All Commentary
Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Beautiful City

What makes a city beautiful? It’s not its parks and architecture, decorative though they may be. It’s not the mannequins dressed in high fashion, or the creative window displays. A city’s beauty comes from its life, from how its structures keep people teeming on the sidewalks and arterials—pulsing like blood through a body. A city’s beauty comes about the same way all beauty comes about in nature: through the unity of apparently opposing phenomena.
“Neighborhood accommodations for fixed, bodiless, statistical people are accommodations for instability,” wrote the great observer of cities, Jane Jacobs. In order for a neighborhood to have staying power, Jacobs thought, the people in it must constantly change. A city only becomes stable through “a seeming paradox.” That is, to get a critical mass of people to stay put, a city has to have “fluidity and mobility of use.” And so the neighborhood itself must change and reorganize itself in order to keep its people there. Fixedness and change. Healthy cities exemplify such paradoxes.
Cities are also products of attraction and repulsion. These forces somehow find balance. Identical businesses may repel each other, but similar businesses can attract each other. You won’t typically find two hair salons next to each other, for example, but it’s not uncommon to find a nail salon, a shoe store, and a clothing store in proximity. Why do fast food restaurants attract each other? And why do malls seem to keep their distance? A glance at any online map will show the shopping malls in an area to be roughly the same distance apart—close enough to each other to reduce transportation costs, far enough away to reduce competition. The presence of a mall, in turn, attracts more shopping and more restaurants nearby. These forces of attraction and repulsion work together to create a city’s textures, its amenities, and its strange centers of activity. 
Another apparent contradiction Jacobs finds in cities lies in their ability to reconcile the dweller’s desire for both the private and the social: “A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around.”
These public places foster weaker social bonds and, thus, create the conditions for a public life. Weak bonds are the social forces created by private citizens who shuffle and cluster on the neighborhood street. It’s the morning nod to the Bangladeshi man who minds his newsstand each day. It’s thirty seconds of sports banter with the doorman at work. We end up being far more social when our weak bonds dominate our more clannish instincts—such as the bonds that hold together street gangs or let whole nations tolerate ethnic cleansing. Of course family and friendship bonds are strong, but it’s not clear it’s healthy to extend these to the wider society. Because we ultimately choose our bonds, a healthy mix of weak and strong bonds will originate in all the choices cities can provide. And such bonds will change with one’s needs.
Still, some people think all social bonds have to be strong to be healthy—and perhaps they do in certain circumstances. But most public works projects and community “investments” are done in the name of either blind patriotism or building strong community. The trouble is, real community emerges from the bottom up. And the strongest bonds should arise out of mutual aid and mutual interests—not be implemented by planners or inculcated by demagogues. Ironically, when urban administrators try to create stronger community through subsidy, design, or fiat, such policies only push people to become less social—sometimes even antisocial. 
For example, poor people are essentially paid to crowd into housing projects. Dependency causes them to look to the State and not to their neighbors or their churches for support. Many turn to crime and find connection in gangs who have an economic interest in controlling territory for black markets. Those who venture out into the neighborhood often become targets of crime—often because planners have determined that community can be planned and subsidized. Community starts to dissolve, which prevents those weak bonds—the filaments of trust—from developing at all. In a vicious cycle, other negative effects follow: urban decay, civic apathy, and general malaise. All of it originates in the conceit that people’s lives can and should be planned.
But a free and vibrant city is a place of order and disorder, of unity and diversity, of competition and cooperation. It’s ordered chaos. No city is perfect, nor can it be. But as Freeman columnist Sanford Ikeda observes, “Great cities are Hayekian spontaneous orders par excellence.” The beauty of cities is the beauty of all such orders—like coral reefs or rainforests. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is a beautiful paradox, too, and the city is a living symbol of that hand at work.
Beauty can be discovered between our instincts and our reason. All spontaneous orders are both “beyond instinct and often opposed to it, and which is on the other hand [. . .] incapable of being created or designed by reason.” While beautiful buildings are designed, beautiful cities emerge.
Why am I concerned to show that cities are places of paradox and are therefore beautiful? Hayek, after all, argued in The Fatal Conceit that humans, who evolved to live in smaller groups, can be quite uncomfortable in the urban centers of the extended order, despite the fact that these are beneficial. Given that Hayek was a founding thinker in the idea of spontaneous order, many would suggest we simply take him at his word. But should we?
Another in the tradition of spontaneous order, Francis Hutcheson—a teacher of Adam Smith—defined something as being beautiful if “there is Uniformity amidst Variety.” This is also known as organic unity. We can apply this idea not just to objects, music, and other arts, but to the natural world and to social systems. Beautiful works of art and literature help us to both understand and live well within spontaneous social orders. And we can find comfort in that.
From the time of the ancient Greeks when beauty was associated with the golden ratio, to Hutcheson’s unity of variety, to contemporary thinkers, such as Frederick Turner, whose non-poetic works all deal with beauty, we see a recurrent theme: Beauty emerges from paradox. And the more paradoxes something has, the more beautiful it is. In the balance between strong and weak bonds, competition and cooperation, the individual and the social, ethnic and mixed communities, attraction and repulsion, in all of this variety within the city itself, we find beauty. This might very well be why we humans, beauty-seekers ourselves, are increasingly seeking out life in the city. 

  • Troy Camplin is an independent scholar and the author of Diaphysics.