Tag Archives: Science

PAPER | A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe

“The present contribution is a nice and proper scientific excursion through the fits and misfits of an emblematic “failure” of modern urbanism – Pruitt-Igoe, overcoming superficial critiques and less interesting commentaries on the case. I recommend it to be accepted for presentation at the conference and published (in) its proceedings.” (Referee Comment about M.D. Major research on Pruitt-Igoe for SSS11)

Click to download a PDF of the paper “A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe” here.

During the closing reception of Space Syntax 10 at University College London in 2015, Dr. Mário Krüger asked me to “promise” to attend Space Syntax 11 in Lisbon, Portugal in 2017 after attending my first Space Syntax Symposium since 1999. I politely promised to “try” to attend. Two years is a long time and I hate to make promises without knowing beforehand whether it will be possible to fulfill them. Mário noticed my equivocation, so he again asked me to promise to attend. He asked again… and again… and again… and again. Upon Mário’s fifth request, I finally offered the unequivocal promise to attend SSS11 that he was seeking from me. This created two problems for me: one short-term and the other long-term. I could delay answering the long-term problem until the last minute; namely, would I have the personal and/or professional resources (i.e. time, money, etc.) to visit Lisbon, Portugal in two years time? The short-term problem required an answer much sooner since the SSS11 call for abstracts was only five months away; namely, what suitable research could I possibly write about for the blind referee process of Space Syntax Symposia? I did not know.

However, finding an answer was one of many issues I was dealing with in the latter part of 2015, including the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) hiring me as a part-time, adjunct Professor of Urban Design in November, my subsequent relocation to that city in December, and preparing the syllabus/materials for the URBA 739: Economics of Urban and Regional Planning course at SCAD, which I would begin teaching in January 2016. I decided one of the lectures for URBA 739 had to be about social housing. I had conducted some social housing research in Europe during the 90s and I had also read a great deal about the most infamous public housing project of them all, Pruitt-Igoe, because I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. That was when the ‘lightbulb went off over my head’ (always an Edison bulb in my imagination). Space syntax is famous for its research into European social housing and crime patterns (see the “Back to the Street” article in The Economist). However, as far as I knew, no one had ever researched Pruitt-Igoe using space syntax. It was easy to understand why. Pruitt-Igoe was demolished in 1972-76 and, as I state in the paper, “any researcher is willingly wading into a distinctive American cesspool of racism and ideology sufficient to scare most people away” (Major, 2017; pp. 5).

Figure-ground (space in black, blocks in white) of north St. Louis showing the Pruitt-Igoe site (highlighted in gray) in 1933 (left) and circa 1958 (right).

The paper you can now download for free (see above and below) represents about a year of research and only 5,000 words about this particular subject. My first full, unedited draft of the paper was about 15,000 words. Quite frankly, this was also insufficient for the scope and multitude of issues raised by the design, management, and history of Pruitt-Igoe. For example, there is some delicate nuance preferable for many of the issues crudely summarized in the paper as well as additional material by other researchers, which deserve to be more fully described than I have time for even in the 2.5-hour course about Pruitt-Igoe, now available on The Outlaw Urbanist course website. I fully intend to expand this research into a book at some point in the future. This because Pruitt-Igoe remains an important lesson for us; one that many people still misconstrue or fail to understand altogether, where the consequences of future mistakes can be just as costly as our past ones if we are not careful. We consign Pruitt-Igoe as something solely belonging to the past at our peril. As Albert Einstein pointed out, “only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

In the end, researching Pruitt-Igoe was an often frustrating but hugely rewarding experience for me as an architect, urban planner, and native St. Louisian. However, as fate would have it, I could not answer the long-term problem to keep my promise to Dr. Krüger about attending SSS11 in Lisbon, Portugal. I simply do not have the resources at my disposal that so many other people casually take for granted to attend conferences worldwide. For failing to keep my promise, I feel bad and I apologize to Dr. Krüger. Nonetheless, the end-product of this journey is far more important for our profession than a broken promise so I am making my paper “A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Prutt-Igoe” freely available online for anyone to read. I welcome any comments or suggestions about the ideas discussed in the paper and, once again, I strongly recommend you watch the 2012 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, especially after reading my paper if you have not before seen the documentary.

Click to download a PDF of the paper “A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe” here.

NOTE: This research was paid for and supported by me. There was no grant to pay for this research. I have not had any classes assigned to me to teach for over a year (due to “declining enrollment”) so the Savannah College of Art & Design did not financially support this research, either directly or indirectly, in any way. This research was not born of any privilege except the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Enjoy!

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Planning Naked | December 2015

planning1215Planning Naked | December 2015
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

This issue of Planning Naked may be a little shorter than usual since my print edition of Planning Magazine hasn’t appeared in the mail in months (you might have noticed the gap in posts of Planning Naked). Is it an APA conspiracy to mute criticism of Planning Magazine by the Outlaw Urbanist? Probably not, I’m dealing with address change issues and APA is an organization that moves at a glacial pace when to comes to change. So I’m reading the digital edition of Planning Magazine, which is a pain in the a… my fingers and eyes, to say the least.

10 Strategies for Livable Communities (page 24) as part of the Livability for All article (page 21-24)
This article follows up on AARP’s creation of a Livability Index for senior citizens. You may recall from a previous edition of Planning Naked that I pointed out one of the worst ‘suburban sprawl hell’ areas of Jacksonville, Florida scored a 50 on AARP’s Livability Index, suggesting the criteria was suspect at best. What is really startling about these ’10 Strategies” is the utter lack of the word ‘design’ appearing anywhere in the list. More so, it’s difficult to find anything that could be even implied to mean design as an component of livability. Indeed, most of these strategies involve ‘consultation’ and ‘competitiveness’ (i.e. economic aka making money). Just as Carly Fiorina chides Hillary Clinton by saying “flying is a activity, not an accomplishment” so APA needs to be criticized in a similar manner. Consultation is an activity (a means to an end) and not an accomplishment in itself. Personally, I’m sick of APA members citing all manner of acronym-ed organizations they have consulted as if this was an accomplishment in itself. It is not. Poor Richard:  It isn’t the quantity of the acronyms that matter but the quality of their (letter) characters. APA members need to be careful about flying to something shiny (AARP’s Livability Index, e.g. Won’t someone please think of the old people?!?!) and applying it without thought before understanding its underlying assumptions. Count me suspicious. Based on experience, WalkScore, at the moment, seems like a more credible index than AARP’s Livability Index. Besides, AARP is composed of almost nothing but Baby Boomers these days and it’s the Baby Boomers who got us, for the most part, into this mess. Should we really trust the Baby Boomers’ interpretation of ‘livability’.

China’s Evolving Art Industry (page 35-40)
Has anyone else noticed that the most interesting and exciting developments in practice covered in Planning Magazine tend to occur in overseas countries? Does anyone think this is decidedly odd? Are Americans just not really trying when it comes to planning? Very interesting article on the emergence of creative districts in China over the last 30 years. However, the article betrays a fear of change (“commercial success prices out the pioneers”). Change is the very nature of the city. Get over it, already.

Yikes, There’s a Tourist in Town (page 41-42)
Short translation of this article for you: Planning would be so much easier if cities didn’t have people. We wouldn’t need any planning at all, or cities for that matter.

Best Practices: Using Planning Data Wisely (page 43-44)
This is a very good article by Terry Moore, Alexandra Reese and Ali Danko from ECON Northwest about the proper use of data in developing sound planning policy and regulations. The only thing that needs to be added to their list of bullet points is:

Transparency: Be clear and honest about data sources and your assumptions about that data and its collection.

I thoroughly recommend this article for everyone.

Research You Can Use: A physicist tries to solve the city by Reid Ewing (page 47-48)
I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read Reid Ewing’s “Research You Can Use” article in this month’s issue of Planning Magazine. In it, Ewing explains why he rejected a submitted paper for a referred journal attempting to build upon Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West’s Urban Scaling Theory. I can’t really comment with authority on the validity of Ewing’s arguments since I have not read the submitted paper in question. Of course, Ewing is correct that the larger the city, the more you have of everything including crime. The aggregated population v. crime correlation is interesting at an abstract level (and should be totally expected) but not very useful for planning policy. For that, you need the sensitive street-by-street and block-by-block modeling techniques of the urban network such as space syntax. In this way, you can demonstrate the usefulness of such correlations between population, crime, location/access, and spatial vulnerability and potential proposed design changes to address the problem. There’s a lot of good research on that front. However, what is refreshing about Ewing’s article is the transparency. It is an excellent attempt to ‘unveil’ the scientific process at work. In this sense, it is very valuable. In fact, Ewing’s article makes me wonder whether there is some inherent value in all referred publications printing short summaries by referees for all rejected papers so that the entire scientific, urban planning community can benefit from seeing the process at work. Something worth thinking about as this could be ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ type of strategy.

Planners Library
Sounds like there are several, new books worth reading:

John Nolen, Landscape Architect and City Planner by R. Bruce Stephenson. Available on Amazon here.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis Hardcover by Robert D. Putnam. Available on Amazon here.

The End of Automobile Dependence: How Cities are Moving Beyond Car-Based Planning by Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy. Available on Amazon here.

I want all three books for Christmas, please. Thank you!

Viewpoint: Planning’s Role in Social Justice by Grant Prior (page 56)
Have you ever noticed how often commentaries about ‘social justice’ are really nothing more than passionate calls for navel gazing? Justice is supposed to be blind so the concept of social justice is, in itself, an oxymoron. Mic drop.

Planning Naked is a new series of observations and comments about a recent issue of Planning: The Magazine of the American Planning Association.

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TOP POST 2014 | VIEWPOINT | Theory Makes Perfect

“VIEWPOINT: Theory Makes Perfect”, was the most read post of the 2014 on The Outlaw Urbanist. We would have never guessed. The Outlaw Urbanist had visitors from 101 countries around the world with the most coming in order from: the United States, followed closely by the United Kingdom and Israel; the last being something of a surprise.

“Good theory leads to good planning. Normative theory – without quantitative observation and validation using scientific method – is nothing more than subjective opinion masquerading as theoretical conjecture.”

broadacre1

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City (1934-35).

Viewpoint | Theory Makes Perfect
By Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Regularly brandishing the bogeyman of Modernism, the architects of CIAM, and their industrial age vernacular to deride scientific method and endorse normative theory is a late-20th century practice du jour of the planning profession and education. It is a lot like suggesting a rape victim needs to marry her attacker to get over the experience. A shocking metaphor? Perhaps, but it is not a casual choice.

Early 20th century Modernist planning was a normative theory that aspired to science in its assertions. However, Modernism fails even the most basic tenets of being science. It was long on observation and way short on testing theoretical conjectures arising from those observations. Without scientific method to test its conjectures, Modernism in its infancy never made the crucial leap from normative to analytical theory. Instead, the subjective opinions of the CIAM architects and planners were embraced – sometimes blindly – by several generations of professionals in architecture and planning, and put into practice in hundreds of towns and cities. Today, for the most part, Modernism has finally been tested to destruction by our real world experience of its detrimental effects, though we continue to suffer from its remnants in the institutionalized dogma of planning education and the profession. Nonetheless, it has – at long last – made the transformation from normative to analytical theory and validated as a near-complete failure; at least in terms of town planning.01_18_le_corbusier_la_ville_radieuse_1930

Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse (1930).

Modernism is a failure of normative theory, not scientific method. Ever since Robert Venturi published his twin polemics Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture/Learning from Las Vegas, it has been chic to assert that Modernism  – and by implication, science – was responsible for the rape of our cities during the 20th century. A direct line can be drawn from the proliferation of late-20th/early-21st century suburban sprawl to Frank Lloyd’s Wright Broadacre City, and even further back to its infancy in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. However, like a DNA test freeing a falsely accused rapist, scientific method reveals the true culprit is, in fact, normative theory. The 20th century is a wasteland littered with normative theories: modernism, futurism, post-modernism, deconstructivism, traditionalism, neo-suburbanism and many more ‘-isms’ than we can enumerate.  After the experience of the 20th century, it seems absurd to suggest we require more theoretical conjecture without scientific validation, more opinion and subjective observation – that is, less science – if we want to better understand the “organized complexity of our cities” (Jacobs, 1961). Sometimes it seems as if the planning profession and education has an adverse, knee-jerk reaction to anything it does not understand as “too theoretical”. Of course, the key to this sentence is not that it is “too theoretical” but rather that so many do “not understand” the proper role of science and theory in architecture and planning, in particular, and society, in general.

Science aspires to fact, not truth. The confusion about science is endemic to our society. You can witness it every time an atheist claims the non-existence of God on the basis of science. However, science does not aspire to truth. Not only is ‘Does God exist?’ unanswerable, it is a question any good scientist would never seek to answer in scientific terms. It is a question of faith. The value judgment we place on scientific fact does not derive from the science itself. It derives from the social, religious or cultural prism through which we view it. Right or wrong is the purview of politicians, philosophers and theologians. There are plenty – perhaps too many – planners and architects analogous to politicians, philosophers and theologians and not enough of the scientific variety. And too often, those that aspire to science remain mired in the trap of normative theory and institutionalized dogma. The Modernist hangover lingers in our approach to theory. But we require less subjective faith in our conjectures and more objective facts to test them. We persist with models that are colossal failures. When we are stuck in traffic, we feel like rats trapped in a maze. We apply normative theory to how we plan our transportation networks and fail to test the underlining conjecture. The robust power of GIS to store and organize vast amounts of information into graphical databases is touted as transforming the planning profession. But those that don’t understand science, mistake a tool of scientific method for theory. We project population years and decades into the future, yet fail to return to these projections to test and expose their (in)validity, refine the statistical method and increase the accuracy of future projections. And we hide the scientific failings of our profession behind the mantra, “it’s the standard.”Garden_City_Concept_by_Howard

Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898).

We require analytical theory and objective knowledge. If the facts do not support our conjectures, then they need to be discarded. In normative theory, ideas are precious. In analytical theory, they are disposable in favor of a better conjecture on the way to a scientific proof. Scientific method is the means to test and validate or dispose of theory. Our profession and communities have paid a terrible price for the deployment of normative theory. However, quantitative observation and analysis of its failings has offered enlightenment about how to proceed confidently into the future.  The work of notable researchers in Europe and the United States are leading the profession towards an analytical theory of the city. Even now, we will be able to deploy scientific method to derive better theory about the physical, social, economic and cultural attributes of the city. This leap forward will eventually propel planning out of the voodoo orbit of the social sciences and into the objective knowledge of true science. Until then, we need to focus a bit more on getting there and less time raising the SPECTRE of dead bogeymen to endorse the creation of entirely new ones.

PoorRichardv2_FrCoverPurchase your copy of Poor Richard, Another Almanac for Architects and Planners (Volume 2) today!

Available in print from Amazon, CreateSpace, and other online retailers.

Available on iBooks from the Apple iTunes Store.

Available on Kindle in the Kindle Store.

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On Space | …and Time | Mark David Major

The past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.”
– Stephen Hawking

NOTE This post is not about architecture or urbanism. It is only about space in a tangential, generic way in terms of space-time. I do not have the scientific or mathematical skills to either prove or disapprove the hypothesis discussed in this post. It is likely some physicist much smarter than me has already contemplated this idea and applied the mathematics to discount the idea. It is also possible I’m discussing something already accepted in the scientific community (i.e. reinventing the wheel, see the Stephen Hawking quote above). In fact, variations around this idea have existed for decades in the realm of science fiction/fantasy though I can’t recall a previous articulation in the exact manner of this post. However, this idea came to me in a rush one morning over coffee and so fired my imagination that I had to write some notes so I didn’t forget about it. This post is an expansion on those notes. There is a small possibility that this idea is entirely new. If so, I leave it to (much smarter and capable) physicists to explore the mathematics and validity of the idea. I only ask for some credit in providing the spark to their ideas. I have attempted to represent the premise of this post in the diagram below. I am coming at this concept of time from the point of view of a historian, writer, and dreamer.
Time

On the Constant Present and  Variable Future Past
– Past Imperfect and Imprecise Future
by Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Time is an universal constant according to science. By universal constant, it is meant that time flows at a constant rate – much like the speed of light is 186,282 miles/sec – everywhere in the universe. At the same time, the premise of the ‘multiverse’ has gained greater acceptance in the scientific community over the last three decades. In the realm of science fiction, this idea has been around much longer; more than a century if we consider H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) as the starting point. In terms of time, the concept of the multiverse imagines that every scenario of events/actions in nature (including those specifically human) are played out across an infinite number of dimensions (perhaps portrayed most famously in Star Trek beginning with the 1967 episodes “Mirror, Mirror” and “The City on the Edge of Forever”, which used this premise for dramatic purposes). In terms of the flow of time, this can be imagined as a ‘time tree’ whereby an infinite series of lines branch off at various points in the past to run parallel with our own time line, like the branches of a tree where the root of the trunk is the Big Bang and the dimensions of ‘multiverse’ diverge from this earliest point in time (you can also refer to Doc Brown’s simplistic chalk board drawing and explanation to Marty in Back to the Future II). It is a tantalizing concept. However, Einstein’s theories tell us that time travel is not possible; or, at least, it is accepted that time travel to the past is not possible (the future, maybe, according to some physicists). The shorthand for this is Einstein’s ‘grandfather paradox’, which is if I travel to the past and kill my grandfather then I never existed to travel to the past and kill my grandfather, i.e. a temporal paradox.

But what if this premise of time is inaccurate? What are the implications if we invert our ‘time tree’ and anchor the root to the present? The future and the past become “a spectrum of possibilities” (or probabilities) whereby the past converges on present and diverges into the future. In this sense, time flows at a constant rate but is fluid. This means the past, present and future are always changing based on the probability of small moments (decisions, actions, events) across time, and time itself is overlapping waves of probabilities anchored to the present. We do not perceive this because we are always trapped in this particular point of time-space that we call the present. We could only observe the fluctuating waves of time and history if we could simultaneously exist in the present and ‘outside’ of that point in time; in the same manner that Einstein explained the theory of relativity from the point of view of the observer and the observed traveling at the speed of light.

The past only ‘appears’ fixed to us but the probabilities of the past (some probable, others unlikely) are always altering our perception of the present, just as we do the same for an infinite number of probable futures. For example, according to the Wikipedia entry on the Holocaust, the Nazis exterminated approximately 11 million (nearly 7.25 million Jews) between 1941 and 1945. Note: This example is not intended to be controversial but merely illustrative in gross, easily understood terms. I understand this Wikipedia said the same thing yesterday and believe it will say the same tomorrow but only because I am anchored in the present, which defines my perception of yesterday and tomorrow. But if the past is a series of probabilities constantly changing the present, then it is possible this Wikipedia entry stated yesterday/tomorrow it was/is 10 million or 12 million. The lowest probability outcome would be that the Wikipedia entry will state/did stated tomorrow/yesterday that the Nazis exterminated the entire Jewish race or the Nazis didn’t exterminate anyone (or even existed). Without being able to observe time from outside its flow, I can never be certain.

Our actions in the past, present, and future continually shape history within an infinite set of probabilities measuring from unlikely (-) to likely (+). At the same time, time tends to converge on the highest probabilities in giving shape to the present, just as our actions in the present (in small ways at this specific point in time) give shape to the probable outcomes of the future. This is free will as measured in our actions; past, present, and future in giving shape to what was, what is, and what will be. However, there is also a balance to time in the universe as it tends to converge on the highest probabilities. This is not predestination but what we could term ‘preprobablistic’. In nature, it takes a dramatic event to change the probabilities, for example the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event caused by an asteroid impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. In human history, altering the probabilities is more easily achieved (if that is the right word) at the level of the collective; for example the Black Death pandemic from 1346–53 that killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people in Europe. It takes a rare individual to alter the probabilities of history. For example, Alexander the Great directly gave rise to the Hellenistic Period. It is probable that the influence of Greek culture on the Roman Republic/Empire (and later on European and American models of representative government) still would have occurred but, absence Alexander’s ambitions for conquest, Philip I of Macedon or some other’s Greek’s ambitions would have been limited to Greece itself/Greek cities of Asia Minor and Darius III’s Persian Empire probably does not fall, which trickles down in effecting the probabilities that eventually converge on the present.

This concept of time appears to ‘fit’ well with Einstein’s ideas that time travel is not possible. Perhaps, though, it would be more accurate to state that if you did time travel, you could never certain of arriving in the most probable past or future that defines the nature of your present. First, you would have to locate, observe and map the probabilities of the past and future from outside of time-space itself. Second, this would be mathematically impossible since the probabilities from every event/action in history would be infinite. Perhaps it would be feasible in some manner to ‘random sample’ the probabilities by first mapping the least probable extremes (Nazis never existed, Nazis conquered the world) and working inward to the most probable (Nazis exterminated 10.9 or 11.1 million people during the Holocaust). However, even this is a daunting task because how could you determine and map the extremes of lowest probability in an infinite set? You can’t. At least, not without taking some mathematical shortcuts, i.e. cheats.This always bring you back to an uncertainty principle in time travel. You could never be certain of arriving in the right place or time because the only ‘anchor’ is the present.

There is something comforting in this concept of time because our actions do matter but, at the same time, time in the universe develops a ‘self-correcting’ mechanism based on the laws of probability whereby time tends to converge those possibilities with the greatest likelihood. If I travel back in time and kill my grandfather, then my ‘grandmother’ marries my grandfather’s brother (greatest chance is my grandmother marries someone most similar to my grandfather). I still exist as slightly modified version of myself derived from the same gene pool to travel back in time and kill my now-great uncle. We can change the future and the past is always changing us but only through tremendous efforts in altering the parameters in calculating probability do we make certain outcomes more or less probable. It also means there is only one ‘now’ – carpe diem.

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VIEWPOINT | Theory Makes Perfect

“Good theory leads to good planning. Normative theory – without quantitative observation and validation using scientific method – is nothing more than subjective opinion masquerading as theoretical conjecture.”

broadacre1Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City (1934-35).

Viewpoint | Theory Makes Perfect
By Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Regularly brandishing the bogeyman of Modernism, the architects of CIAM, and their industrial age vernacular to deride scientific method and endorse normative theory is a late-20th century practice du jour of the planning profession and education. It is a lot like suggesting a rape victim needs to marry her attacker to get over the experience. A shocking metaphor? Perhaps, but it is not a casual choice.

Early 20th century Modernist planning was a normative theory that aspired to science in its assertions. However, Modernism fails even the most basic tenets of being science. It was long on observation and way short on testing theoretical conjectures arising from those observations. Without scientific method to test its conjectures, Modernism in its infancy never made the crucial leap from normative to analytical theory. Instead, the subjective opinions of the CIAM architects and planners were embraced – sometimes blindly – by several generations of professionals in architecture and planning, and put into practice in hundreds of towns and cities. Today, for the most part, Modernism has finally been tested to destruction by our real world experience of its detrimental effects, though we continue to suffer from its remnants in the institutionalized dogma of planning education and the profession. Nonetheless, it has – at long last – made the transformation from normative to analytical theory and validated as a near-complete failure; at least in terms of town planning.

radiantcityLe Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse (1930).

Modernism is a failure of normative theory, not scientific method. Ever since Robert Venturi published his twin polemics Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture/Learning from Las Vegas, it has been chic to assert that Modernism  – and by implication, science – was responsible for the rape of our cities during the 20th century. A direct line can be drawn from the proliferation of late-20th/early-21st century suburban sprawl to Frank Lloyd’s Wright Broadacre City, and even further back to its infancy in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. However, like a DNA test freeing a falsely accused rapist, scientific method reveals the true culprit is, in fact, normative theory. The 20th century is a wasteland littered with normative theories: modernism, futurism, post-modernism, deconstructivism, traditionalism, neo-suburbanism and many more ‘-isms’ than we can enumerate.  After the experience of the 20th century, it seems absurd to suggest we require more theoretical conjecture without scientific validation, more opinion and subjective observation – that is, less science – if we want to better understand the “organized complexity of our cities” (Jacobs, 1961). Sometimes it seems as if the planning profession and education has an adverse, knee-jerk reaction to anything it does not understand as “too theoretical”. Of course, the key to this sentence is not that it is “too theoretical” but rather that so many do “not understand” the proper role of science and theory in architecture and planning, in particular, and society, in general.

Science aspires to fact, not truth. The confusion about science is endemic to our society. You can witness it every time an atheist claims the non-existence of God on the basis of science. However, science does not aspire to truth. Not only is ‘Does God exist?’ unanswerable, it is a question any good scientist would never seek to answer in scientific terms. It is a question of faith. The value judgment we place on scientific fact does not derive from the science itself. It derives from the social, religious or cultural prism through which we view it. Right or wrong is the purview of politicians, philosophers and theologians. There are plenty – perhaps too many – planners and architects analogous to politicians, philosophers and theologians and not enough of the scientific variety. And too often, those that aspire to science remain mired in the trap of normative theory and institutionalized dogma. The Modernist hangover lingers in our approach to theory. But we require less subjective faith in our conjectures and more objective facts to test them. We persist with models that are colossal failures. When we are stuck in traffic, we feel like rats trapped in a maze. We apply normative theory to how we plan our transportation networks and fail to test the underlining conjecture. The robust power of GIS to store and organize vast amounts of information into graphical databases is touted as transforming the planning profession. But those that don’t understand science, mistake a tool of scientific method for theory. We project population years and decades into the future, yet fail to return to these projections to test and expose their (in)validity, refine the statistical method and increase the accuracy of future projections. And we hide the scientific failings of our profession behind the mantra, “it’s the standard.”

Garden_City_Concept_by_HowardEbenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898).

We require analytical theory and objective knowledge. If the facts do not support our conjectures, then they need to be discarded. In normative theory, ideas are precious. In analytical theory, they are disposable in favor of a better conjecture on the way to a scientific proof. Scientific method is the means to test and validate or dispose of theory. Our profession and communities have paid a terrible price for the deployment of normative theory. However, quantitative observation and analysis of its failings has offered enlightenment about how to proceed confidently into the future.  The work of notable researchers in Europe and the United States are leading the profession towards an analytical theory of the city. Even now, we will be able to deploy scientific method to derive better theory about the physical, social, economic and cultural attributes of the city. This leap forward will eventually propel planning out of the voodoo orbit of the social sciences and into the objective knowledge of true science. Until then, we need to focus a bit more on getting there and less time raising the SPECTRE of dead bogeymen to endorse the creation of entirely new ones.

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