I just finished a book that I never would have read--or perhaps even come across--had not a friend given it to me for my birthday: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. It's long and dense, all about a topic I have never before thought much about: what makes for a vibrant, safe, interesting, pleasant city?
The short answer is that great cities are diverse, and diversity is created, Jacobs maintains, through four primary conditions:
1. The district, and indeed as many of its parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.
2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence. (196-197)
(The book is almost 600 pages long. Jacobs is very anxious to establish and support her argument and analysis, and devotes very thorough chapters to each of those points. I'm not even going to try to paraphrase the supporting material here; if you want to understand it, you'll have to read the book yourself.)
Along the way, Jacobs stresses the needs of children, advocating for instance, sidewalks 35 feet wide, because that provides enough room for them to play safely while still in view of adults who live on the street and know them and can take responsibility for them. She offers cogent, interesting analysis of why neglected parks fail to attract users, including the fact that they don't allow for spontaneity and that most people would rather hang out where they can run into other people--they'll choose to walk up and down a crowded downtown sidewalk, for instance, over sitting on a bench in a deserted park. She also says witty, funny things like "A city of almost eight million can support two aquariums and can afford to show off its fish free" (208).
Jacobs hates sprawl, and points out that Americans romanticize nature in ways few other cultures do, at the same time that we are "probably the world's most voracious and disrespectful destroyers of wild and rural countryside" (580), covering some of the finest farmland on the planet with asphalt and covering some of the most stunning vistas in the world with nasty tract homes.
The book got me thinking about cities I have lived in and enjoyed, and what has made them work. Jacobs stresses that great cities, very large cities, are different organisms than small towns and medium-sized cities. And yet I must admit that many of the things I liked best about Iowa City, for instance, were the ways in which IC met the criteria Jacobs established for what a city should strive for.
For all that, part of what intrigued me most about the book was the larger critique of the human psyche and how we interact with each other and our environment. For instance, discussing Ebenezer Howard, a19th-century idealist, Jacobs writes
His aim was the creation of self-sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged to the planners in charge. (24)
It's a pretty apt statement. I doubt I am the only person to apply that statement to religion: Mormonism, for instance, is a pretty nice religion if you are docile and have no plans or thoughts of your own and don't mind spending your life among others with no plans or thoughts of their own.
Then there was Jacobs' discussion of whether diversity or homogeneity is uglier. Acknowledging that some people dislike diversity because it can appear "messy," she argues that "homogeneity or close similarity among uses, in real life, poses very puzzling esthetic problems":
If the sameness of use is shown candidly for what it is--sameness--it looks monotonous. Superficially, this monotony might be thought of as a sort of order, however dull. But esthetically, it unfortunately also carries with it a deep disorder: the disorder of conveying no direction. in places stamped with the monotony and repetition of sameness you move, but in moving you seem to have gotten nowhere. North is the same as south, or east as west. (291-292)
Jacobs loves diversity, and recommends that cities cultivate it whenever possible. On the issue of esthetic harmony, she notes that
In seeing visual order, cities are able to choose among three broad alternatives, two of which are hopeless and one of which is hopeful. They can aim for areas of homogeneity which look homogeneous, and get results depressing and disorienting. They can aim for areas of homogeneity which try not to look homogeneous, and get results of vulgarity and dishonesty. Or they can aim for areas of great diversity and, because real differences are thereby expressed, can get results which, at worst, are merely interesting, and at best can be delightful. (299)
Which struck me as a fairly apt criticism of the Mormon church, which ALWAYS goes homogeneity, which it only occasionally tries to disguise--and not just in its buildings, for which it devises fairly unremarkable templates, but in its visual art, its music, its discourse--even the intonations and speaking voices of its leaders, who all seem to go to the same vocal coach. Because it eschews diversity and is so anxious to achieve homogeneity, the few areas where it doesn't--its scripture, for instance, which includes tales of death by gang rape (Judges 19) and divine genocide (Noah etc) along with nonsensical professions that "god is love"--become not sites of complexity and diversity, but just chaos and entropy, or the meaningless intermingling of unrecognizable, and therefore worthless, elements.
And that's my assessment for the day: Mormon aesthetics are homogeneous and boring, and Mormon theology is not merely cruel and contradictory; it's chaotic, entropic and worthless. No wonder I chose to give it all up.