Humanism, not Utopianism

I found this week’s readings to be the best ones we’ve done yet. Jane Jacobs gives voice to the criticisms that have meandered their way through the class discussion, and she does so clearly and distinctly. We’ve talked about how designers can’t predict how humanity will act, and they can’t predict everything a person will need; especially during periods like the early twentieth century when technology was advancing at a massive rate. In a nutshell, utopian cities don’t work because humans aren’t utopian themselves.

While environment definitely has an impact on humanity and how we live our lives, this course has been an excellent education in how environment doesn’t forcibly shape the people that live within them. Despite best attempts at making humans fit into rational, logical boxes that outline how they spend their days, urban designers end up puzzling over why humanity refuses to do anything that they’re told to. I thought the contrary nature of humanity we talked about seemed accurate. It seems that when you try and tell people that this is the best way to live their lives, they end up doing everything possible to prove you wrong.

This isn’t true just for people trying to create perfect cities for perfect humans. It also applies to areas that urban planners and technocrats have written off. Jacobs cites the example of the North End in Boston, which rehabilitated itself through internal funding and trading of goods and services. She explains that they had to do it themselves: even the bankers saw no good in investing in an area that had essentially been written off. Despite operating against the will of the city, the people of the North End turned their neighbourhood into a place you’d want to live in today. This need to correct their own living space flew in the face of everything that the “experts” had thought about the people of the North End; interestingly, it still didn’t change their opinions of it. I think this is due to the boxes that we place humanity in. Once you’ve been pigeonholed, you can’t escape that until someone without the previous biases comes in.

I think what I got out of this reading was that humanity cannot be placed into neat boxes and told what’s good for them. The only way to create happy, healthy neighbourhoods is by including the people who will live there in the creation process. While the deferral of building processes and materials to technocrats makes perfect sense, calculations can’t predict how humans will act or determine the best way for them to live. If Jane Jacobs did nothing else, she impressed upon the minds of future architects that they are beholden to the people. Hopefully, this ensures that the style of architecture that continues to develop will place the people in front, flaws and all.

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