WHY COMPLEXITY IMPROVES THE QUALITY OF CITY LIFE

A  paper by Richard Sennet of the Urban Age Project ‘s recent conference in Hong Kong restates the need, expressed by many urbanists, that the real purpose or value of cities is to allow locals and strangers to intersect in a way which increases the available choices or opportunities for the maximum number of its residents and not that of the control of its inhabitants by an elite. This is at variance with the current spate of “livability” and “happiness”  indexes as published by many influential and elitist magazines such as Monocle magazine, Forbes, Mercer and The Economist, previously critiqued here Liveable v lovable and  City Rankings: More Harm than Help? These articles laud cities where difference is reduced to enticing “new” experiences for the voyeuristic satisfaction of a moneyed and sophisticated global elite bearing little or no relationship to the lives of the local population who are not able to partake of this lifestyle and are in fact actively prevented from even being part of the scenery ,which they helped create, that made the relelvant districts and places what they currently are, in much the same way as “undesirable elements ( read non-consumers”) are excluded from elite shopping centers and urban renewal precincts the world over. This extreme “Disneyfication” is the subject of the second article by Author William Gibson, where a similar theme is explored.

“I want to explore the concept of ‘quality of life’ in cities. My own view can be stated simply: the quality of life in a city is good when its inhabitants are capable of dealing with complexity. Conversely, the quality of life in cities is bad when its inhabitants are capable only of dealing with people like themselves. Put another way, a healthy city can embrace and make productive use of the differences of class, ethnicity, and lifestyles it contains, while a sick city cannot; the sick city isolates and segregates difference, drawing no collective strength from its mixture of different people.”

This simple concept of urban ‘quality of life’ has informed my writings and my design practice through my entire career; it first came to me as a young man attending a conference somewhat like this one, held in Washington in the late 1960s, discussing mental health issues among poor urban residents. The conference focused on alienated, often violent, adolescents, at a time when many of these young people were rioting. Perhaps because most of the professionals at that conference were psychiatrists, they focused on individual psychology. The objection I had was not just that impersonal conditions shape personal sentiments, but more that the city shapes personality in a particular way. The process of human maturation, particularly the passage into adulthood, requires that human beings learn how to deal with situations beyond their personal control, and with persons who are strangers to them, strangers who are ineradicably different, and difficult to understand. America’s racially segregated ghettoes offered no such opportunity to learn this, nor do isolated ghettoes today, anywhere in the world. Continue reading