by Sandy Ikeda
I’m honored to be contributing a short essay to a Festschrift for Jane Jacobs. Recently, the editor asked me to write an abstract. The following is the result, which I would like to share with you:
A city is not a man-made thing. Rather, it emerges from the actions of its inhabitants, who interact in unpredictable yet orderly ways. Under the right conditions – the right “rules of the game” – what arises is vital, creative, radically unpredictable, and profitable: the living city.
The modern demand to rationalize the city and to make it “more efficient” is misplaced. A living city cannot be efficient. Efficiency, in the economic sense, presupposes an overarching plan against which measured outcomes can be evaluated. A living city, however, follows no such plan. It is itself the unplanned, collective result of the countless individual plans executed continuously in it, day after day.
Neither can it be inefficient, because that too presupposes a system-wide plan. Both efficiency and inefficiency presume that we know how things ought to be, what success and failure look like, and that’s impossible in the urban dynamic. Instead, borrowing from ecology (and certain heterodox schools of economic thought), we might say that a living city is a “dynamically stable” process, in which the forces of positive and negative feedback, as well as sudden mutation and diversity, combine under the right conditions to generate order through time. It embodies trial and error, surpluses and shortages, apparently useless duplication, conflict and disappointment, trust and opportunism, and discovery and radical change. These are in the nature of the living city.
Today’s designer-jeans industry in downtown Los Angeles, for example, was cobbled together from the remnants of earlier investments by big manufacturers. Such entrepreneurship often arises from overlooked opportunities hidden in the detritus of previous experiments. The freedom to pursue opportunities where no one else imagined them to be, to develop urban space in ways radically different from earlier uses, enables the process of creative destruction that is the living city to take place.
That process issues both breathtaking advances and deep disappointments. Earnest attempts to preserve large parts of the city or to consciously direct its evolution, like trying to preserve or control any complex living thing, will drain the life from it.