ACTION (spoken)
Lemme tell it to the world!

SNOWBOY
Just tell it to the Judge!

[The extension of governmentality into everyday life requires the deployment of multiple registers of specialized technical expertise, typically the sort of expertise that devises categories or taxonomies of human behavior and assigns people to them; Foucault calls this “power/knowledge.”

The usual domains of this power/knowledge are medicine and public health, psychiatry, economics and law, each of which has a distinct way of conceiving of the human subject and the field of its interactions with other subjects. Are we most usefully thought of as biological bodies with a capacity for organic health or illness (and a vulnerability to contagion), economic actors with material interests, or citizens with rights and obligations under law?

This latter, legal (or, to be properly Foucauldian about it, “juridical”) register of knowledge constitutes a framework of collective agreements for the formal specification and detailed regulation of the permissible limits of human behavior. As certain decisions the Jets make as individuals and as a collective mean that they are perpetually running afoul of these limits, the New York City juvenile justice system is the primary institution of expert knowledge they encounter in their lives, and therefore the first they invoke in their quest for resolution of their delinquent status.]

ACTION
Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all the marijuana,
They won’t give me a puff.
They didn’t wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!

[Note the acknowledgement that the individual delinquent may well be the issue of an unplanned pregnancy. By implication, delinquency as a phenomenon can be understood as the consequence of a failure of State policy at multiple levels, i.e. both the failure to integrate a meaningful family-planning curriculum into secondary education, and to distribute or otherwise guarantee access to contraceptives and other necessary resources. This is a presentiment of the quintessential biopolitical concern for scaled management of the processes of life.]

DIESEL (as JUDGE)
Right!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs a analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!

[In the first of a series of reframings — or alternately, evasions of responsibility — that will characterize the Jets’ encounters with the bearers of expert knowledge, the Judge finds that the law provides him with inadequate tools to manage delinquency. He rejects the notion, indeed, that this is a collective problem at all, suggesting instead that both the roots of delinquency and effective responses to it can best be discovered by undertaking the treatment of individual psychopathology.

Note that the vowels in both Diesel’s pastiche of the Judge and the Jets’ response should be sounded as a front-rising diphthong, i.e. coibed/distoibed. This is a once-distinct and broadly-recognizable New York City accent that is now rapidly disappearing.]

ACTION
I’m disturbed!

JETS
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.

DIESEL (spoken, as JUDGE)
Hear ye, hear ye! In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.

[In speech act theory, this is what is known as a “performative utterance.” That the Judge prefaces his comments with a command to hear and then literally pronounces sentence is what makes it effective. Still more intriguingly to me, the notion that there exist sequences of words so potent that uttering them properly and under the correct conditions is all it takes to do work in the world is at best only quasi-rational. It makes certain kinds of speech — here, legal speech — akin to magickal operations intended to manifest change in accordance with Will.]

ACTION (spoken)
Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!

DIESEL (as JUDGE)
So take him to a headshrinker!

ACTION (sings)
My father is a bastard,
My ma’s an S.O.B.
My grandpa’s always plastered,
My grandma pushes tea.
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress.
Goodness gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!

A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
Yes!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a slob.
This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.
Society’s played him a terrible trick,
And sociologic’ly he’s sick!

[The Psychiatrist downplays the significance of multiple traumas in the childhood household — the stigma of illegitimacy; substance abuse, addictive behavior and exposure to the narcoeconomy; and unresolved issues of gender presentation and conformity — arguing instead that delinquency needs to be understood as a symptom of market failure. Only by participating in and usefully contributing to the economy will the former delinquent find himself redeemed.]

ACTION
I am sick!

ALL
We are sick, we are sick,
We are sick, sick, sick,
Like we’re sociologically sick!

A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
In my opinion, this child don’t need to have his head shrunk at all. Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease!

ACTION
Hey, I got a social disease!

[A bit of wordplay here: “social disease” is a common 1950s euphemism for sexually-transmitted disease. Action is delighted because the term implies institutional recognition and/or validation of his sexually active status.]

A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
So take him to a social worker!

[Decisively denying a still-Freudian psychiatry’s applicability to the problem at hand, the analyst recommends instead that the delinquent’s situation be addressed by a case worker specifically tasked by the benevolent welfare State to perform outreach and propose interventions in the city’s economically-deprived communities.]

ACTION
Dear kindly social worker,
They say go earn a buck.
Like be a soda jerker,
Which means like be a schmuck.
It’s not I’m anti-social,
I’m only anti-work.
Gloryosky! That’s why I’m a jerk!

[Though as written, this passage rhymes earn a buck with be a schmuck, it was offensively (if effectively) bowdlerized for Hollywood as make some dough/be a schmo.]

BABY JOHN (as SOCIAL WORKER)
Eek!
Officer Krupke, you’ve done it again.
This boy don’t need a job, he needs a year in the pen!
It ain’t just a question of misunderstood;
Deep down inside him, he’s no good!

[The delinquent, reasonably enough, is starkly dissatisfied with the low-status, entry-level service jobs that are the only ones available to him in the post-industrial economy. The social worker, on the other hand, having gone to all the trouble of gathering information about available positions, is disgusted with this refusal of personal responsibility, and concludes that the delinquent’s problems are so severe that they can only be resolved by his being sentenced to a penitentiary — the paradigmatic disciplinary space.

This brings us full circle: if delinquency can neither be resolved via socioeconomic provision, nor through the psychiatric care of the individual delinquent, juridical sanction may be the only arrow society has in its quiver. The cost of this reframing, however, is that if the delinquent can neither be constructed as an unwell body or a disadvantaged economic actor, he can only be understood as a more-or-less willful transgressor of the social order. Action, of course, sees this clearly, recognizing that…]

ACTION
I’m no good!

ALL
We’re no good, we’re no good!
We’re no earthly good,
Like the best of us is no damn good!

DIESEL (as JUDGE)
The trouble is he’s crazy.

A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
The trouble is he drinks.

BABY JOHN (as SOCIAL WORKER)
The trouble is he’s lazy.

DIESEL
The trouble is he stinks.

A-RAB
The trouble is he’s growing.

BABY JOHN
The trouble is he’s grown.

ALL, as CHORUS LINE
Krupke, we got troubles of our own!

Gee, Officer Krupke,
We’re down on our knees,
‘Cause no one wants a fella with a social disease.
Gee, Officer Krupke,
What are we to do?
Gee, Officer Krupke,
Krup you!

See what I mean? It’s all in there! One or two other songs from West Side Story are almost as good — my other favorite, “America,” is about postcolonial subjectivity, the subaltern’s daily experience of the metropole and the politics of differential infrastructural development — but “Krupke” really does explain how this particular mode of power works in an incredibly efficient way.

There’s something refreshing, too, in the fact that by mocking the way they’re framed by these successive agents of authority — as alternately unwell bodies to be treated, unfairly deprived economic actors to be restored by gainful employment, and finally as criminals to be disposed of by the State’s corrective apparatus — what the putatively ignorant Jets are really doing is rejecting the State’s right to define them at all. Maybe there is no “problem of juvenile delinquency” after all, they appear to be saying, and on this history at least appears to have borne them out.

Commonplace: Bookchin on the “nuclear unit” of a properly constituted politics

Politics, in effect, must be recreated again if we are to reclaim any degree of personal and collective sovereignty over our destiny. The nuclear unit of this politics is not the impersonal bureaucrat, the professional politician, the party functionary, or even the urban resident in all the splendor of his or her civic anonymity. It is the citizen — a term that embodies the classical ideals of philia, autonomy, rationality and, above all, civic commitment. The elusive citizen who surfaced historically in the assemblies of Greece, in the communes of medieval Europe, in the town meetings of New England, and in the revolutionary sections of Paris must be brought to the foreground of political theory. For without his or her presence and without a clear understanding of his or her genesis, development, and potentialities, any discussion of the city is likely to become anemically institutional and formal.

– Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, 1987.

On Adaptive Ecologies

Over the weekend I finally got a chance to sit down with Theodore Spyropoulos‘s new book Adaptive Ecologies, which I’ve been looking forward to for a bit now. (Thanks, Steph!) Spyropolous is an instructor at London’s Architectural Association and director of the school’s Design Research Laboratory, and Adaptive Ecologies is his and his students’ attempt to push arguments about the computational generation of form a little further downfield.

The book’s subtitle says it all, sorta: “Correlated systems of living.” Broadly, the argument being made here is that new technologies allow us to fuse architecture’s formal qualities with its functional or performative ones. We can imagine the world populated with entirely new kinds of structures: each an active, adaptive mesh capable of responding to conditions of use, and expressing this response through its macroscopic physical manifestation, at every scale from unit (house) to cluster (building) to collective (megastructure or masterplan). What Spyropolous and his student-collaborators are trying to develop are the strategies or vocabularies one would use to devise structures like this.

Another way of putting things is to say that they’re attempting to link or join the two primary modes in which computation currently informs architecture. On one hand, we have the procedural, iterative, processor-intensive design techniques that have been in vogue for the past decade or so; on the other, we have the potential we’ve discussed so often here, that of networked informatics to endow structures and environments with the ability to sense and respond to varying conditions of occupancy, load or use. Adaptive Ecologies binds these threads together, and what results is a potent intellectual figure: smart city as architecture machine.

This is an intriguing argument, to say the least, and its evocation of urban space as a vast, active, living information system resonates profoundly with certain of my own concerns. Further, Spyropoulos admirably attempts to situate this work in its proper context, adducing a secret history in which his students’ towering blebs and polypy complexes recognizably descend from a lineage of minor heroes that includes Bucky Fuller, Archigram and the Japanese Metabolists, Gordon Pask and Cedric Price.

All of the usual tropes are present in Adaptive Ecologies: DLA and its manifestation in coral and Hele-Shaw cells; genetic algorithms, agent-based models and cellular automata; stigmergy and swarming logics; siphonophores and mangroves; even Frei Otto’s experiments with the self-organizing potential of wet thread.

But troublingly, these organic processes are used to generate designs that are not shown to be “adaptive” at all — at least not in the materials reproduced here. My primary beef with the book turns out to be the same I hold against the contemporary school of parametricists (which runs the entire gamut of seriousness, interest and credibility, from Zaha Hadid herself and her in-house ideologist Patrik Schumacher straight through to charlatans like Mitchell Joachim): that it fetishizes not merely form but the process of structuration. Or really, that it fetishizes the process of structuration to the detriment of usable form.

To make a fetish of these generative processes is to misunderstand their meaning, or to think that they are not already operating in our built environments. I promise you these algorithms of self-organization are always already there in the city — in the distribution of activities, in the dynamics of flow, in every last thing but the optical shape. The beehive’s form is epiphenomenal of its organizing logic, and so is the city’s. To reify such an organizing logic in the shape of a building strikes me as stumbling into a category error. Worse: as magical thinking, as though we’d made the rhizome an emblem of state to be carved in the façades of our buildings, where once we might have inscribed sheaves of wheat or birds of prey.

Consider the contribution of usual-suspect Makoto Sei Watanabe. Watanabe is an architect who believes that architecture must replace unreliable designerly inspiration with a Science valid in all times and places, and I’ve beaten up on him before. He’s represented here by a series of sculptures collectively called WEB FRAME, one version of which adorns the Iidabashi station of Tokyo’s Oedo subway line.

As is usual with Watanabe, he invokes “neural network[s], genetic algorithms and artificial intelligence” to explain the particular disposition of elements you can see in Iidabashi station. But WEB FRAME is best understood as an ornamental appliqué. It’s nicer to look at than a bare ceiling, arguably, but that’s all it is. Despite its creator’s rhetoric, its form at any given moment bears no relationship whatsoever to the flow of passengers through the subway system, the performative capacities of the station itself, or any potential regulation of either. It’s the outer sign of something, entirely detached from its substance. It adapts to nothing. It is, in a word, static.

Although it may be a particularly weak example, Watanabe’s work is marred by the same problems that afflict the more interesting work elsewhere in the volume:

Not one of the projects illustrated uses parameters derived from real-time soundings to generate its form, even notionally. For some projects, the parameters used in an iterative design process appear to have been chosen specifically for the formal properties that result from their selection; for others, the seed values occupy an extremely wide range, producing a family of related design solutions rather than a single iconic form.

There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with either approach. But unless I’m missing something really basic, the whole point of this exercise is to devise structures whose properties change over relatively short spans of time (minutes to months) in response to changing conditions. In turn, that would seem to imply some way of coupling the parameters driving the structures’ form to one or another value extracted from their local environment. And while all of the student work featured in the book draws on the beguilingly stochastic processes of structuration I enumerated above, only one of them claims to have used data gathered in this way as its input or seed state.

This is Team Shampoo‘s exploration of “hair-optimi[z]ed detour networks,” and it’s both wildly problematic in its own right and emblematic of the worrisome tendencies that run throughout the volume. Shampoo’s design for a tower complex uses autonomous computational agents to simulate morning and evening pedestrian flows through a district, and in turn uses these to derive “optimal” linkages and points of attachment for circulation structures hardwired into the urban fabric itself. The results are certainly striking enough, but they are precisely optimized: that is, narrowly perfected for one use case, and one use case only.

Of course, we know that conditions of pedestrian flow change over the course of the week, over the seasons of the year, with economic cycles and the particular disposition of services and amenities reflected in the city. A conventional street grid, especially one with short blocks, is already more adaptive to changes in these circumstances than any lattice of walk-tubes in the sky, because it allows people to choose from a far wider variety of alternative paths from origin to destination. In designs like Shampoo’s, we’re still making the same blunder Jane Jacobs accused the High Modernists of making: mistaking the appearance of something for its reality.

And if the point of all this applied parametricism is to permit each building or cluster of buildings to take on the form appropriate to the exigencies of the moment, that I can tell, only a single one of the projects featured appears in states responding to multiple boundary conditions. This is Team CXN-Reaction’s Swarm effort, which proposes housing units that collapse flat when not occupied, stacked in a snaky concertina reaching to the sky. (Admittedly, it’s difficult to put a finger on any particular purpose sufficient to justify this tactic of expansion and contraction, unless they’re arguing that the long-term maintenance of an unused unit is significantly cheaper in the collapsed state, but it does at least show a system that is in principle capable of multiple configurations.) So while Adaptive Ecologies itself acknowledges three registers of iterative design — behavioral, self-organizational and morphogenetic — it appears to be only the latter that is given any serious consideration.

– More seriously, none of the structures featured appear to be provided with any actual mechanism that would permit dynamic adaptation. We can be generous, and assume that these structures are notionally equipped with the sensors, actuators and other infrastructural componentry necessary to the work of transformation — designed, perhaps, by students in other modules of the AA, or left up to hands-on experimental practices like The Living. But nowhere in these renderings is any such thing stipulated (again, that I could tell on a first reading), and that makes the whole outing little more than a formal exercise.

I suppose the feeling is that it’s far too early in the prehistory of adaptive architecture for such details, which would be bound to obsolesce rapidly in any event. But even where there is a specific mechanism identified — notably Team Architecta’s rubber joint, permitting 360-degree rotation and a variety of geometric configurations — it’s never explained how it could possibly function as a component of anything but a model. Is it supposed to work hydraulically? Pneumatically? Through shape-memory myoelectrics? And how is access for maintenance and upgrade supposed to be accomplished? (Scaling even a few panes of one of Chuck Hoberman’s expanding surfaces to room size, and keeping the installation working under conditions of daily use, required constant physical debugging.) It’s hard to imagine, say, Bucky Fuller settling for a sketch of one of his tensegrity structures, and not working questions like these out in detail.

No attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with the way buildings are actually built. I am perfectly willing to believe that, at some point in the diiiiiistant future, self-powering, self-assembling, self-regulating structures will be “built” one molecule at a time. (At that point, the build/inhabit/maintain distinction would be meaningless, actually, as provisions for various kinds of shelter would presumably arise and subside as required.) But until and unless that point is reached, there will always be human fabricators, contractors and construction workers involved in the assembly of macroscale structures, and if what you intend to build is to be anything other than a one-off proof of concept, that means standardized processes at scale. Institutional and disciplinary conventions. Standard components. Generally-accepted practices and procedures. At no point do the structures described in Adaptive Ecologies coincide with any of these provisions of the contemporary praxis of production.

Again, yes: this is “just a design lab.” But where are these details to be worked out, if not in a design lab? Thousands of kids around the planet already know how to use Maya to crank out unbuildably biomorphic abstractions — functioning as a hinge between these “futuristic” visions and plans which might be realized is where the real discipline and the real inspiration now lie. (I won’t comment for now on the obvious irony that maintaining all of these structures as designed would require the most extraordinary specialist interventions in practice, taking them still further from the possibility that residents themselves could usefully modify or adapt them.)

– Finally, no attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with any actual practice of living. In a book stuffed full of the most extravagant imagery, one illustration in particular — the work of Danilo Arsic, Yoshimasa Hagiwara and Hala Sheikh’s Team Architecta — stands out for me as an indication that the discipline is speaking only to itself. It features the by-now-familiar typology of a high-rise service-and-circulation core studded with plug-in living pods, the units of which rather resemble mutant avian skulls. Put aside for a second the certainty that this Kikutake– or Archigram-style typology, first articulated in the late 1950s, would have enveloped the globe by now if there were anything remotely appealing or useful about it. What concerns me here is the frankly malevolent appearance of Architecta’s take on the trope (which just between you and me strikes me as kind of awesome, but which I cannot imagine being built in any city this side of Deadworld).

I know, I know: tastes change over time, just as they vary from place to place. Still, who wants to live in a structure that looks like nothing so much as a ravening gyre of supremely Angry Birds? Unless you can somehow convince me that you could gather enough devotees of True Norwegian Black Metal in one place to populate a shrieking kvlt arcology, I think this one’s an index of parametric design’s weirdly airless inwardness.

I get that this is an aesthetic of the age — “gigaflop Art Nouveau,” I called it a few years back. (1998, to be precise.) But as an aesthetic, it can and should stand on its own, without being married to an entirely separate discourse about responsive urbanism. As a casebook of purely formal studies and strategies, Adaptive Ecologies is by and large reasonably convincing, and here and there very much so. It’s all the rhetoric about biomimetic or physiomimetic processes of structuration somehow leading to more, rather than less, flexible assemblages that’s its weakest point, and unfortunately that’s the very trellis that Spyropolous has used to train his vines on. I welcome and applaud what he’s up to in Adaptive Ecologies, but as far as I can tell the attempt to devise a vocabulary of dynamic form that is capable of change over relatively short time scales still awaits its fundamental pattern language.

And if nothing else, it’s surreal to look up from this book and gaze out the window onto a city where SHoP’s towers are considered architecturally daring, and in which the overwhelmingly fundamental problem isn’t the timidity of its design but the inability to provide all residents with decent, affordable housing.

Henri Lefebvre once asked, “Could it be that the space of the finest cities came into being after the fashion of plants and flowers in a garden?” I myself happen to believe that this is true not merely of the finest cities, but of all cities: that they are given form by generative processes as organic as any of those so beloved of the parametricists, operating at a scale and subtlety beyond the ability of any merely optical apparatus to detect. It is when we finally learn to take the measure of those processes that we will stand ready to author truly adaptive ecologies.

One final note: it’s only fair to point out that much of the work on view in Adaptive Ecologies is on the order of eight years old, and that a great deal can change in that kind of time. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be held to every position I advanced in 2005.

One final thought on Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City

Even after 18,000 words, apparently I still felt there was a point that needed making. Previously: Parts I, II, III, IV.

In the entire book, there is not one word — not one single word — on any measure people can take to improve their own cities, anything they can do to make the places they live more responsive to their own needs. It is all and entirely about macro-scale levers administrators might apply to incentivize or disincentivize certain lifestyle choices. At no point does Glaeser even suggest that people might vote for representatives committed to a policy of deregulation, should they find his arguments in favor of such a policy convincing.

Make of this what you will.

Notes on Triumph of the City, conclusion

The final installment of my four-part deconstruction of Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City. (Parts I, II, III and a brief coda.).

8. Is There Anything Greener Than Blacktop?
– It takes some juggling to claim Thoreau for cities, but our boy Ed manages it.

– “If you love nature, stay away from it.” I know he’s just trying to be pithy and clever in advocating for the (marked and abundantly well-documented) sustainability benefits of urban living, but this happens to be a fairly destructive line to take. By contrast, I was struck by something profound and eloquent Wildman Steve Brill, of all people, said, to the effect that it’s only by immersion in the practice of responsible husbandry that city people ever get to understand what nature actually is and how it works, without illusion or sentimentality.

– “In the 1970s, Jane Jacobs argued that we could minimize our damage to the environment by clustering together in high-rises and walking to work…” The citation is to Death and Life: an eternal work, to be sure, but one in which I don’t remember Jacobs taking quite such an explicitly Glaeseresque line (and which was written in 1961, anyway).

– “As the car finally bested the elevator, the majority of Americans came to live in suburban places that combined city and nature.” The majority? Really? I’m having trouble putting my finger on any statistic indicating that a majority of Americans lived in suburbs, in any year. Per the 2010 CIA World Factbook, and despite some obscurity as to the definitions of “city” and “urban,” the current urbanization figure for the US is 82.1%. I would also not describe suburbs as “combining city and nature,” but that’s mostly a stylistic quibble.

– “The computer magnates of Silicon Valley live in a region blessed not only by an extraordinary climate, but also by a beautiful setting protected from development by some of the world’s most restrictive land-use controls.” The clear implication here, in the context of the argument that Glaeser’s been building over several chapters, is that there’s somehow something sinister and inequitable about this, and that Bay Area living could be more affordable if only, say, the San Francisco State Fish and Game Refuge were to be opened up for unrestricted development. You have to wonder how seriously he means such arguments to be taken.

– “The move to low-density living ended up being far less sensitive to nature than [Hugh!] Ferriss’s vision of a towering metropolis.” And here we rise to one of the book’s peaks of intellectual dishonesty. But for the provisions of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, America’s cities would be no friendlier to nature than India’s or China’s. Density is a good thing — a wonderful thing — but it’s only a ground condition for low ecological impact. In order to fulfill its ecological promise, high urban density needs to be accompanied by effective, enforceable and actually enforced environmental regulation.

– Every passage that raises the issue of anthropogenic global warming is marked heavily by weasel words: the costs of warming “may well be” enormous, ice caps “appear to be” melting, temperatures fluctuate “for many reasons,” and so on. For whatever reason, I get the sense that Glaeser actually believes in the AGW scenario personally, but doesn’t want to alienate a conservative readership.

– An entirely welcome barrage of statistics supporting the contention that citydwellers use less gas, less electricity and produce lower carbon emissions per capita, and that denser cities score far better on such indices than do sprawling, car-centric conurbations.

– Interestingly, though, “[t]he differences between metropolitan areas are even larger than the differences between individual cities and their suburbs. Coastal California is by far the greenest part of the country. The Deep South is by far the brownest. The five greenest metropolitan areas in the country are San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles [!], San Jose, and Sacramento [!]. The five places with the highest carbon emissions per home are Houston, Birmingham, Nashville, Memphis, and Oklahoma City. The gap between these two extremes is dramatic. A household in San Francisco emits 60 percent less carbon than its equivalent in Memphis.” This surely reflects climate, and the Southern requirement for air conditioning during the summer months; might it also, though, have something to do with the culture we associate with each region?

– Glaeser’s solution is explicit: “[I]f we wanted to reduce emissions by changing our land-development policies, more Americans should live in denser, more urban environments. More Americans should move to coastal California and fewer should live in Texas.” But where is it written that land-use policy is the best, or even among the more efficient, levers we have to reduce emissions? The unacknowledged leap here is perverse. What may be even worse is that even if land-use policies were changed, even if more of the pristine Bay ecosystem were to be opened up to development, it would take a very long time before enough people settled in the Bay Area to move the needle on density. You would destroy the local ecosystem, immediately and in actuality, to maybe buy some long-term easing of emissions. And that’s even stipulating you could (how, in a democracy?) keep people from moving to Texas and undoing all the gains you’d achieved at such terrible cost. I feel like walking Ed Glaeser through a kind of catechism: Why do we want to lower emissions? We want to lower emissions to reduce the contribution of our actions to the acceleration of global warming. Why do we want to reduce the contribution of our actions to the acceleration of global warming? Because global warming threatens the survival of the ecosystems we cherish and rely upon. So…why does it make sense to destroy an ecosystem we cherish and rely upon to lower emissions? (Crickets.)

Red Ken! Glaeser initially tries to make him out to be a hypocrite on environmentalism because he “opposed skyscrapers, especially Richard Rogers’s plans for a ‘Berlin Wall’ of high-rise buildings on the south side of the Thames.” (Well: when you put it that way, who in their right mind could possibly resist?) In the end, though, he comes off pretty well; Glaeser contrasts him, properly and pungently, with the kind of backward-looking development espoused by Prince Charles, Léon Krier and the American New Urbanists, and concludes that “Ken Livingstone’s green vision combines sustainability and dynamic urban growth.”

– An admission that, whatever happens in the US, it’s the nature of Chinese and Indian urbanization as they unfold that will be determinative, leading into an extended discussion of the prospects for same.

– “Growth patterns in India and China offer both hopeful and disturbing signs. On the plus side, the great cities of both nations are enormously dense.” Yet a single paragraph later, “Shanghai and Beijing, with their 20 million and 17 million inhabitants respectively, are vast places about one tenth as dense as New York City and less than half as dense (about 2,600 people per square mile) as Los Angeles.” That doesn’t sound like “enormously dense” to me, and you kind of wonder which “great cities” of China Glaeser could possibly be referring to, if Beijing and Shanghai are excluded from the accounting. Given that I have no quibble with the characterization as applied to the cities of India, perhaps what we have here is an illustration of the perils that attend rolling the vastly different histories and trajectories of China and India into one tidy narrative.

– Glaeser sounds a cautionary note about the implications for emissions of the Tata Nano. It looks like he needn’t have fretted, on that count specifically at any rate.

– “My awkward suburban life is certainly no model of green living.” There’s this curious trope by way of which many people these days seem to believe that admitting hypocrisy somehow excuses them from that hypocrisy. It’s the moral equivalent of the “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” non-apology.

– “The alleged environmentalists who suffer from the Lorax fallacy and fight high-density development close to urban cores in order to preserve local green spaces are ensuring that development will move to the exurban fringe and that people will drive more.” A few sections back, though, you were arguing that exurban developments like The Woodlands were so successful that they’d actually begun to catalyze intracommunity commutes, rather than longer journeys into the core. The lesson I draw from this is that high-density mixed-use development will tend to exhibit the beneficial characteristics of high density and mixed use, no matter where it happens to be sited — so why site it on some of the most unspoiled terrain in America? And specifically with reference to the Bay Area, does Ed Glaeser not understand that its considerable natural beauty is a large part of what makes it such a desirable place to live in the first place?

9. How Do Cities Succeed?
– “To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively.” OK, no argument here. But how? Through tax incentives? Bike lanes and Gay Pride parades? Coworking spaces? Free public WiFi? A double kick drum by the river in the summer? How?

– “The best cities have a mix of skills and provide pathways for those who start with less to end with more.” Great. Again, though: how? What are these pathways? How might we support their emergence and sustain their capability? Glaeser is, up to this point in the book, silent on the subject.

– OK, here he starts to namecheck different cities he perceives as successful, and offers a one- or two-line characterization of the strategy each (as if consciously!) embraced on its way to success. Tokyo (Edo, actually) was a mandated success — though one naturally wonders why, if one could simply launch a city to brilliance by fiat, Brasilia remains what it is. Hong Kong and Singapore succeeded by “establishing themselves as bastions of economic freedom and the rule of law in an often disorderly part of the world.” (Of course, it doesn’t hurt to sit astride Imperial trade routes, and enjoy the protection of the Royal Navy.) Boston invested in higher education; Paris, quality of life, and Chicago lowered barriers to development. The balance of the chapter will be devoted to a consideration of these templates.

– At least Glaeser acknowledges that each of these strategies is not necessary going to prove relevant to all places: “Certainly Detroit could do very well if it — like Tokyo — became capital of a highly centralized country with an abundance of nationally funded universities, but how exactly can that unsurprising piece of information help Mayor Bing?”

– The account of post-1868 Tokyo here as the “Imperial City” — uppermost stratum of a nation-scale hierarchy and the most central of all central places — reminds me that Manuel de Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History is much better on cities as nodes of meshworks and hierarchies. (Of course, to really make use of that material, you have to accept a profound decentering of human intention…but it has been for me a much more resonant and fruitful take on things than the kind of description we encounter here.)

– Singapore represents Glaeser’s paradigm of “Well-Managed” cities. We’re a long, long way beyond minimalist “policing the streets and improving public schools” here, of course. He argues that “Singapore attracts expatriates with a quality of life that is remarkably high,” which again causes me to scratch my head a little — but for the food, which is astounding, Singapore is notorious among the expats I know for the boredom and lassitude it swiftly induces in all but the most oblivious. I think what he means is luxurious: it’s certainly relatively easy for a skilled expat to come to Singapore, make six figures, live in a swank, serviced apartment, drive a fancy car, and have all the fretful needs of daily life taken care of by smiling servants. But I’d personally never confuse that with “quality of life.”

– To comply with Singapore’s congestion-charging scheme, “[e]very car must have a transponder connected to a source of funds.” The transition from vehicle as object to physical instantiation of a mobility service.

– “Americans visiting Singapore can be forgiven for wistfully wondering why our own cities don’t seem so well managed.” Glaeser knows full well that Singapore is able to achieve what it does because Singaporeans tolerate a sprawling array of profoundly paternalistic interventions in personal choice, not a single one of which most Americans would put up with for a heartbeat.

Gaborone as an African Singapore. I confess to never having heard of Gaborone, but I’ll say this for it: at least its Wikipedia page doesn’t feature a P.F. Chang’s.

– Boston, Minneapolis and Milan represent the “Smart City” strategy. For reasons obvious to anybody who knows me, I prefer Glaeser’s use to the more usual context in which the term is encountered. (Here, at least, it actually means something.)

– Describing Boston in the mid-1970s: “Ethnic strife, epitomized by an epic battle over school busing, tore the city apart.” Not “ethnic”: racial strife. This isn’t the first time Glaeser has confounded and collapsed these two ideas, and the same goes for race and class. I can’t tell if he’s trying to be politically correct, or genuinely doesn’t understand (or care about?) the important distinctions involved.

– Regarding the relative underperformance of the once-vaunted Route 128 technology corridor: “Even before Wang and DEC went out of business, economist AnnaLee Saxenian at Berkeley foretold the decline of Boston’s computer industry, arguing that its firms in their isolated office parks had lost the edge that comes from urban diversity.” We have to reach all the way back to Chapter 1 to do it, but compare Glaeser’s endorsement of Saxenian’s insight here with his praise for Bangalore entrepreneur Subroto Bagchi’s Mindtree, which certainly struck me as being very deliberately “isolated…from urban diversity” in its “compound” “inside the wall” of an office park.

– We’re onto Milan as a city whose fortune is built on education; Glaeser draws an opposition of Miuccia Prada and her empire to Gianni Versace and his. It’s, charitably, rather a stretch to root the benisons the great fashion houses have bestowed upon Milan in formal higher education, of all things, but the Prada/Versace binary is probably worth a whole book in itself. I’d read that book, anyway…or would as long as Prada was the side facing up.

– Vancouver is the “Consumer City.” The section opens with an appreciation of Arthur Erickson, “‘the greatest architect [Canada] ever produced.’” I’ve never heard of Erickson. Glaeser goes on to praise Erickson’s student James Cheng, who I have heard of, and who is responsible for some mildly interesting mixed-use-in-a-single-building developments. A contextually bizarre note, however, is struck when Glaeser lauds Vancouver for the “good planning [which] places these buildings far enough apart to let in light and views and provide plenty of open spaces,” as though he hadn’t spent the bulk of Chapter 6 decrying just such regulation.

– Chicago and Atlanta furnish us with our examples of the “Growing City.” Chicago apparently attracts professionals because it “maintain[s] a strong quality of life and a family-friendly, wholesome Midwestern feel, as compared to Manhattan.” Why don’t you say what you mean, Ed, so I’m not forced to decode this gobbledegook?

– Heh: Dubai. “Dubai never had the chance to be an imperial city, but it seems to have tried almost every other strategy we’ve discussed here.” Maybe not literally imperial, no, but if there’s any contemporary city I’d think of as having been brought into being by fiat alone, it’s this one. Glaeser does offer a skeptical note on the prognosis for the city’s fortunes, but in the end, he’s gracious. By contrast, I’d offer you even money that there won’t be anything left of Dubai in thirty years but some empty, grit-scoured spires whistling eerily in the desert wind.

Conclusion: Flat World, Tall City
– I cringe at any invocation of The Mustache, however oblique.

– “…just as Monet and Cézanne found each other in nineteenth-century Paris, or Belushi and Aykroyd found each other in twentieth-century Chicago.” Beautiful.

– I find it interesting that throughout the book, Glaeser has repeatedly singled out Bangalore as an Indian city that “works.” I’ll reiterate for the third time that I’ve (still) never been to India, and feel like I’m not on the firmest possible ground here. But I have a whole bunch of friends from India, and another cohort of non-Indian friends who have spent considerable amounts of time there (months to years), and the one thing they near-universally describe to me is a city sharply lacking in any conception of public space — a place where privileged Indians and expats alike are shuttled between one privatized, security-guarded, climate-controlled place and another in the comfort of chauffered cars.

– “We can make sure that everybody, not just the privileged few, can enjoy the pleasures of Manhattan or Paris or Hong Kong.” Lookit: I agree with the general sentiment you’re trying to express. But there’s a fatal flaw in your premise, and it’s something you yourself convinced me of, Ed. It’s this: not everyone wants to “enjoy the pleasures of Manhattan or Paris or Hong Kong.” Some will always prefer the golf courses of exurban developments, the “family-friendly, wholesome Midwestern feel” they apparently can’t avail themselves of in the places you list. I get that you think that superhigh-density cities are humanity’s liferaft, and we’re of like mind on this. But how are you going to coax a mobile people into living densely when it’s density itself so many of them are fleeing from?

– OK, in fairness, he acknowledges just this point in the next paragraph, though even then he puts rather a privileged and self-undermining spin on it: “Nobody who can afford [!] such a bucolic life should be forced to live in a city.” You’ve spent an entire book basically arguing that the lack of affordable housing in dense urban places is some kind of moral scandal, you emphasize the fundamental, democratic validity of other lifestyle choices…but you’re OK with preserving a life “surrounded by open space and green trees” for those “who can afford” it? Ed Glaeser, you drive me crazy!

– “The central theme of this book is that cities magnify humanity’s strengths.” Would that it were. By weight, most of the book seems dedicated to a recurring plea to densify urban areas (and presumably, indirectly lower the cost of housing in those areas) by relaxing controls on development.

– “[T]he heart of economics is the belief that businesses work best by competing furiously in a market that the government oversees as impartial umpire.” And here I’ve always thought that the heart of economics is the study of the production, exchange and consumption of goods and services.

– “Cities can compete on a level playing field, but over the past sixty years, America’s policies have slanted the field deeply against them. In the areas of housing, social services, education, transportation, the environment, and even income taxes, American policies have worked against urban areas.” Here is where I (and people who share my take on the world, however few they may be) can most sensibly make common cause with Ed Glaeser (and the people who share his), despite our profound differences of perception and interpretation. We agree that cities are ultimately no more than the people who enact them — who literally give life to them — that contemporary American policy fails those people more often than not, and that we can and should be doing better by them.

– A rather jarring excursus into defense of globalization. “The free flow of goods and services among nations is good for cities and good for the world [citation needed]. Restrictions on free trade will make it more expensive for Americans to buy everyday goods and will harm our major trading partners [citation needed]. We’re far better off allowing our consumers to take advantage of inexpensive foreign products and forcing our producers to adapt than we would be hiding behind tariff walls [citation needed].” I suppose this all goes to how you define “more expensive,” and, as I pointed in out in my comments on the notion of externality, I don’t believe the low price of a plastic chair from Walmart or a Foxconn-built iPhone comes close to accurately valuing the harms that inhere in these modes of production and distribution. It’s not at all clear to me at this point that you couldn’t, for example, onshore virtually everything that was offshored during the 1980s and 1990s, and certainly contend with somewhat higher consumer prices, but enjoy vastly lower net ecological impact from shortened supply chains, a reskilling of the middle tier of the domestic economy, higher-quality and more innovative goods, reduced moral culpability for the exploitation and oppression of foreign workers and despoilation of foreign biomes and (perhaps most importantly of all) a restoration of the country’s sense of its own capability. As a matter of fact, that sounds like a bargain I’d be happy to strike. Nay, delighted. But what do I know? I’m not a University of Chicago-trained Harvard economics professor.

– This pivots into a full-throated warning of the dangers of nativism, and an endorsement of open immigration policy. Here we agree.

– “Education is, after January temperature, the most reliable predictor of urban growth, especially among older cities.” Again, armed with such information, I am hugely curious as to why Glaeser chose not to write his book about that. Sadly, had he, it would probably have been a defense of voucher programs, which “even socialist Sweden” has embraced. Funny, last time I looked, Sweden was a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary-style democratic system currently governed by a center-right coalition, with full provision for private ownership of the means of production.

– “Help Poor People, Not Poor Places.” I’m going to have to think about this in more depth. I think I largely agree with this policy, but can’t help but think that Glaeser is missing or badly discounting the profundity of feeling people have for places. We draw so much of our identity from where we live. So while it may be easy to say in the abstract that any further investment in, say, New Orleans is merely throwing good money after bad, I dare you to look a lifelong New Orleanian in the eye and argue that.

– A passage, a few brief pages long, on “The Challenge of Urban Poverty.” It’s true that though Glaeser has handled questions of affordability directly and explicitly throughout, it kind of astounds me that this is the depth of treatment poverty gets in a book on the topic of cities. While I certainly agree that “[a] nation’s poor are every citizen’s responsibility, not just the people who happen to live in the same political jurisdiction,” they’re also people, and this is something you never quite take away from Triumph of the City. What’s worse is that even this dedicated section soon enough veers off into a discussion of vouchers, as if even a paltry few pages was more consideration than Glaeser felt like devoting to the poor.

– This is followed by a section on the “Rise of the Consumer City,” which contrasts two perspectives on how to attract mobile talent: Richard Florida’s, which “emphasizes the arts, toleration [!] for alternative lifestyles [he means, of course, Teh Gays], and a fun, happening downtown” with one that emphasizes provision of “core public services that have always been the province of cities: safe streets, fast commutes, good schools.” Glaeser further identifies these divergent perspectives with representative characters: “a twenty-eight-year-old wearing a black turtleneck and reading Proust,” and a “forty-two-year-old biotech researcher concerned about whether her family will be as comfortable in Boston as it is in Charlotte.” These are what we used to call, in the context of user-centered design, “personae,” and they’re splendid examples of why that way of doing user-centered design is now discredited: they’re utterly — and in the case of the turtleneck boho, ludicrously — fictitious. The black-turtleneck-wearing Intellectual is a stereotype that dates to 1964, 1965 at the very latest; Dan DeCarlo, at least, wouldn’t have dared pen one into the background of an Archie panel after that date. (For that matter, the only people I know who read Proust anymore turn to him in their late thirties, early forties.) OK, so Ed Glaeser fumbles a one-line characterization. Why does this matter? It matters because it suggests to me that he doesn’t actually know anybody in his or her late twenties in 2012, and therefore is not particularly likely to have any understanding of what such a person wants or does not want from a city. Indeed, it’s so awfully off that it makes me wonder how far wrong the depiction of the biotech researcher is. I’m perfectly happy to see someone rain on Richard Florida’s parade, because fuck Richard Florida, but I would really have preferred that the person making the attempt had done so from firmer footing.

– Late in the game, a final paean to China, whose “leaders…seem to get the fact that tall towers enhance productivity and reduce environmental costs.” Unfortunately, those towers are being built significantly in advance of any real demand for them, a situation for which Glaeser has earlier harshly derided administrative bodies, notably Detroit’s. “Enhance productivity” is also a novel, and unsupported, claim.

– “I suspect that in the long run, the twentieth-century fling with suburban living will look, just like the brief age of the industrial city, more like an aberration than a trend.” Well. As my grandmother used to say: “From your lips to God’s ears.”

And that’s where we end. Glaeser somehow manages to finish the entire book without explicitly mentioning the role of the informal economy, either as it concerns housing or transport or services, or the places where and dynamics by way of which the informal sector gets folded into the formal economy.

This is shocking enough. Worse is that it’s just too easy to poke holes in his central assertions. The book spends a tremendous amount of time, space and energy making the case for the benefits of high-density urbanization, which is perhaps its most central and consistent theme. But time and again, like some door-to-door huckster, he oversells his case. I’m generally, as is well known, a fan of density myself. But if density itself leads directly to innovation, how ought we account (for example) the diverging fortunes of consumption-oriented Manhattan and creation-oriented, lower-density Brooklyn? In the 21st century, Brooklyn only started condensing after having acquired its rep for creativity. Even with bad internal transit connectivity, middling-to-wretched neighborhood porosity, and what are still comparatively low sidewalk LOS averages, Brooklyn has managed to pull off the neat trick of giving rise to a flowering of culture and creativity whose full impact has yet to be felt, while having already passed into a degree of easily-mockable mannerism. And yet there’s no account of this remarkable process — or anything like it anywhere — in Glaeser’s account of urban “triumph.”

At times, I wasn’t even sure what the book I was reading was supposed to be about. Was it a history of how the city came to be humanity’s dominant form of habitation? A primer on urban stewardship for the aspiring policymaker? A field guide to the diverse varieties of contemporary urban form? This is a structural and editorial failing more than anything else, but it leads directly to the book’s major weakness: all of those books have been written before, by more specifically knowledgeable authors, in a far greater wealth of detail. (I liked half of this book better when it was called The City In History by Lewis Mumford, and the other half better when it was called City: Rediscovering the Center by Holly Whyte.)

Here, as so often when I engage the work of economists, it feels like Glaeser ultimately only has one tool in his toolkit: incentives. It’s kind of unsatisfying. What about a thundering call to moral rectitude, of the sort we associate with Gandhi or King? What about the aspiration to greatness, we-do-these-things-not-because-they-are-easy-but-because-they-are-hard style? (I suppose the more intransigent sort of economist would argue that that too ultimately reduces to a manipulation of the weighting of various kinds of incentives to action.) And for all the emphasis on competitive factors, where is any suggestion at all of coordination and cooperation between cities?

Let’s talk policy. Policywise, Triumph is like a Mitt Romney speech: Glaeser gets the part about the necessity of a clearly-articulable high-level strategy — OK, we’re going to simultaneously densify cities and lower barriers to entry by building lots and lots of high-rise apartment towers, everywhere — but is infuriatingly thin on specifics. Subsidize the construction of supertall residences everywhere? OK. What about places where the anchoring properties of the Earth’s crust or the geodynamic conditions or, god forbid, local architectural traditions aren’t well-suited to skyscrapers? Should we resign ourselves to those cities being jewelboxes sprayed with fixative forever after, sacrifice zones to privilege?

More confoundingly still, his high-level recommendations tend to shift from chapter to chapter, to align with whatever anecdote he’s telling. This would actually be much less of a problem than it is, had he simply embraced the perfectly sensible general principle that most problems are bounded by local detail, and there are few if any workable one-size-fits-all global solutions. Instead, though, he likes to formulate his prescriptions fairly strongly and sweepingly, even if they contradict things he’s said a mere chapter (or paragraph!) previously.

And at best, the only urban futures his recommendations are particularly suited to are straight-line extrapolations of current tendencies and conditions. But if there’s anything the sensitive student gleans from a consideration of history, it’s how often the progress of the species has been marked by unanticipated reversals, doublings, crashes, knight’s-moves or entirely lateral evolutions. Triumph of the City nowhere accounts for such contingencies, and it’s specifically and profoundly weak on the topic of emergent urban technologies.

I don’t want to neglect the positive aspects of having a powerful pro-urban voice enter the field. Ed Glaeser and I both want to see more people living in better cities with more opportunity. We have some pretty important differences, though, over how best to realize that opportunity. I believe people ought to have more control over the circumstances of their lives, and he apparently believes that developers ought to have more control over what people are offered, and unimpeded access to the environment in which we all of us together must live. For me, its weirdly denatured account of the factors we weigh when making life decisions, its weirdly retrograde depiction of Homo urbanus as Homo economicus, and its weirdly stubborn refusal to acknowledge the real and persistent limits on mobility and choice all too many of us do face are all disqualifying factors for Triumph of the City, and I’m afraid anyone looking for a thoughtful, conscious, truly contemporary guide to the creation of better, more humane urban environments is best advised to keep searching.

Notes on Triumph of the City, part III

More of my long-form dissection of Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City. You can find Part I here and Part II here; Part IV and a coda follow.

6. What’s So Great About Skyscrapers?
– On Paris: “That thoroughfare [the Boulevard St.-Germain], like the Boul’Mich…was created by Haussmann, carved out of a mess of older streets.” That’s rather a tendentious way to put it. Whatever its eventual benefit to Paris, the Haussmann plan was primarily and explicitly motivated by the desire to enable policing, control and potentially military suppression of obstreperous working-class districts. And “mess”? That’s practically Corbusian language.

– “Too much preservation stops cities from building newer, taller, better buildings for their inhabitants.” For Glaeser, newer is always taller, and taller is always better.

– The oft-told tales of the safety elevator and the curtain wall. At one point, I was going to lead into my own book with a round-up of technologies that had catalyzed new paradigms in urban form; reading this, for what feels like the eleventieth time, makes me really glad I chose not to.

– Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Glaeser pulls a “you didn’t build that” on Ayn Rand, arguing that the architects she based her Howard Roark on, far from being lone, heroic actors, were “deeply enmeshed in an urban chain of innovation.” You might almost say…a community.

– “[Tall buildings] gave factory owners and workers space that was both more humane and more efficient.” I imagine the 146 mostly immigrant, mostly female garment workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire might have had something rather pungent to say about that. No: the historical record is explicit that it was working-class activism and the regulation that resulted that forced the owners and operators of tall buildings to make them safe — regulation of precisely the sort that Glaeser, last chapter, implied ought to be beyond the scope of local government to apply.

– “Cities are ultimately about the connections among people, but [tall] structures…make those connections easier.” No, they do not. At best, they allow more people to inhabit a given area of the Earth’s surface, generating more potential for interconnection and exchange at or close to ground level. I don’t want to be a pedant about things, but from Pruitt-Igoe to Trellick Tower, the Westway Sound and the reflections of Mick “I ain’t never lived below the fifth floor” Jones, I think the verdict is in on the inherent capacity of tall residential buildings to organize robust social connection. The question, in the end, is one of sensitive design, which is something that doesn’t seem to exist in Glaeser’s monochrome world of regulation and incentives. For that matter, it’s not absolutely necessary to build up to achieve Glaeser’s ends; not that I’m necessarily suggesting it as a model, but Kowloon Walled City achieved some of the highest recorded residential densities in human history, and never exceeded fourteen stories.

– On New York City’s post-1960 zoning code: “There were thirteen different types of residential districts, twelve different types of manufacturing districts, and no less than forty-one different types of commercial districts.” This ain’t Sim City, kids. Actually, I do agree that the NYC zoning regulations are overly complicated, and though I probably differ sharply from Glaeser in terms of the kinds of changes I’d like to see made to it, I would like the code to permit certain kinds of commercial (and even, potentially, light-industrial) activity in previously exclusively residential areas. I’d also like to see more experimentation, in the US, with mixed use within the envelope of a single building, à la Tokyo, Seoul or Hong Kong.

– “People who live in high-rises [defined how?] are about 6 percent more likely to be victimized by street crime than people who live in single-family dwellings, even controlling extensively for individual attributes of each potential victim…My own interpretation of these facts is that the taller towers, occupied by the poor, are often public housing projects, where poverty is concentrated and ground-floor retail is rare. These conditions mean that streets can become dominated by troublemakers.” Really? My interpretation of these facts is that sometimes a statistical correlation doesn’t actually tell you that much that’s useful.

– “[Jane Jacobs] also argued that two hundred homes per acre was a ‘danger mark’; once neighborhoods crossed that point, they risked sterile standardization…For the government to mandate a single style of urbanism is no more sensible than for the government to enforce a single style of literature.” Whoah. Just a huge, unsupported leap here from “Jane Jacobs argued” to the notion of some draconian government mandate. That’s the cheapest sort of demagoguery.

– When Glaeser says of Jacobs that “[h]er urban vision was very much grounded in the experience of her own Greenwich Village neighborhood, with its taverns and thinkers and low-rise townhouses,” he seems to be suggesting that she’s making an inapposite and parochial application of a local preference as a general principle. He even comes right out and says that “one’s own tastes are rarely a sound basis for public policy,” as though the ideas expressed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities were merely a matter of preference, and not the result of long empirical observation. It’s hard to interpret this as anything but patronizing. What’s worse: the sole example Glaeser is able to offer of Jacobs resisting new high-rise structures explicitly concerns a proposed development in her own neighborhood.

– “Perhaps a new forty-story building won’t itself house any quirky, less profitable firms…” Note that “firms.”

– In an anecdote regarding a proposed Madison Avenue tower, Glaeser performs the neat rhetorical jiujitsu of forcing his opponents to concede their alignment with the doubly odious Tom Wolfe. I feel the sudden need to take a long, hot shower.

– “The cost of restricting development is that protected areas become more expensive and more exclusive.” I’m just curious as to why, in any of this discussion, sensitive design is never explored as a way of squaring the circle? Why does it have to be all or nothing — snooty Mrs. Wilberforce clutching her pearls and sighing in relief at the preservation of her district, or the developer cackling in demented total victory as his soaring skyphallus sunders the fabric through which it’s being thrust?

– OK, here we’re in total agreement: like many cities, New York City certainly does need to build much more affordable housing. But when he argues that “[i]f there were no rules restricting new construction, then prices would eventually come down to somewhere near construction costs,” Glaeser simplemindedly bypasses all the other tools municipal administrations presumably have access to.

– “Limiting high-rise development doesn’t guarantee interesting, heterogeneous neighborhoods. It just guarantees high prices.” But allowing developers unimpeded access to do what they will with a parcel clearly doesn’t guarantee interesting, heterogeneous neighborhoods either! You’ve got ideological blinders on, Ed, and it’s not helping you make your case.

– In describing the Haussmannization of Paris: “Still, the emperor wasn’t just building defensible space.” Somewhere, poor Oscar Newman is gritting his teeth.

– On the difficulties of erecting tall buildings in late 20th Century Paris: “The Montparnasse Tower was widely loathed, and the lesson drawn was that skyscrapers must never again mar central Paris.” Maybe this is because the Montparnasse Tower is a terrible example of a skyscraper — absolutely graceless in every respect, and totally unloved even by someone like me, with the fondest feelings for Centre Point and the Pan Am Building. I very much doubt that the city that had embraced the unprecedented Eiffel Tower would have turned its back on a more distinguished example of tall architecture. Once again, the question of design is absent from Glaeser’s considerations.

– Of the relation of La Défense to the core of Paris, “[t]he natural thing is to have tall buildings in the center, where demand is the greatest, not on the edge.” Had La Défense been more thoughtfully planned, designed and executed, though, it would have become a new center — a Shinjuku or Shibuya to the historic core’s Ginza.

– Now we’re onto Mumbai. “One curse of the developing world is that governments take on too much and fail at their core responsibilities. Countries that cannot provide clean water for their citizens should not be in the business of regulating currency exchanges.” Here we have the most annoying habit of the common-or-garden discussion-board ideologue, writ (very) large: the inability to think two independent things at once, without yoking them in a false, zero-sum opposition. (Is there a pithy Latin name for this logical fallacy?) Perhaps the skill sets that would allow bureaucrats to manage urban water supply and national-scale currency markets are vastly different, and in sharply unequal supply. Or more likely still, perhaps these two areas of endeavor have nothing to do with one another, or are linked each to the other in only the most tenuous and indirect manner. Quite possibly it’s fair to demand of a government that it accomplish both tasks.

– On Mumbai’s public transit: “In 2008, more than three people each day were pushed out of that train to their death.” As ready as Westerners generally are to accept depicitions of Indian urban squalor at face value, I find this figure kind of hard to believe, and my skepticism is only increased by a quick Googling: the only record the Internet has of the citation in its entirety (“Blakely, ’17 People Die Every Day Commuting to Work in Mumbai, India.’”) points back to Glaeser’s own book.

– Comparing Mumbai to Singapore, the most apples-to-oranges comparison thus far in a book which has not notably been lacking in same: “[U]nlike Mumbai, its government is among the most competent in the world…as a result, Singapore’s downtown functions well, because it’s tall and connected.” It seems odd that someone to all appearances so viscerally opposed to overregulation would find praise for Singapore, perhaps the most regulated urban environment on the planet.

– “Even vast Tokyo can be traversed largely on foot.” No. Believe me, I’ve tried.

– I don’t want to miss the forest for the trees here. It’s not as if I particularly disagree with the policy prescription Glaeser’s making for Mumbai. In this particular case, and knowing the limited amount I do know, I buy the argument that “corridors of [housing] skyscrapers,” if they could be safely built, would “decrease the pressure on roads, ease the connections that are the lifeblood of a twenty-first-century city, and reduce Mumbai’s extraordinarily high cost of space.” Anybody with a more intimate knowledge of the place want to weigh in?

– “Height restrictions just force people to crowd into squalid, illegal slums rather than legal apartment buildings.” No. Arguably, one of the strengths of the informal sector is that people will build slum housing (or favelas, or gecekondu) on ground too marginal for any commercial developer, and otherwise considered impossible to build on at all — allowing poor people to live much closer to jobs and other opportunities for exchange than would be the case in any purely legal scenario.

– “Three Simple Rules.” OK, let’s see what we think of these. I take it these will all relate to land use.

– He advocates replacing the “current lengthy and uncertain permitting process [because he has personal experience of what permitting is like everywhere on the planet?] with a simple system of fees.” “If tall heights create costs by blocking light or views, then form a reasonable estimate of those costs and charge the builder appropriately. If certain activities are noxious to neighbors, then we should estimate the social costs and charge builders for them…Those taxes could then be given to the people who are suffering, such as the neighbors who lose light from a new construction project.” It seems inconceivable to me that an economist would not understand this, but perhaps the ostensibly unwieldy permitting process (that every municipality in the world has apparently independently arrived at) exists because (a) it is uneconomic to make a case-by-case determination of these factors and (b) some losses cannot meaningfully be reduced to a dollar value, or ameliorated by a cash payout. Let’s be clear that what Glaeser is calling for here is an entirely new layer of bureaucracy empowered to value the intangible, somewhat arbitrarily — for if there do exist procedures or guidelines he feels ought to be observed in the course of this valuation, he does not specify them. How is this not the worst of both worlds? Finally, we all know that there’s not the faintest chance any such source of revenue would long remain undiverted to other purposes. The naïveté here is astonishing, and I say that as someone much given to my own sweeping re-engineerings of the status quo.

– “Second, historic preservation should be limited and well defined.” No problem with this in principle. We all know who lives in the details, though.

– “Finally, individual neighborhoods should have some clearly delineated power to protect their special character.” Again, fine. The anarchosyndicalist in me agrees with the “power,” and the connectionist in me agrees with the “some.” But when Glaeser says “community control must unfortunately be limited, because local communities often fail to consider the adverse citywide consequences of banning building,” I fail to find this any more persuasive than the argument that advocates and developers often fail to consider the adverse citywide consequences of a single supertall, let alone across-the-board deregulation.

– “The failure of places like New York and San Francisco to build up has pushed Americans elsewhere, to places that embrace new construction. In such areas, like Houston and Phoenix, development is unfettered, and as a result, prices stay low.” Now hang on a second. Awhile back, you were arguing that real wages — the ratio of income to local prices — are disproportionately high in places where one has to be bribed to live. By your own logic, maybe the low housing prices of Houston and Phoenix represent a tacit acknowledgement that these are inherently shitty places to live, while the high costs of New York and San Francisco represent their inherent desirability, and will continue to do so in relative terms whatever amount of new construction is added to the market.

7. Why Has Sprawl Spread?
– “Twenty-four million people visit [Houston’s Galleria shopping mall] each year, making it the city’s most popular attraction.” Whatever else that figure may imply, it depresses the hell out of me. (In fairness, I feel much the same about the evident relative popularity of Helsinki’s Kamppi shopping center vis à vis that city’s streets, but at least Kamppi has the virtue of existing on top of an intermodal transfer point. And, c’mon, man, we’re talking about Helsinki: streets are covered in ice eleventy months of the year.) Is there anything about the Galleria and its offerings that distinguishes it from other malls, or, still more depressingly yet, does it feature the same panoply of brands and choices you might encounter anywhere?

– “On any given Saturday, the mall is mobbed with shoppers, tourists, and people just enjoying its public spaces.” Excuse me, its what? I must have misheard you, because I know you didn’t just refer to a fully enclosed, privately-owned and -operated mall as “public space.”

– He explains the conscious calculus underlying his decision (presumably jointly arrived at with his unmentioned partner) to relocate to the suburbs following the arrival of three children. “This chapter is about…the appeals of car-based living in lower-density places, which have attracted so many people, including myself.” I like that, as an advocate of dense big-city living, he explicitly and in so many words says that he includes this material because “it always makes sense to know your enemy”; I do not particularly like that he advocates so forcefully for a lifestyle he’s not prepared to adopt himself, whatever the results of his calculus. Nobody held a gun to his head and made him have three children, any more than someone held a gun to his head and forced him to send those children to private schools.

– “Ranting about the philistinism of people who choose car-based living in Houston may be emotionally satisfying to some, but it does nothing to help older cities attract more people.” Heh. OK, you got me: guilty as charged. But if you’re going to argue that “[f]or millions, the appeal of suburban, Sunbelt places is real,” what makes you think those “older cities” could do anything at all to meaningfully “compete” with such places? Again, for most people, even those blessed with a high degree of control over their own mobility, I’d wager rather a lot that not everything in life is reducible to some optimal performance-assessment algorithm. For a great many of us, some factors in life are so overridingly important — whether wonderful, like living within walking distance of a grocery that carries Pickapeppa sauce, ancho chilies, Turkish delight and Moroccan couscous, or hugely problematic, like the desire to avoid living among people whose ethnicity or religious beliefs or sexual practices one finds abhorrent — that they introduce a singularity into any such equation. Those for whom Sunbelt suburbs seem like a dispensation of Earthly grace simply aren’t ever going to consider living in a place like New York, no matter how high you pile the storeys.

– “I doubt that I would be in the suburbs if it weren’t for the antiurban public policy trifecta of the [heavily subsidized, convenient] Massachusetts Turnpike, the home mortgage interest deduction, and the problems of urban schools. Eliminating pro-sprawl policies won’t bring back every declining city, and it won’t [tant pis?] kill the suburbs, but it will create a healthier urban system whereby walking cities can compete more effectively against the car.” We are here in almost complete and total agreement.

– “Many older neighborhoods, like New York’s Washington Square and Barcelona’s Eixample, which are now beloved by urbanists, were the sprawl of earlier eras.” They were the sprawl, then they became beloved because (lots of) people occupied them and filled in the spaces between what had been outposts and the pre-existing settlements; in other words, the texture and character of these places changed over time, radically. Give density awhile to bed in, sure, and maybe even Long Island can evolve to the point that my equivalent two hundred years hence will find it crammed from end to end with charming neighborhoods. But that’s not likely to happen until and unless something eclipses relatively affordable automobility.

– Almost three-quarters of the way through comes the book’s extended discussion of public transit…in the context of enabling sprawl.

– “The fifty-foot minimum street widths and straight lines of New York’s 1811 grid were designed to accommodate masses of horse-drawn vehicles, even those, like the omnibus, that hadn’t yet shown up in New York.” Futureproofing avant la lettre. I wish we still did that.

– “[T]he Philadelphia Main Line provides the quintessential examples of suburbs built on steam. In the 1860s, the Pennsylvania Railroad acquired 283 acres in Lower Merion Township, on which it created the town of Bryn Mawr.” Now I know who to blame. An extended tour of mobility and mobility-enabling technologies, from the electric streetcar to (again) the assembly line and the Interstate System.

– Finally we wind up in Levittown, where “[a]voiding unions made it possible for Levitt to use the latest building technologies.” This is offered without qualification. At least Glaeser makes it explicit that Levitt wouldn’t have had a market for his non-union houses had it not been for the provisions of the GI Bill and the FHA.

– “When public policy promotes home ownership, it also pushes people to leave cities.” Well, that rather depends on the policy’s definition of “home,” now, doesn’t it?

– “By eliminating the need for walking, the car supported a quantum leap in the size of land areas that people could occupy. As a result, the inverse connection between density and car usage is extremely strong — across a broad range of cities, as density doubles, the share of the population that takes a car to work typically drops by 6.6 percent.” I believe the car is anti-urban in other ways, as well, as its affordance of capsular containment cuts the commuter off from having to acknowledge and negotiate with the prerogatives of others — most particularly, of course, pedestrians and bicyclists. This will remain true however green and “sustainable” the vehicle’s power train may become, and (depending on the precise details of programming and design) is likely to remain so no matter how autonomously computational its directive intelligence.

– “The fortyfold increase in [requirements for mobility] space that accompanies the shift from walking to cars explains why so much of the land in car-based cities is given over to highways.” By contrast, this is a situation that might actually yield to the widespread adoption of self-guided cars. (Despite my skepticism on other counts of the ostensible value proposition for such vehicles, I tend to buy the argument that peer-to-peer computational management of road-resource utilization will result in faster and much denser traffic; your mileage, as ever, may vary.)

– “Comparing seventy cities worldwide, Matthew Kahn and I found that when countries move from having low gas taxes to high gas taxes [defined how?], the density of development increases by more than 40 percent.” Well, there you go! There’s a lever government can use right now to incentivize increases in residential density, without the risks and drawbacks associated with deregulating construction, and with the added benefit of an enhanced revenue stream, however marginal that enhancement turns out to be. And it’s based on your own findings. I seriously do not understand why you would advocate for anything else, unless you were trying to shape your argument to suit the rigors imposed by an a priori ideological template.

– “Cities can compete [with suburbs], but they need radical new designs that offer affordable housing and quicker commutes.” But for the caveat I made before about the incommensurability and irreducibility of ostensible options, we do not disagree. What we disagree about, fairly considerably, is the nature of those “radical new designs.”

– An extended discussion of the Ian McHarg master-planned community The Woodlands, in Texas. “To all but the most ardent urbanist, The Woodlands is an attractive place. It was won numerous awards, and it attracts plenty of residents.” To which I can only respond that the town’s Wikipedia page is prominently illustrated with a picture of a P.F. Chang’s.

– “Manhattan is a great place to get rich and a great place to spend your wealth…New York [City] is also a pretty good place for poorer people…The city has reasonable social services, and there are plenty of entry-level service-sector jobs with wages that beat those in Ghana or Guatemala [because, clearly, immigrants from those places couldn’t possibly be qualified for anything else]. But what if you’re neither a partner at Goldman Sachs nor a poor immigrant? What if you’re an average American family with two children, skills that put you in the middle of the U.S. income distribution, and aspirations toward a middle-class lifestyle? It’s telling to work through the economic facts of life for a middle-income family deciding between New York and Houston, so that’s what we’ll do for the next couple of pages.” This is, frankly, brilliant — a puissant reminder that I myself don’t know anybody who meets that description, and am not particularly likely to understand or relate to those aspirations. (For whatever reason, I find it far easier to conceive of and internalize a sense of the pressures facing those much further down the economic ladder.) The trouble is that I don’t think Glaeser does either, and the problems start with the notion that any significant American cohort faces that particular choice: between New York and Houston. These simply aren’t fungible alternatives. If even the premise is an abstraction, how can any of what follows be any more grounded in actual experience?

– Having said that, I bow to the logic of the figures he arrays here, demonstrating pretty convincingly that, assuming identical finances, one can enjoy equivalent or greater quality of life in Houston than one could in the New York area. (Of course, this is only true for certain, sharply-circumscribed values of “quality of life.”) Ultimately, however, I don’t think the difference in relative outcomes enjoyed by these or any cities really goes to household mobility but to the mobility of capital. To the degree that they even can move, people are going to go where the jobs are, and if a coherently “pro-business,” labor-hostile region exists (a situation Glaeser himself makes it clear obtains in the US post-Taft-Hartley) and a sector has no particular requirement for world-class talent, I’d imagine that’s where a greater proportion of companies are going to site themselves.

– “Over the past thirty years, Massachusetts towns have imposed stricter and stricter rules preventing new development and subdivisions. One municipality forbids building anyplace where there’s a ‘wicked big puddle.’” Could this last be entirely apocryphal? The comment is unsupported in Glaeser’s notes, and, once again, the only references turned up by a Google search of the term are either to organized nature walks, or to Triumph itself. Nowhere does any such municipal regulation come to light. In any event, it’s not clear what relevance the policies arrived at by Massachusetts towns have for metropolitan land-use.

– “Houston’s freewheeling growth machine has actually done a better job providing affordable housing than all of the progressive reformers on America’s East and West coasts.” Yes, but only at the cost of those affordable houses being situated in Houston. Here I’m (for once) not trying to be snarky, simply pointing out that if we take Glaeser at face value on this point, the overwhelming factor that makes that housing affordable is that it is located in a jurisdiction that observes no restriction whatsoever on what may be done where, and that there are some who may interpret this in itself as a kind of imposed cost. Note that, as I indicated above, I probably favor some kind of limited experimentation with eased land-use controls, and an unsentimental evaluation of the results.

– “Places like New York and San Francisco, which claim to care about providing low-cost housing for the poor, are generally unaffordable. Texas, which has never shown any commitment to social housing, leads the country in building inexpensive homes.” But for the pathetic fallacy, this is fair comment.

– “If the entire world starts looking like Houston, the planet’s carbon footprint will skyrocket…Urbanization will continue in India and China, and that’s a good thing — there is no future in rural poverty. But it would be a lot better for the planet if their urbanized population lives in dense cities built around the elevator, rather than in sprawling areas built around the car.” Again I will be generous and assume Glaeser doesn’t really mean what he clearly implies here: that Houstonians are entitled to the rational choice they’ve made for a car-centered lifestyle, but that urbanizing Chinese and Indian populations deserve no such freedom of choice.