ISO: the timeless tradition of city building

According to Joseph Henrich, human infants are not much different from chimpanzees and orangutans, at least when it comes to our cognitive functionality.

Except on one key metric: social learning.

Page 15 from The Secret of our Success, by Joseph Henrich

Our outsized innate talent for social learning is what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Further, what truly allows us to excel in ways that our ancestors never could is not social learning per se, but the skills that social learning imbues upon us, which is the ability to handle the nectar of knowledge, distilled from every generation of human that came before you.

The knowledge passed down has been tried and tested over a long period of time. 99% of the time, it works. And it increases your chances for survival and a good life by a lot, if you are able to drink from and integrate those age-old lessons in your life.

True advantage lies here: the inheritance of knowledge and know-how that no individual could ever amass in a single lifetime.

This is incredibly fascinating for me as an urban planner because I like to think that there is such knowledge and timeless wisdom about building human settlements that exists somewhere.

However, two things happened over the past 100-200 years:

  • cities were morphing into large urban agglomerations that were first of its kind, due to technologies that allowed for powered mobility
  • modern thinking encouraged the full severance of all historic precedent of a “style” or “way” of building cities, wanting to become pure function unburdened by history

As a result, in this great century of upheaval, not only were our cities changing at an unbelievably rapid pace… we were also inventing rules on the go.

Inventing rules.

And how the rules and regulations were invented were based on strong biases by the influential class and the people in power at the time. Notions that were steeped in privilege, colonialism, and extortion of the lower classes by those with greater powers.

Many of these rules still exist with us today, for sure in Toronto and in many other cities. And they continue to shape the way our cities grow.

Rules that

  • Confine the existence of apartment buildings because they were seen as immoral places to live for young and single women
  • Push for the suburbanization of the outer peripheries of our cities, which were unhinged from urban economic realities
  • Promote the single family home as the sole recommended type of property to live in, in every policy and regulatory document created

Once you realize how the twisted, discriminatory value systems of a bunch of old white men from the past continue to strangle our cities in the present day, it’s hard to close your eyes again. It makes you want to change things wholesale.

Unfortunately, urban planners are stuck between a rock and a hard place. While many are very progressive and believe in a better, more equitable world, the tools we’re using are inherently biased. The current state of affairs stacks all decks against us. 

For instance, residents collude with Councillors to keep things as “stable” and unchanging as possible through votes – our system for democracy. This gives incumbent residents an outsized voice, while potential future residents have no say.

Another example is the colour palette of our planning maps. Each colour is a type of use, like residential, commercial, institutional etc. Now, try painting a lively picture using only 5 colours that refuse to mix, with a big paintbrush on a small canvas. It gets very rough.

We must realize that our systems are far from perfect. They continue to produce broader social inequalities, weakening us as a whole.

First of all, urban planners must realize that our profession is an art at best. We create policies and draw maps – all that inherently will carry biases. I wrote a bit about this in a previous newsletter, On subjectivity.

What we need to articulate better is the kind of bias we want them to carry.

To get to know our biases, there are several things we can do, not limited to the following:

  • We can lead an objective inquiry on the very tools and behaviours that planners and actors within the planning process employ to shape cities
    • wording that leads to sterile swaths of land use
    • wording that restricts incremental change
    • less “surveying” (i.e. mapping what’s there), more “planning” (mapping for a desirable future)
  • We can study the urban economical reality that we are creating and encouraging. Understand a city from the lens of solvency, subsidies, and fairness between different land use forms.
    • Road to land use ratio (loss of taxable land)
    • Density-friendly land uses vs the rest (loss of taxable area)
    • Transit-supported development (wean off car-dependent land use planning)

Crucially, we can look to the past and see what nectar of knowledge we can retrieve from there to help guide how to build better cities.

Then, we can filter that knowledge and inject the incredible amount of progress we’ve made since then on human rights and protections, and the right to access to equal opportunity in the city.

And finally, based on what we know of the successes of the past and progress we’ve made since then, we can finally look back and establish what our values are, and create tools and plan around them. Not rely on the whims of old white men and their twisted beliefs in social engineering who clearly didn’t care for the nectar of knowledge or the equal benefit of all.

Originally published on Substack

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