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The Life and Death of Great Open Source Cities

By Will Canine

I read Jane Jacob’s Life and Death of Great American Cities.

She writes it as she is lives an intensely connected urban life in Greenwich Village. She exchanges secret, knowing nods with the grocer and organizes neighborhoods to fight off city planners like Robert Moses that would redesign her and her neighbors’ lives. Her observations about basic urban process are foundational in a diversity of disciplines including architecture, urban planning, and sociology.

But it is no academic text. It is political. The first line is “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” (p. 3) The book is has crucial things to say not only about specific urban design principals – the things that make an urban environment work – but design in general as a process and a perspective.

In the next paragraph, she unveils the other side of her attack – “In short,” she writes, “I shall be writing about how cities work in real life.” (p. 4) Designers think about how cities work in theory, abstractly. This is not the same as how things work in actuality. And, Jacobs argues, it is rarely ever a worthwhile exercise to try and understand something’s workings in theory. Instead, the individual who needs whatever is being designed should be empowered to make it work how they need it to. As she writes,

Bloodletting could heal only by accident or insofar as it broke the rules… The pseudoscience of city planning and its companion, the art of city design, have not yet broken with the specious comforts of wishes, familiar superstitions, oversimplifications and symbols, and have not yet embarked upon the adventure of probing the real world.” – p. 13

Going through examples of “real world” processes from information travel to child safety takes up much of the book. Though each is worth reading in its own right and I revisit a couple below, one idea underlies each of them: individuals, when given power of influence on their own surroundings, do better at making a liveable city than the best designers. In fact, I became most intrigued by Jane Jacobs when I read about her ideas in the context of open-source theory, I think first in The Wealth of Networks. I’ve always been inspired by peer-peer production models (always a sucker for good sci-fi utopias). Benkler’s book provides one of the most academic of such promises:

“It is the feasibility of producing information, knowledge, and culture through social, rather than market and proprietary relations — through cooperative peer production and coordinate individual action — that creates the opportunities for greater autonomous action, a more critical culture, a more discursively engaged and better informed republic, and perhapse a more equitable global community.” — p. 92, The Wealth of Networks, (Yochai Benkler).

But, to me, the feasibility is one thing; the quality of the product is quite another. It’s a question of design. As a child of Web 2.0, I like my things pretty, smooth, highly-designed. How can such a complex world as ours could be re-produced so differently than it has been made so far?

Another book in the open-source cannon that name checks Jacobs, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, tells the story of how something as complicated as computer operating systems – the GNU-Linux based ones that run the most sophisticated supercomputers, billions of mobile handsets, and a majority of web servers — can be designed by a networked group of peers better than a small cadre of experts. Eric S. Reymond’s principles for open-source software development mirror Jacob’s for creating a successful city in many ways.

But Jacobs book, published eight years before Linus Torvalds was born, shows how cities have been doing this type of open-source design forever. If nothing else, her book is proof that, when they are allowed to survive and thrive, networks will outperformed hierarchies in providing the very basics of urban life.

One of her most recurrent focuses is childhood development, the reproduction of society. Here is one thing she has to say about playing and raising kids in the city.

“Planners do not seem to realize how high a ratio of adults is needed to rear children at incidental play. Nor do they seem to understand that spaces and equipment do not rear children… The myth that playgrounds and grass and hired guards or supervisors are innately wholesome for children and that city streets, filled with ordinary people, are innately evil for children, boils down to a deep contempt for ordinary people.” – p. 82

The planners and urban designers who look at cities like puzzles to be solved using blocks of playground grass and security stations are not only bad at producing cities that can look after their own, they are often informed by prejudices and contempt for those they design for. Instead what is needed is to get out of the way for a network of people who are incidentally living in an urban space together. Allow them to, and they will participate to produce what is needed.

Once again, Jacobs takes on almost every basic urban need in her book. Her accounts show how time and time again peer groups produce better results than heirarchies. For me, living in post 9/11, post financial crisis New York, her thoughts on providing public peace resonate more than most.

“The first thing to understand is that the public peace — the sidewalk and street peace — of cities is not kept primarily by the police… It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” — 32

Think about a hyper-designed urban housing project. Every window angle, security camera, and guardhouse is designed to police and keep peace. But these areas are consistently some of the most violent urban environments. The singular, politically elevated vantage point of the police, the state, the planners, is privileged so acutely that all others are lost. Into this hierarchically designed vacuum comes violence.

Peace is what happens when the vantage point of the individual, the node, is given more power to govern their immediate surroundings than the central power. The aggregate of every member of the networks’ processing and re-shaping of their world is greater than what can be imposed from the top can ever be. Empowering nodes over centers of power solves two problems at once – first, it solves the actual problem at hand, in this case the need for public peace, better than a hierarchy ever has, and, second, it empowers and enables individuals rather than oppressing and surveilling them.

A network’s ability to better police itself than the police, to better design its life than a designer, has at it center Linus’ Law. Linus Torsvald started work on what has become the most contributed to and most important open-source software project of all time (GNU-Linux) when he was a graduate student in Finland, and has since come to embody the open-source movement as the founder of Git and uber developer’s developer of all developers. As Eric S. Raymond puts it, “Linus’s Law [is] ‘Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.’” — p. 30, The Cathedral and the Bazaar (Eric S. Raymond). When hundreds of people are casually cruising through code or streets, solving the problems they encounter, no one problem is too big to solve.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar metaphor fits nicely with Jacob’s formulations as well. A Cathedral is something designed under the plans of a single authority, meticulously designed and faithfully built. On the other hand, a Bazaar is constructed as people build up the spaces around them to be what they need them to be; they are a patchwork of individual design, not a single grand design made real.

 “In the cathedral-builder view of programming, bugs and development problems are risky, insidious, deep phenomena… In the bazaar view, on the other hand, you assume that bugs are generally shallow phenomena — or, at least, that they turn shallow pretty quickly when exposed to a thousand eager co-developers.” — p. 31 The Cathedral and the Bazaar (Eric S. Raymond).

Jacobs agrees with the bazaar perspective. She would empower “co-developers” to make their city as they live in it. Many, independent eyes going through their normal paths combine to be the most effective way of creating peace. In places city planners and politicians have not yet managed to remake neighborhoods how they see fit, pockets of the “old city” are left.

“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes.” – 50

In these places where local customs and personal connections are still overlaid on city blocks instead of security-camera police-tower grids, peace is the norm not the exception.

As aspiring designers, we need to remember Jacob’s words. What may seem disorderly, inefficient, bad, to our eye may actually be a complex system providing for things we have not even considered. Even when designers have the best of intentions, they can ruin a space just by imposing a “solution” from above rather than trusting the network to regulate its own space. The planning of public space is a critical example of this. Jacobs writes that,

“There is no point in bringing parks to where the people are, if in the process the reasons that the people are in there are wiped out and the park substituted for them. This is one of the basic errors in housing-project and civic- and cultural-center design.” – p. 101

Parks are great, everyone loves them, except for when they are awful and dangerous. They don’t work sometimes, like, as Jacobs writes in detail, when they are treated as a solution in-and-of themselves, rather than an opening of space in a place that has many intensive attractions already. These failed parks are problems of over design, hubris in design, assuming that the laws and principles of design textbooks are capable of creating a society as it pleases.

The same is true with neighborhoods generally. When over designed, they are bound to fail. They need a diversity to maintain normalcy, a cacophony to insure harmony, a little chaos to produce order – and when too much organization and specialization, too much design, is imposed from above, they become desolate and dangerous.

“A neighborhood or district perfectly calculated, it seems, to fill one function, whether work of any other, and with everything ostensibly necessary to that function, cannot actually provide what is necessary if it is confined to that one function.” — p 160

She uses the example of Manhattan’s downtown, the Financial District, Wall Street. Its streets, shops, park benches, and elevators cycle between totally packed, and eerily deserted, because the space has been designed so specifically for one type of use. Nine to five job holders rush in in the morning, mill around during lunch, and then leave before dinner; the space is empty for almost half the time, sucking the life out of any other life sustaining institutions. This is why its so hard to find a bite to eat on Wall Street after midnight, and the streets between the sky scraper banks echo like empty canyons.

Despite the promise of open-source peer-to-peer production, we have not manged to leave these dangers behind us as we enter the Digital Age. Our interactions, safety and security, personal development and play, even how we find food and shelter, may have moved online, but they are not therefore safe from the dangers of over design. As Jesse Darling makes this clear when she takes a different urban theorists ideas, Rem Koolhaas’ idea of Junkspace, and applies them to cyberspace on The New Inquiry.

“Junkspace is overripe and under-nourishing at the same time, a colossal security blanket that covers the earth in a stranglehold of seduction… Junkspace is like being condemned to a perpetual Jacuzzi with millions of your best friends … Seemingly an apotheosis, spatially grandiose, the effect of its richness is a terminal hollowness, a vicious parody of ambition that systematically erodes the credibility of building, possibly forever.” Koolhaas was referring to the airport and the strip-mall and the single-zone sprawl, but he could have been talking about Facebook.” — Jesse Darling

Overdesign is a real danger. And when we are going to school to learn to do it well, our eagerness to do it well can have a tendency to miss the point. Even though we are designing processes that seem parallel to “real life” – and admittedly they are not as intimately connected to individual lives as a place to live – we should not underestimate the impact imposed design can have on people as more and more of life becomes connected to our technology.

Jacobs tells a story about her interactions with a specific housing project. They all hated a patch of grass adjacent to their building that, to Jacobs, seemed innocuous enough. When she asked why, one person said,

“’Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place. They threw our houses down and pushed us here and pushed our friends somewhere else. We don’t have a place around here to get a cup of coffee o r a newspaper even, or borrow fifty cents. Nobody cared what we need. But the big men come and look at the grass and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!’’ – p. 15

When I think of this book in the future, this is what I want to try and remember:

There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” – p. 15

2 comments to The Life and Death of Great Open Source Cities

  • Nancy

    An interesting take on Jane Jacobs book…I kind of get your analogy to open source…What do you think the threat is to open source? Who is the Robert Moses of today?Microsfot? Apple? Google? The analogy works to a point,doesn’t can’t really hack around built structures in the same way. IT’s harder to regenerate a city the way things can change in technology. MS used to be the evil empire…is it now Apple? Will FB be next. Who is today’s good guy that will have his/her day for a while?

    What is the question you would want everyone to consider?

    “The dishonest mask of pretended order” is a powerful phrase.

  • Jay

    Who is the Robert Moses of today? A compelling question, indeed. The headlong march into the future, contempt for the busy city street, a clear vision of the future that prizes and praises mobility over most else… on the surface it sounds like Steve…. with both looking to Le Corbusier, no?

    Regarding the threat to the Open Source Movement: what comes to mind are the two directions with which Orwell and Huxley take dystopia, and how, in my opinion, the pleasure-controls of Brave New World pose a greater threat to the long-term development of the knowledge and people necessary to contribute and grow open-source software.

    When a classroom of middle school kids respond to to the prompt “What is a computer?” with “Facebook!” en masse, I grow concerned about wether or not they will be able to understand the power in default – whether those kids will grow up and recognize that the systems they use every day were designed by mostly-ordinary people with attitudes, opinions, and prejudices, and that they (the kids, someday adults) can and should have the ability to participate in how that stuff runs.

    And the good guy question? I’ll bite.

    ifThisThenThatNot big enough to be a guy, but, good, anyways.
    SquareI appreciate the service this company provides.. what does its’ doppelganger look like?MakerbotMy “Most likely to pan as a good guy / bad guy story” Already the Makerbot / thingiverse open-source debate is growing. We’re seeing the shift already, in the move away from ReplicatorG to MakerWare, on the software side, and from LaserCut wood to cast Metal (right?) on the hardware side.

    Does our desire for usability unintentionally undermine the ability for people to understand and affect the systems and tools we use, depend on, and enjoy?