Common Place   /   March 13, 2014

The Problem of Assessment: Part III

In our previous two posts, we identified some downsides and pitfalls to current methods of assessment.  So what might a more constructive approach to assessing urban life look like?

How to Think About the Kind of Problem the City Poses

To begin to answer that question, we turn first to a classic of urban studies. In her widely hailed book, The Death and Life of Great Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs titled her concluding chapter “The Kind of Problem a City Is.” The chapter served as a plea to planners and other urban experts to reconsider some of their most deeply (and often tacitly) held assumptions about the nature of cities. The insights behind her plea continue to challenge us today.

Jane Jacobs, chairman of the Comm. to save the West Village, holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles streets. (Credit: Library of Congress)

Jacob asked her readers to consider how all cities are in a constant state of flux, which is as true now as it was then. People, goods, ideas, interests, symbols, fashions and so much else circulates in various densities and velocities. People live and die, move in and out and about, businesses and industries wax and wane, the physical environment constantly evolves as buildings are constructed, remodeled, and eventually demolished.  Some sections and segments of the city may seem rooted and unchanging because of particular historical, cultural, and racial legacies, but these too evolve, though often over longer time-frames.

Jacobs described the net effect of all this dynamism as a problem of “organized complexity.” The city is “organized” because of its self-generating and self-ordering quality; it is complex because of all the moving and interacting pieces. In an argument quite radical for its time, Jacobs asserted that a city consists of a great many interacting and self-organizing elements, generated by the countless encounters and ritual interactions of individuals and institutions within its boundaries.

Unfortunately, city planners relied, as many still do now, on a dominant epistemological mode of “disorganized complexity.” From this perspective, planners view cities as a large number of discrete, randomly related variables. Cities become problems of aggregation, coordination, and risk assessment—think of predicting traffic patterns or rates of traffic fatalities—which need to be ordered and controlled by single, comprehensive plan. Beneath this thinking lies an urge to domesticate the chaos of city life through its conversion into statistical symmetries. Perceived through such a lens, planners and other experts have approached cities through methods based on technological mastery and statistical and probability analysis, confident that by such techniques they could rationally manage and administer modern urban life to the benefit of all.

To observe a city through the prism of organized complexity requires an entirely different mindset and analytical toolbox.[1] In contrast to the main characteristics of standard approaches (such as deductive reasoning, centralized planning, and simplification through statistical averages), Jacobs emphasized different modes of thinking altogether. She stressed the importance of inductive reasoning, catalytic processes and relationships, and the emergent properties of non-linear systems in which the whole can become greater than any of the individual parts. All the while, she highlighted the “unaverages,” which resist the technocratic bias of simplification and the temptation of “knowing through numbers.”  After all, even many promising assessments rest on a tacit assumption of the city as disorganized complexity—discrete problems requiring discrete measurements that stay separate from one another.

Approaching a city as a matter of organized complexity, by contrast, attunes one to the significance of the statistical outliers, of the unintended consequences of interacting elements, as “clues” to how the larger statistically significant factors are operating within their larger environments. Such a method presents the opportunity to envision new, holistic possibilities.

Unifying the Dashboard, Filtering the Best

Whether inspired directly by Jacobs or simply sympathetic to her perspective, today there are a number of the cutting-edge indicators for city assessment that touch on some problems of organized complexity.  Given this promising expansion of available metrics over recent years, it is no wonder that many city leaders and reformers today are opting for a “dashboard” approach. The metaphor of the dashboard is simple: it suggests that one should monitor the state of a city just as one monitors the state of a car with a variety of instruments.  In this tool, no one indicator arbitrarily prevails over others, but rather many indicators together provide a wealth of relevant information.

But problems remain. The downside of the dashboard mirrors the basic problem of the myriad separate indicators available now: how to choose which methods of assessment are most relevant for a city. Moreover, a dashboard presents discrete chunks of information with little regard for their connections. And without a framework for creating the dashboard in the first place, the instruments could still end up relying on many of the flawed metrics and data sources of the past.

We believe the dashboard approach is on the right track, but still incomplete. The next step is to incorporate some way of handling "organized complexity" - a comprehensive framework that allows policymakers, foundation officials, reformers, and urban denizens to filter the best available indicators using guiding concepts and overarching themes.  How we achieve such a framework is part of the mission of the Thriving Cities Project. We invite you to be part of this ambitious discussion. We hope such future conversation will take stock of the problems of the past laid out here without resignation or despair. Rather, understanding the problem of assessment and its history may help us all pose pointed questions about new methodologies. In this spirit, we hope you'll follow our investigation on this blog and contribute your own insights and suggestions.  You may reach us at:

[1] With her assertion that cities are problems of organized complexity, Jacobs not only challenged the modernist epistemological orientations and paradigms embraced by city planners and other urban experts for half a century or more. She also provided the intellectual  orientation for a design and planning movement today known as the new urbanism.