A growing idea among emergent urbanists is that there’s a natural form to the city, one that maximizes activity and that thrives in the absence of regulation. In this view, any sort of urban planning, from postwar suburbia to the Manhattan grid, is just a constraint that makes cities less livable, and in contrast, there is an urban form that people have a near-universal taste for, and all others are some response to bad regulations. Social problems are caused by bad urban form, and the reason American reformers wanted to move everyone to the suburbs was just that the cities failed to look like European cities.
There is an implicit ideology in this view, which is only occasionally hinted at: the ideology of single equilibrium. It holds that there’s just one stable state of nature, and all attempts to change it will just lead to an eventual return to equilibrium, and the greater the change, the more violent the return will be. If there’s a persistent situation away from the equilibrium, it’s a result of pernicious regulations. In economics, it’s the neo-classical school, shaken only by the Great Depression and by the Keynesian argument that depression is every bit an equilibrium as full employment. In every environmental controversy, it’s the individualist cultural bias holding that nature will always return to equilibrium, contrasting with the egalitarian view that nature is inherently fragile, the hierarchical view that it tolerates change within some boundaries to be determined by the experts, and the fatalist view that it is capricious.
Reality is of course more complicated than that. Cities can have multiple equilibria. Unplanned Tokyo and London are happy just the way they are; so are New York, Atlanta, Singapore, Paris, Tel Aviv, and Moscow, each planned in its own way. If people in those cities dislike the current situation, it’s not out of dislike of the present urban form but out of discontent with unemployment, living costs, economic inequality, and other social ills. And if people in mature cities dislike situations that are caused explicitly by their urban layout, then it comes from narrow urban and transportation issues, e.g. California’s air pollution problem.
Historically, this view was more associated with suburbanization and urban renewal. Of course those involved a hefty amount of zoning, but the same could be said of e.g. Christopher Alexander’s support of height limits. In both cases, problems that are really about social relations and poverty are associated with urban design and are used as an excuse to heavily modify cities; that, and not the tenement urban form, was what drove New York’s elite to want suburbanization. Indeed, suburbanization happened in almost all developed countries; the romanticism for the countryside by residents of the rich cities is part of 19th century nationalism, and happened across the first world, regardless of how cities actually looked like.
Nearly every combination of urban form and social class exists somewhere in the world. Just because Americans like some unplanned urban neighborhoods and are gentrifying the cities does not mean that there’s a universal desire for anything, or that people in suburbs are just repressed about how bad their social environment is.
To deal with the fact that people like urban environments that are very different, and that there are persistent cultural tastes determined by a few decades of policy, people who believe in single equilibria have to stretch reality more and more to get the achieved picture. James Howard Kunstler is an especially egregious example: since people don’t mind sprawl and city development that he doesn’t like (he views Manhattan as “despotically mechanistic” and sympathizes with Lewis Mumford for hating cities based on his experience on the Upper West Side), he’s spun a fantasy in which peak oil is going to create ruralization and destroy the suburbs, while also doing so in peaceful enough a way that he’ll survive to see the resulting utopia. But he’s really not doing anything Mumford didn’t do. Mumford couldn’t stand cities and thought their inhabitants just didn’t know they needed urban renewal; Kunstler thinks the same about post-1830 urban development.
Conversely, development that’s generally considered good but violates the rules needs to be shoehorned into the rules. That’s where you get people claiming that Paris is traditional urbanism, where in reality its wide boulevards are every bit as planned as Manhattan’s, just along a radial plan rather than a grid.
Because of the association between this view of nature and political libertarianism, we see defenses framed in terms of nature very frequently. It’s not only individualists or libertarians who do this (read most environmentalist tracts), and there are emergent urbanists who hint at desirability more (for example, Charlie Gardner), but this view and the insistence on natural law are still correlated. The idea inherent in this view is that what’s desirable is what the market wants, and what the market wants should be divined by looking at cases in which there is no government intervention.
The problem is that it’s very hard to really disentangle the economy from politics. It’s easy enough when it comes to consumer goods and other cases in which markets clearly work, but when it comes to infrastructure and collective decisions, it’s much harder – hard enough that Randall O’Toole can pretend that government regulations of parking and subsidies for roads are trivial and call himself a libertarian. The obvious response is to point out the opposite, how government subsidies permeate the opposing view, which is easy enough with a person as dishonest as O’Toole. But in reality it’s often impossible to distinguish political from economic actions, and the cases where there is a clear-cut difference are rare enough that they can be shoehorned into a single theory ad hoc; most urbanist theories have more serious proponents than the people who’ve become the spokespeople of suburbanism.
The reason I insist on consensus as a decision-making tool is that it avoids this assumption that all cities have to look essentially the same. And the reason I did a mini-experiment asking commenters where they grew up and what kind of urbanism they’re comfortable with is precisely that people are different. Formal community structures of course privilege some people and ignore others – most importantly, they elevate existing long-term residents and ignore transients and people who are priced out of the neighborhood. They also lead to unpredictable results, depending on hyper-local issues of culture and history or on charismatic local leaders. But the idea of having different people come together and talk about how they’d like their city to look like is much more powerful than trying to derive a natural order from first principles and treating all other orders as deviations.