Create Community, Design by Diversity

<i> Paul Sterling Hoag is a fellow in the American Institute of Architects</i>

Scratch a city planner and you’ll get a number, because city planners have been numbers-oriented for 100 years. Scratch him again and you’ll almost certainly find the number has to do with density--the number of people per square mile; the number of square feet of an office building’s floor space per square foot of the land built upon, and on.

Density is the city planner’s preoccupation, understandably so. Density numbers explain why we are caught in street-gridlock and in long commutes on what we persist in calling freeways, why we can’t find parking when we arrive, why police too often answer calls too slowly, even why supermarket lines are so long.

Density is also something that planners seem to shift from place to place. The suburban housing tracts to the east are now solid almost all the way to Riverside. A resident from out there speaks of a three-hour commute during the “rush hour.” Some hour.

A century ago, modern hermits renounced the city. But we have the power to fashion cities into places of civility and delight, safety and productiveness. The planners crowd numbers through their computers at an ever-increasing rate and out come mandates for “downgraded” zoning at lower densities wherever the complaints are loudest. But babies keep being born and new residents keep moving in and old people aren’t dying off quickly enough. The image is one of a water bed: press hard here and it rises over there.

What to do? Well, realize that the trouble is numbers. Numbers are reasonably accurate but human behavior is not analyzable by them. Machines and the physical sciences are measured by the numbers--in this case called statistical analysis--but not people. The natural scientists know a different approach is needed to understand organisms, humans being the supremely complex organism.

Two people in the last 50 years seem to best understand the complexity of human communities: Warren Weaver, a Rockefeller researcher in the 1940s and ‘50s; and Jane Jacobs, a brilliant generalist from the social sciences whose landmark study, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” stunned planning professionals in the early ‘60s. Stunned them insufficiently, alas, for they have ever since continued marching in the lock step of numbers.

Weaver and Jacobs use the terms “disorganized complexity” and “organized complexity” to describe the difference between people and things. For example, a hard thrust of a cue into a mass of balls nearly covering a billiard table will scatter them in “disorganized complexity,” but a computer can predict, analyzing averages, the resulting arrangements of balls on a table. But if the billiard balls were people they would never have been sitting there, immobile, in the first place, waiting for the cue to strike. They would have developed relationships, one to another, of great complexity not susceptible to analysis by computers.

This is not to say that planning professionals’ statistical analysis is not essential to solutions for urban problems. But it is to insist that this must be the second step, a follow-up to empirical analysis of cities as “organized complexities” where variables are interrelated in an organic whole.

Who can possibly do this for our city? A single planning director cannot, even if he is a certifiable genius. What evidence suggests it can be done? Jane Jacobs’ book contains 448 pages of evidence, not theory--descriptions of the many places it has been achieved plus observations made as an occupant and participant in the life of dense communities over a period of years. Her hard evidence indicates that rethinking our attitudes toward classic zoning and redevelopment can bring about dramatic relief from our major city ills.

The late Robert Hutchins suggested a solution in his description of a democratic community as a self-governing community. Every member must take part in important political decisions. Education is each member’s only way of understanding political issues well enough to act wisely. Communication with fellow members is the only means each has for discussing and debating these issues.

Then what models maximize communication of this quality? The answer--within a neighborhood or district--is a model encouraging great diversity. Each neighborhood must be a complete organism of healthily functioning parts-- residences, retail shops, services, restaurants, bars, churches, parks, theaters, offices, libraries, schools--even manufacturing places if they do not mar the environment.

Most important, these activities must not be separated one from another into hermetic zones, but must be thoroughly mixed. Why? Because the movement between these activities can be made by pedestrians, on foot, rather than by automobiles. Because heavy foot traffic dramatically reduces street crime, night and day. Because necessary communication dies in hermetically sealed zones. Witness the absence of contact in a single-zoned residential community where occupants leave and return in automotive steel cocoons. Witness the depersonalized uniformity of giant shopping malls. Visualize, by contrast, the warm busyness of sidewalk contacts in much-admired European villages.

In a pedestrian community, children will mature in contact with adults other than their parents and teachers; they will absorb the sense of community responsibility surrounding them. “Communities of diversity” will be stimulating, colorful and exciting. Isolation breeds boredom; boredom breeds alienation and alienation may be the most pernicious characteristic of hermetic zoning.

The undeniable pleasure of one’s own neighborhood, one “whole” in the truest sense of the word community, is rooted in the very deep and ancient origins of the city itself. Man, originally a lone savage in the wilderness, early learned the advantages of community.

Unfortunately, about 100 years ago, modern hermits renounced the city; they fled to comfortable redoubts and from there pronounced the city unconditionally evil. Perhaps motivated by Jean Jacques Rousseau’s 18th century notion of the “noble savage,” they fathered a line of theorists who would abandon cities to create new communities in the purity of nature where fresh air and grass would cure all. They labeled them Garden Cities and Radiant Cities, polishing the concept of hermetic zoning to shining luster. Ebenezer Howard, in 1898, was the first of the theorists we now call “Decentrists.” In later decades, their concepts became gospel and such powerful advocates as Lewis Mumford and Le Corbusier created a litany of planning principles which, applied to cities, have torn community fabric. The terms these “Decentrists” used to condemn our cities-- like Tyrannopolis and Living Death-- sound like the ravings of the Inquisition.

But we have the power in this democracy to fashion cities into places of civility and delight, safety and productiveness.

Los Angeles is a collection of cities; to create wise and sensible plans attuned to the vital, local needs of each urban unit is beyond the capability of the wisest planning director. There must be massive input from the community itself. Individual communities must assume far more control over their own destinies, far more than called for in the admirable Citizen Advisory Committees created by the General Plan. If a particular locality reaches consensus, by vote, on the desirability of a “community of diversity” through radical local zoning changes, it must be empowered to do so in an orderly process of change over a period of time. The City Planning Director should assign a professional to spend time with this community, guiding and advising. Not easy, not inexpensive, but the alternative is the ever-increasing pain and expense of our present system.

We are about to get a new director of city planning and a new director of the Community Redevelopment Agency, a moment of immense opportunity to insist on directors dedicated to theories of diversity above numbers of density.

The final answer is for city government to provide legislation that empowers local communities to solve particularly local problems. This new form of city structure must be offered for public debate. Now.