What’s in a name? The city research we need

A review of the Grattan Institute’s report, Social Cities

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or so the saying goes. It depends, of course, on how you judge. Usually in any really good work, nothing is left to chance. In books, the cover is part of the package. If it is a badly produced book, chances are it won’t exhibit a good cover design. I don’t think I have read a bad book with a really great cover; can’t recall having a good wine with a really ugly label. Anyway, there are too many books to view, let alone read, and far too many bottles of wine than could be consumed to definitively prove the adage otherwise.

But what about the name of a book? Surely this is the element of the cover which most defines a book. “What’s in a name?”1 was Juliette’s rhetorical question; her heart-felt provocation of love for Romeo disregarding the Montague family name and family. But a family name identifies blood relations, not blood biology. Family names are arbitrary. So, too, common names of plants. Juliette’s rose would indeed smell as sweet by any other word, but as long as she is referring only to common names, and the rose’s smell, not what it is. Plant common names, like human family names, may be random, but their family names unlike those of their human counterparts are not. Rose — common name — is generalised; but the Rosaceae family — botanical — is descriptive. Like the scientific name of roses, book names generally refer content — a sense of what the book may be about, what it aspires to, what it addresses or alludes or attests to. And in reports, particularly research reports, titles would be especially well-considered and chosen.

When I first became aware that a new report was soon to be launched titled Social Cities,2 by the Grattan Institute, an independent think tank focused on Australian public policy, in Melbourne, with a diverse program and one dedicated to cities, I was immediately curious due to the title — without seeing the report. What’s in a name?

Social cities.

To engage the same level of astute enquiry Richard Weller demonstrated in his review of a book that is titled in a similar manner, Distributed Urbanism: Cities After Google Earth, where he asked: “How many urbanisms are there now?”3, we could similarly ask in relation to this research report title, Social Cities, just how many cities are there now?

Eco cities, creative cities, green cities; networked cities, smart cities, sister cities; polycentric cities, mono-centric cities, compact cities; World’s Most Liveable City, World Cycling City, Design City… and now, “Social Cities”.

To continue with Weller’s sequential observation from his same review: “if there is one thing we’ve learned from twentieth-century urban planning it is that cities defy reduction.”4 And, despite its most honourable intentions, I think reduction is the basis of this Grattan Institute research.

Social cities.

By alluding to the state of sociableness in cities the title assumes the city as an independent, inanimate object; a tangible entity that can somehow be made to be social — or friendly or green or eco or world-class; even unfriendly or whatever the case and reductionist focus may be.

Social cities.

Because aren’t cities social, anyway?

Scicinius, another Shakespearean character, reminds us, in Coriolanus, of what really defines a city when he declares “What is the city but the people?”5

Social cities.

What is meant or intended by the term social cities — defined in the report, in the singular, as “a city that helps to connect us with other people” — is, therefore, unclear. An extract of the Institute’s own promotional précis of the report, however, gives some clues as to what the report is about:

This report looks at ways to make cities better places to live by increasing our opportunities to connect with other people.

It examines how the design and functioning of a city — from transport networks to the availability of parks and sporting grounds to the architecture of public spaces and buildings — can help bring people together or keep them apart.6

Where the Social Cities tautological title suggests the city is an entity to be influenced independent of the people who comprise the city — to be made more social, (as if not already social) — the outline of the report indeed confirms the research position that the city is something that is made. Irrespective of how well intended the aspirations of the research are for better human relations, the objective to make cities “better places” is looking at the city through the wrong lens, and asking cities to be something they are not or can never be.

Cities are not defined by place. And seeking improvement of social relations by prioritising “places” as the instrument with which to increase opportunities to connect with other people will affect places more so than social relationships.

Notwithstanding, there is a limited notion of place considered in the report, and limited anticipation of what might be considered appropriate social behaviours. Sharing the same reduced notion of place as contemporary urban planning ideology, place is taken as object, the physical place, and is described by planning classification — buildings, streets, parks. And, like planning, there is an emphasis on programmed use of place with a promotion of activity and vibrancy.

But place is more complex than type. It exists both in the dimensions of physicality and mind. There is no acknowledgment of terrain vague and the importance of unprogrammed, unprescribed and boundless place. Instead, vacant and underused places are highlighted as opportunities for activation. Where would one take refuge in a city replete with activity and vibrancy? What are the implications of increasing social activity by bringing more and more people together, over providing capacity for distance, reflection, and discretionary solitude in terms of the psychic health of individuals?

There is no acknowledgment of the phenomenology of place induced by cognitive resonance through experiential contact with the spatial and material within type, nor recognition of genius loci, the spirit of a place. The systemic nature of place where place-as-whole is effected by place-as-parts, and where the emergent properties of place-as-whole are much more than the place-as-sum of its parts is not considered, nor are the systemic relations among places.

The authors qualify their focus on place, providing caveat that they are “Not suggesting that city design is the answer to every challenge.” That the “report is not driven by a belief in physical determinism.” And that “Many influences on quantity and quality of social connection are not related to urban form.” But this is the extent of the declaration, and as a consequence it appears incomplete, as if the influences unrelated to built form are considered less than significant or unrelated.

As well as couching a reduced notion of place, the report’s focus on place alone as a way to address what it seeks to enquire into: “the interaction between the physical and social” — itself a reduced notion of what cities are — is description by reduction. There is no sense of systemic thinking. Description by parts does not account for behaviours of the whole. Description of place without addressing other considerations, especially political economic (and other forms of place) does not deal with how places exist. The two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms comprising a water molecule do not account for how water behaves; like, for example, in the form of waves. Reductionist research has its place, as long as it is seeking to explain material composition, or is framed in a broader systemic sense, is part of a more holistic methodology of enquiry. But if social considerations are the topic of research, then reductionism is not an appropriate research method. And if the purpose of research is to inform policy development, and the “practical examples of things that have worked” provided in the report’s Appendix are an indication of how policy may develop, then any emerging policy directly relating to physical place and activity by word or pattern book design will not be appropriate. “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity;” writes Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., “I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”7

It perhaps appears sacrilegious to be critical of anything attempting to enable better human relations. But like buzzwords and other urban terms of a seemingly sacrosanct and uncontentious nature, say, (replicated) heritage, (more) parks, (more) trees and, in this case (more) activity, discussions about anything to do with providing better social connection remain almost entirely immune from almost any critical thought. And I don’t think that is healthy. My interest here is in cities and getting the research we need, not picking holes in published work. After all, the complexity of cities demands rigorous research into what makes them tick. So I hope my review will be useful among students of the city.

It is impossible to make genuine gains in cities if cities themselves are not understood in terms of what they really are and how they are really made. So there are two main themes I would like to address here. The first is about research; the second about cities.

Research as design

In my first post I indicated that there is a common view that design relates to the look and function of something and is therefore associated only with physical or aesthetic qualities — objects of use, visual images — and that designers are people who only design those things and not that much else.

Designers themselves can strangely refer to their own research conducted as part of design as “design research”, as if research is done to inform design, and design is something sequential, that happens separately afterwards in its own particular space.

But that’s not what design is. Nor what research is for. Design is research — and analysis, conceptualisation and testing, all in one.

During undergraduate training in experiential, “learning-by-doing” learning (after David Kolb8), a cycle involving concrete experiences, reflective observations, abstract conceptualisations and active experimentations, I soon became aware of the relevance and applicability of information to the process of learning and problem solving (and design).  “So what, now what?” was a saying heard around the studios, as colleagues challenged merely producing information and sought to assimilate real-world problem-situation-generated findings — in order to be able to conceptualise ideas that could be tested back in the real-world. “Converting data into information” was another favourite. In process, research/learning/design combined a continuing “recursive” flux among the four essential activities: (i) finding out in the concrete (observing/reflecting), (ii) finding out in the abstract (thinking/ assimilating), iii) taking action in the abstract (synthesising/ modelling/ inventing), and (iv) taking action in the concrete (acting/ accommodating).9 The whole “scientific” process (as distinct from scientific method but incorporating it as required) was in fact design. The essence of the methodology was informed by and intended for real-world situations.

How is this relevant?

Firstly, research which is intended to inform should first frame what it is that is to be informed — in concrete terms. In that way, research is assured of meeting the demands of what it seeks to enquire into and ultimately influence. To recall another saying from undergrad days, by psychologist, Kurt Lewin, “There is nothing so practical as good theory.”10 Research into cities, therefore, needs to frame just what cities are and how they exist, that they may provide insights and impetus for meaningful intervention.

Secondly, by thinking of research as part of a learning/design process, responding to the concrete and taking action in the concrete, the scope of research is potentially extended to address the political circumstances of cities which otherwise stand in the way of pure research reporting and need to be negotiated in effecting any change. The extension of research from “finding out” (and the generation of theoretical or propositional knowledge) to “taking action” (and the generation of practical knowledge) generates what Richard Bawdin refers to as experiential knowledge.11 The whole process (and challenge of addressing cities) is, in fact, one of design: the process required needs to be just as concerned with the nature of decisions as it is the nature of the content that is to be decided. Research, in the context of cities, is a vital part of that design because it needs to be considered as design. And, as highlighted in my previous post, “good design tells the truth”.12

Understanding cities

In the About section of my website I outline the abstract nature and arbitrariness of the use of the term city. I indicate that what is really of consequence is the urban — that which happens among people — and that the urban is not physically or geographically defined. Through this attention on citizens and their levels of commercial and cultural exchange, the city as place — as adopted in the Social Cities report — can be understood to be their material evidence.

It follows, then, that seeking improvement in how citizens exchange, from a social standpoint, would best be facilitated through research into the very forms of exchange, not through the evidence of that exchange. And this is not least because research would deal with subject matter, but also because the physical built environment which is the subject of most of the research’s identified social ills — and its answer to them — would be seen as a product of exchange in the political economy of place.

Because the built environment is not an appropriate starting point for addressing social concerns, the built environment professions — planning, architecture, and urban design, as we know them — are not appropriate professions to look to for dealing with them. As Pritzka award-winning renowned Dutch architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas has said: “People can inhabit anything. And they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. Architecture has nothing to do with it.”13

What is noticeably absent from the report is any focus on the industry within which planners, architects and urban designers “planning” and “designing” places and buildings work. These professions merely support their particular industry of the political economy — the one responsible for delivering the places we visit and the buildings we inhabit. Notwithstanding the lack of attention on these processes, the entire development process whilst ever remaining focused on simply providing places and buildings — even ones considered to be good, friendly and social — cannot deliver the broader forms of social wealth required of sustainable communities. For the best proof of this we could look to naturally developed city events of an extremely unsocial nature. As reported in The Guardian, no amount of urban regeneration through refurbishments to housing estates in the UK, for example, could address the deep social and economic concerns of their communities, or prevent riots from occurring in their neighbourhoods.14

The critical challenge, then, is not how the city as built environment should be planned or designed to make better conditions for social friendliness and neighbourliness — a paradox in current development processes anyway — nor how developers might better build better, more social places and buildings, but how better defined social (and economic, environmental and health) outcomes, broadly, for community, can define more diverse and appropriate economies for generating the social outcomes sought — and broader forms of community wealth, too.

The design cities need

If the city is appreciated as citizens and their levels of commercial and cultural exchange, not buildings, streets and parks, and if research into improving social relations focused on citizens’ values of friendliness and neighbourliness, then their particular methods of exchange in the political economy would be an ideal and rich subject for research.

The subtitle of a report on Social Cities, in The Australian, states the Grattan Institute report claims Australia’s urban planning too often emphasises productivity and sustainability at the expense of friendliness and community.15 Despite the appearance that this might be the case, the critical issue here, as urban strategist Ingo Kumic has identified in email exchange with me, is, “That it’s not that planning emphasises productivity and sustainability at the expense of friendliness and community, it’s that planning doesn’t recognise friendliness and community as an important tactic in achieving productivity and sustainability.”16

In other words, it’s not whether our physical settings are socially conducive or not, or whether our economies responsible for those settings can create more friendly conditions. It’s whether community values can select and drive particular forms of commercial and cultural exchange to attain more social, sustainable ways of life.

As Wouter Vanstiphout highlights in his piece in BD online, in response to the UK’s recent riots: “… urban politics and hence planning and urban design are too often treating the city with ulterior motives, instead of actually working for the city itself. The city has become a tool to achieve goals, political, cultural, economic or even environmental.”17 [Or social.]

The vital and missing research and discussion in relation to our cities is one of politics and community and the overall economies encouraged by them. “Cities”, “social”, and “social cities” are just names. There’s the irrefutable sweet smell of Juliette’s rose, and the beautiful sweet exchange of roses among people; and then there’s the production of roses to get that smell. But the question of roses in relation to cities must extend to — indeed penetrate — just how they are to be produced, broadly, within society: How would the production of roses embody social aspirations of community more broadly defined than by the desired smell or the ritualised exchange of the rose itself, that the enjoyment of roses through smell and gift may be sustainable?  That would be a conversation not limited to horticulture, but one inclusive of concepts of local and connected communities, home, work, travel and the environment.

Applied to the content of the Grattan Institute report, desirable and friendly places and buildings must not been seen as objectives in themselves. Nor should the processes of their creation be seen as potential solutions. Better places and buildings do not make better societies; and designers, government agencies and developers of places and buildings — in so far as they are developing just places and buildings — cannot bring about better societies. Better societies are created through the full gamete of society’s political economic undertakings.

It is one thing to recognise the outcomes we seek in our cities are a result of their productive capacities, but we need to enact those capacities through the values of community. Hovering above roses, it is clear the real value of bees is not in the honey they produce and we enjoy to taste, but in their productive ability to pollinate the world’s crops that we might indeed eat at all. But even then, their productive capacity is at the mercy of the hands of political economy and the impacts of urbanisation arising from it. How, then, could ideals of food provenance and quality and security, for example, determine approaches to broader economies and ways of life that conserve bees — and human life itself? Applied socially and more broadly, just how can social aspirations (as well as economic, environmental and psychic) be constructs for the determination of economies that are productive in social and broader forms of wealth?

The question for cities in relation to seeking social outcomes is really whether social values can be clearly defined and upheld as ideals to live by, and through. And that’s a challenge of design. Not the design of cities, places, buildings or even economies, but design of politics and community futures first.

1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliette, Penguin Books (Middlesex), 1967.

2. Kelly, J-F.; Breadon, P.; Davis, C.; Hunter, A.; Mares, P.; Mullerworth, D.; Weidmann, B., Social Cities, Grattan Institute (Melbourne), 2012.

3. Richard Weller, book review, Landscape Architecture Australia, No/129, Architecture Media (South Melbourne), February, 2011.

4. Ibid.

5. As quoted by Robert Nelson, The Space Wasters: The architecture of Australian misanthropy, Planning Institute of Australia (Carlton), 2011.

6. Grattan Institute Website: www.grattan.edu.au/home.php

7. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., (unsourced).

8. David Kolb, The Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual, McBer and Company (Boston), 1976, as documented by Richard Bawdin, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled, paper prepared for the “Workshop on New Directions in Agroecology Research and Education”, University of Wisconsin-Madison 29-31 May, 2002.

9. Richard Bawden, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled, paper prepared for the “Workshop on New Directions in Agroecology Research and Education”, University of Wisconsin-Madison 29-31 May, 2002. Later published as: Bawden, R.J. (2005) “The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled.” Chapter 14 in The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Agriculture, J. Pretty (ed), Earthscan (London).

10. Kurt Lewin, (unsourced).

11. Bawdin, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled, op cit.

12. Robert Grudin, Design and Truth, Yale University Press (New Haven and London), 2010.

13. Rem Koolhaas, Tweet via @remkoolhaas.

14. Lynsey Hanley, “Invisable force-fields surround our estates”, The Guardian, Comment is free, 11 August, 2011.

15. Stephen Lunn, “Town planning hastening the slide to isolation”, The Australian, 27 March, 2012.

16. Ingo Kumic, pers comm., March, 2012.

17. Wouter Vanstiphout, “Back to normal?”, bdonline.co.uk, 11 August, 2011.


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