Jane Jacobs

Jerusalem’s historic market. Photo by Esther Inbar via Wikimedia Commons.

“Cities happen to be problems in organized complexity, like the life sciences. They present ‘situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways’…. The variables are many, but they are not helter-skelter; they are ‘interrelated into an organic whole.’
— Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

As should be clear by now, Jane Jacobs was another remarkable polymath with a notable structuralist line of thinking. Her seminal urban work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961, around the same time Alexander was developing his PhD thesis. Like Alexander, Jacobs wanted to know how our design processes were going wrong and destroying the life and quality of modern cities. Like Alexander, she cautioned against the modern planners’ technocratic habit to impose a reductive scheme on cities in top-down fashion. And like Alexander, she did not simply bemoan the state of affairs, but gave a lucid and detailed account of the structure of what was really going on — and what could be done about it.

We saw previously her remarkably lucid account, in the last chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, of the development of modern complexity science (expressing a debt to Dr. Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation). Like Alexander, she described the mereology of many variables acting together, and the importance of understanding their web-like interconnections, beyond the simple connection of a few variables or the average behavior of many variables. This was where living systems seemed to operate, in the realm that she described as “organized complexity.”

Like Alexander, she too applied the analogy of living systems — or perhaps for her, too, it was more than an analogy — to the “life” of cities. We needed to look for the subtle ways that variables of an urban system interacted, and we needed to respect the subtle and “unaverage” factors that might be accounting for much more than we might assume. (There are parallels with Alexander’s “overlap” here.) We must understand “the kind of problem a city is,” in its “organized complexity,” as a kind of biological problem.

As I noted previously, one of Jacobs’ most important contributions after The Death and Life of Great American Cities was in the field of economics. We must come to understand that economics is a dynamic system, she says, like any natural system (argued most powerfully in her book The Nature of Economies). However, as in any such system, the feedback within the system can become disrupted, or provide false signals. Therefore our culture can experience perverse incentives, and behave irrationally. What seems sane and rational can in fact be a kind of noise from the echo chambers of specialists.

Jacobs was of course a powerful critic of modern planners, who seemed intent upon achieving a rational order by purifying the “messiness” of urban systems — a conception of planning she scathingly referred to as “decontaminated sortings.” This was an echo of Alexander’s critique of the modern treatment of cities as mathematical “trees” — and the failure to understand the overlap and complexity within their structures. Instead, Jacobs argued for mixing of uses, and for much greater diversity within a given neighborhood.

Jacobs was no less withering toward architects, and particularly those who, like Le Corbusier, sought to replace the complex intrinsic order of the city with an extrinsic, purely visual order from above. A city is not a work of art, she argued, and must not be treated as so much canvas on which to express one’s compositional imagination. This was a confusion that substituted real cities with simplified images of them:

His conception, as an architectural work, had a dazzling clarity, simplicity, and harmony. It was so orderly, so visible, so easy to understand. It said everything in a flash, like a good advertisement... But as to how the city works, it tells, like the Garden City, nothing but lies.

In a sense, Jacobs was sounding a final rejection of the modernists’ form of Platonic idealism, which had culminated in a particularly destructive kind of “geometrical fundamentalism.” However, as should be clear by now, she was no hand-wringing, laissez-faire post-structuralist. She argued convincingly — and highly influentially — for a new approach to cities, using patient inductive methods and tools, and an inter-disciplinary approach that respected what already existed and what was already working. It distrusted simplified theories of order that masqueraded as real order and relied instead on keen observation of local differentiation and complexity. It was a pragmatic recipe that combined design with programming, sociology with economics, and theory with common sense.

Quality of life: A new pragmatism, a new structuralism

Alexander and Jacobs both represent a point of view that sees the now catastrophic failings of modernity as fully repairable — if we learn the structural lessons on hand. They both seek to learn those lessons from biological process, and from the burgeoning new sciences of complexity. They both see the inevitable qualitative aspects of the problem and its diagnosis. They both see the creation of cities and buildings as a largely emergent and self-organizing process — but one in which human valuation, and human design, play a profound role.

But “design” here is not the combinatorial hylomorphism of Aristotle, nor the abstract mathematical idealism of Plato. Rather, it is more a discipline that must make transformational steps in the inter-relation of patterns to one another — be they patterns in space or patterns in ideas. And of course, it is more accurate now to say that there is no fundamental difference between the two: the world can now be seen to contain a web of patterns that have the capacity to mirror each other in certain useful, language-like aspects. These patterns are to be found throughout the built environment, in our brains, and in other parts of the world. It is a pattern universe.

Alexander and Jacobs are but two of the most prominent of a larger number who are taking forward these insights in different disciplines, and to different degrees. Among these, the growing field of evidence-based design is well worth mentioning. It began in the patient healthcare environment, and gradually spread out into other environments where there is evidence of health impacts. (For example, so-called “obesogenic” suburban environments, where lack of exercise and dependence on drive-through cuisine are contributing to alarming rises in rates of obesity in the USA and, to an increasing extent, other countries.)

There can be dangers in trying to couple evidence too mechanically to design: if this discussion has shown anything, it is that such a combinatorial mereology does not work. But we can begin to see that by using inductive processes, provisional patterns, and then adaptive refinements, an empirical, evidence-based approach can be highly fruitful.

One of the most surprising new discoveries in the field of environmental design is in the health impacts of various aesthetic characteristics. Many researchers have noticed that certain characteristics in the built environment consistently produce beneficial health effects, while others do not. For example, Ulrich (1984) showed that patients with a view of a natural scene recovered from surgery more quickly and successfully than those who had a view of a blank wall. Other natural features, like plants, water, sunlit scenes, and the like had similar effects, so much so that there is now a major effort to retrofit hospitals with gardens and other such amenities.

This discovery of the importance of natural structures in the human environment — what has come to be termed “biophilia” — seems a promising avenue for future research. It seems very likely that there is an evolved preference for such structures. More than that, as Alexander’s work suggests, it may be that such structures offer denser, richer structural wholes, which meet our needs as human beings within our environments. This may be the key to the importance of beauty in our lives.

Nor is this likely to be purely a matter of visual scenery. Indeed, some research shows that the effect from purely visual scenes fades rapidly. It seems more likely that the strongest effect comes from our ability to move through environments, interact with people, view prospects, seek refuge, frame views, experience filters of sight and sound that we find the richest experiences in the built environment.

This finding suggests that while the perception of users is critical to their well-being, the usual architects’ emphasis on the composition of buildings as objects or urbanists’ treatment of cityscapes as visual scenes, is highly incomplete. We must focus much more on the system of connections and the layers and filters between the zones of connection — that is, on the sequences of possible experiences — if we are to have the most robust, thriving kind of environments. Again, the logic of such sequences is a language-like structure. Again, this invokes a deeper sense of what we call beauty.

This finding also has another important implication. Built environment professionals must regard themselves as having a deep responsibility for the health of their users. They are not mere engineers of transportation networks, or artist-architects of visual or sculptural compositions. They are a kind of physician to the built environment.