Why cities should be open—and unpredictable

In his new book, Richard Sennett argues that cities—and societies—grow by dealing with change, not resisting it

There’s a remarkable photo of Jane Jacobs in Richard Sennett’s new book, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City, that’s captioned, in part: “In the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, she chats happily with the author, unperturbed by the drunk who has passed out between us.” The late, legendary urbanist and the eminent cultural critic were likely debating urban planning—as they were wont to do—over the recumbent form at the bar. Although they often disagreed, both were devotees of what Sennett calls the “open city”: one that enables and encourages unpredictable encounters with strangers.

In Building and Dwelling, the Chicago-born Sennett rejects the kind of “frictionless” experience trumpeted by many high-tech companies. He contends that we grow as people and as a society when we have to figure out how to deal with obstacles of all kinds. In a closed city, he says, on the phone from his home in London, U.K., where he teaches at the London School of Economics, “everything is designed to function in a fixed way,” and so it’s not adaptable to change, whether in climate, the economy, demographics or simply the way people want to live their lives.

Sennett argues that not only planners and designers but everyone in general should embrace and nurture complexity. He practises what he preaches: Building and Dwelling draws on research from disciplines as diverse as phenomenology, literary theory, ecology and acoustics. It also follows Sennett’s work on craftsmanship in The Craftsman (2008) and Together (2012), completing a trilogy “about the skills people need to sustain everyday life.” And crucially, he also draws on his own experience of running a planning practice and consulting on development for the United Nations. In a wide-ranging conversation, he spoke with Maclean’s about why it’s so important, especially now, to be opening cities and opening minds.

Q: Is there a connection between your conception of open and closed cities and the open/closed axis that political pollsters are now swapping for the traditional left versus right?

A: There is, I think. Politically, we are entering a very dark period, in which certain enlightened, humane, open values—living with people who are different and so on—are being contested by the need for certainty and clarity, which means more exclusive and segregated communities. I wrote my book before Trump was elected, and I wish I had taken that on board: what’s happening in cities is part of what’s generally happening in modern society—people are running away from complexity. In Britain, people voted for Brexit because they didn’t want foreigners coming in, and a couple of months later, they realized, “My God, we’re very interdependent with the European Union, and we’ve done ourselves an incredible injury economically.” All of that gets lost in this kind of closed thinking—”If only we could purify ourselves of these complexities and make things simpler and control our own lives, we would be more secure.” It’s a childish regression from the reality of how modern society works.

Q: Related to this is the issue of figuring out ways to integrate, or include, refugees. What role could planners and designers have in these efforts?

A: This was the biggest urban challenge throughout the time I consulted for the UN. The problem of refugees is a very special problem of migration. Refugees who come from one urban setting into another tend to do much better. The trauma of displacement [for refugees from rural areas] is correlated with learning a new, urban way of life. We tried to deal with that by doing something very painful to everybody, which is trying to get people more integrated into communities where there weren’t so many of them and they were strangers. If they tried to reconstitute their villages in a foreign place, they would suffer—they wouldn’t know the language; they wouldn’t get ways of finding employer contacts, employee contacts, all of that. I’m interested in how you can get ripples in the pond of people who are able to wash into other communities—and gradually [how] people get a kind of compound or hybrid sense of who they are in the city. I think you can plan it by locating public resources at the edges of communities rather than at the centres.

Q: In the book, you take up the concept of being “indifferent to difference”—from Immanuel Kant via social critic Ash Amin—in other words, that people shouldn’t fixate on the differences between them, but accept that they exist. Should this attitude be more widespread?

A: I seem to be some cold-minded character. I don’t think the ultimate goal in life is to get closer and closer to other people [laughs]. I think human beings do well with a certain measure of respectful distance from others. As a social philosopher, I’m very suspicious about solidarity, which is very hard to separate from exclusion, and on a personal level, I would say there’s a kind of freedom in letting other people just be.

Q: You write about how Jane Jacobs “privileged what could be called neighbourliness without intimacy,” so it would seem you’re allying yourself with her.

A: Not really. I loved her, but Jane Jacobs really believed in community. It was a source of disagreement [between] us. I believed in cosmopolitan life, in spanning communities. When I started working for the UN, a lot of the nostrums in [Jacobs’s 1961 book] The Death and Life of Great American Cities seemed to me absolutely inapplicable to developing, emerging cities. She favoured slow growth from the bottom up, and when you have cities adding a million people every year, like Delhi, slow doesn’t begin to deal with their condition. You need top-down planning. She equated big designs with power brokers and tyrants. It’s a different set of vectors in the Third World or in emergent cities, where there’s a need to co-ordinate very complex physical relationships like water or electricity between communities. It’s particularly true in the places we were working, which had local solutions to local problems, but that meant that they were defective solutions like illegally tapping off of a grid to get electricity for a street—very dangerous as well as illegal. You can’t have a local sewer system. Particularly when she moved to Toronto, we had a lot of discussion about that.

Q: In Building and Dwelling, you write about “stupefying” versus “stimulating,” smart cities. Toronto is giving Google’s Sidewalk Labs 12 acres of the waterfront to develop, and there remains suspicion of their motives, particularly as their plans have been kept largely under wraps.

A: There are two ways to do smart city stuff: one is basically prescriptive, and the other is the “Linux” way, which is to use high tech and big data to give people a sense of choices that they can make. Linux is an open-source system of computation, and is employed practically, for instance, in collective budget-making in Brazil, in which you can collect a lot of data from voters to present them with ways of making decisions about how they want to spend municipal budgets. It looked to me from the material [I have seen about Toronto] that [Sidewalk Labs] is much more on the model of Masdar in the Emirates or Songdo in South Korea—smart cities in which everything is planned and calculated in advance and the citizens don’t really have much say about the rules that they’ll live under.

Q: In the book, you describe a model of “co-production” whereby people who will be living in areas that are being developed or redeveloped are given a direct say in its design. Can this apply even to a smart city?

A: We have to figure out the ways to make that happen, but I think you can have smart co-production with techies and non-techies co-operating. One I noticed in the bumf about Toronto was the idea of, “Get with the future!”—which is not a very co-operative way of looking at how to use technology. It’s closed-source thinking. In my version of co-production, you show people the pluses and minuses of different alternatives, as an expert, and then you leave the room. Once people have been given the information, they’ll see that there isn’t one single solution to any problem—certainly not in cities. They go through it and decide for themselves. We don’t want to repeat a classic problem in using consulting firms—they make a solution and they go away—in cities with high-tech. But I’m sure my model could be used where the [project deals with] information rather than physical structure.

Q: That would be a significant change, given the secrecy with which tech companies operate.

A: The secrecy is also concealment, because if they said, “We’re going to sell your trip behaviour every day to somebody who’s going to aim advertisements at you,” very few people would say, “Oh, I want to help you make money off of my behaviour for free.”

Q: In your writing, stretching back to The Culture of the New Capitalism in 2006, you prefigured the wave of craft-and-artisanal everything as an alternative to mass production. How do you feel about the way “craft” products and shops have been woven into gentrification?

A: Well [sigh], that is sad. The kinds of things I was beginning to see then, which are happening more and more, are a lot of new crafts emerging. New crafts in medicine and certainly in high tech are crafts in the way that people who were once leather markers were craftsmen: that shared knowledge. Craftsmanship is about making good-quality stuff, and we should be thinking about that problem and not be distracted by organic bread, which I agree, is a kind of luxury good for the gentrifying generation. I don’t think that’s really what craftsmanship is about. It’s [about] new kinds of technical knowledge that people can share, in which they want to do a good job of what they’re doing rather than just make crappy stuff. That’s a much bigger issue.

Q: In Building and Dwelling, you call sustainability a “builder’s buzzword.” Given your work with the UN, how do you feel about its Sustainable Development Goals, including one focused on “Sustainable Cities and Communities”?

A: I’ve argued that we should use the word “resilient” rather than “sustainable.” “Sustainable” is keeping an existing condition going, and [looking] at society and particularly cities as ideally homeostatic, even-keeled rhythmically, on course from minute to minute. “Resilience” means that stuff happens, and cities change, and the question is, when they’re dealt a body blow, how they can spring back, for instance after a storm or a drought? Given climate change, there’s no way you can prevent extremes of weather. Sea levels are going to rise. There’s no way to sustain what was there before, but there are techniques to recover and remake what’s there.

That ties into craftsmanship. A good craftsman is good at repair. He doesn’t junk things when they’re no longer usable for one particular purpose, and that same kind of craftsmanship is what we need in cities now. A well-crafted city can be repaired, and a poorly crafted city can’t be. I’ll give you a striking example: During a period when they thought they should only have one-child families, the Chinese built huge numbers of apartment buildings with very small flats inside. Now, the economy has improved, and the Chinese want to have two or even in some cases three-child families, and a lot of these flats are unusable for this dual purpose. A different way of building [them] would have allowed them to adapt. They built closed cities, and now they’re in agony about what to do. I’m interested in this question of, how can we build something that’s open enough that it’s adaptive or resilient, rather than something that completely serves a specified purpose? That’s my idea of the open city.

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