Thursday, July 14, 2011

Spatial order, visual order, and urban planning

Does urbanization cause social breakdown? Are cities places of chaos and crime, where values go out the window? Few people today would answer this question in the positive, although this was social science dogma in the early 20th century (Wirth 1938), until ethnographers like Oscar Lewis (1952) showed that the chaotic cities view was biased and inaccurate.
Shantytown: visual disorder

What about shantytowns and squatters settlements: are these places of chaos and crime and social breakdown? I'll bet that more people would accept this view today than would accept my first question. But like the first question, this viewpoint is a stereotype that is more often inaccurate than correct.  Again, it was ethnographers who went out and lived in these settlements who showed that the sterotypes are wrong (Mangin 1967; Schlyter and Schlyter 1979), but they still persist in the public, among government and civic authorities, and even among scholars.

I think one reason for the endurance of this kind of stereotype is a confusion between visual order and social order. Visual order refers to the kind of regularity in layout that can be perceived by urban residents as well as by those looking at maps or urban photographs. Settlements that are irregular in layout lack visual order. Social order is a deeper and more difficult concept; indeed it has been one of the key issues in sociology and social science for a century (see Hechter and Horne 2003). Briefly, social order refers to the way social groups and societies "hang together" and continue through time in ways that allow many or most people to live "normal" lives.

This diagram shows the way many people think that order works in informal or squatters settlements.
The arrows show causal relationships. In the stereotypical view, social disorder causes visual disorder; therefore when we see visual disorder, we can infer that there is or was social disorder. And central planning leads to visual order.

The second diagram shows an alternative view, more closely aligned with urban reality:
Visual disorder in Lusaka
In this view,  visual disorder is caused not by social disorder, but rather by generative processes. These are the combined actions of people working individually or together in ways that are not controlled or directed by the authorities (see Hakim 1986; 2007). Squatters settlements are a prime example of generative processes at work. People build their own houses, on their own schedule, following their own ideas and values, and this often leads to visual disorder. BUT, generative processes can also lead to visual order! The barriadas of Lima, Peru are a good example. These are squatters settlements, formed through generative processes, but they end up with straight streets and regular lots.If you want to see a technical description of how generative processes can produce visual order, see Erickson and Lloyd-Jones (1997).
Visual order without central planning (Lima)

The big difference between these two views of order is that in the second model, social order and visual order are treated as different things. The ethnographers cited above showed that social order exists within visually disordered settlements. People help their neighbors, they watch out for one another, they aren't criminals, they have jobs and lead normal lives (if poverty can be considered "normal," that is). And conversely, social disorder can exist in well-planned, visually ordered settlements; think about crime or anomie in nice planned neighborhoods

The only thing these two models share is the notion that central planning leads to visual order. But don't think that straight streets and checkerboard layouts represent the only kind of urban visual order (Smith 2007). The wide urban world contains many types of visual order, and many kinds of social order. But one does not produce the other. It's time to abandon those stereotypes.


Erickson, B. and T. Lloyd-Jones
1997    Experiments with Settlement Aggregation Models. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 24:903-928.

Hakim, Besim S.
1986    Arab-Islamic Cities: Building and Planning Principles. Routledge, London.

2007    Generative Processes for Revitalizing Historic Towns or Heritage Districts. Urban Design International 12:87-99.

Hechter, Michael and Christine Horne (editors)
2003    Theories of Social Order: A Reader. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Lewis, Oscar
1952    Urbanization Without Breakdown: A Case Study. Scientific Monthly 75:31-41.

Mangin, William
1967    Latin American Squatter Settlements: A Problem and a Solution. Latin American Research Review 2(3):65-98.

Schlyter, Ann and Thomas Schlyter
1979    George: The Development of a Squatter Settlement in Lusaka, Zambia. Swedish National Institute for Building Research, Lund.

Smith, Michael E.2007    Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning. Journal of Planning History 6(1):3-47.

Wirth, Louis
1938    Urbanism as a Way of Life. American Journal of Sociology 44:1-24.

1 comment:

  1. The quality of the urban environment is of prime importance: we breathe in our surroundings with all our senses. We need to learn from history. Interesting article.