Richard Sennett

The uses of disorder




A very unconventional view of life in cities, as diversity and conflict are not seen as negative phenomena to be eliminated from above, but as means and moments of passage necessary to become adult and mature individuals.

Source: Richard Sennet, The Uses of Disorder. Personal Identity and City Life, 1970. Extract from Chapter 6: The Good Uses of the City: Survival Communities: The Idea.



The most direct way to knit people's social lives together is through necessity, by making men need to know about each other in order to survive. What should emerge in city life is the occurrence of social relations, and especially relations involving social conflict, through face-to-face encounters. For experiencing the friction of differences and conflicts makes men personally aware of the milieu around their own lives; the need is for men to recognize conflicts, not to try to purify them away in a solidarity myth, in order to survive. A social forum that encourages the move into adulthood thus first depends on making sure there is no escape from situations of confrontation and conflict. The city can provide a unique meeting ground for these encounters.

The present use of affluent community life in cities is, as shown earlier, to make it possible for men to hide together from being adults. Building a survival community where men must confront differences around them will require two changes in the structuring of city life. One will be a change in the scope of bureaucratic power in the city; the other will be a change in the concept of order in the planning of the city.

It has become standard in modern governments, though not in modern business, for bureaucracies to become pyramids of power, with the most control exercised by a few individuals at the top of the organization and increasingly less control over basic decisions exercised by the many workers below. This pyramid shape is the basis of centralized educational systems such as that of France, or legislative welfare systems like that of the United States. Businesses, on the other hand, are finding that this pyramid shape is often counterproductive. General Motors, as Peter Drucker describes it, was one of the early innovators in creating a more complex pattern of bureaucracy, and many of the businesses involved in large-scale merger or holding operations also have had to evolve similar new forms.

In the field of urban planning, the pyramid form remains endemic, despite some notable attempts to restructure it in the United States, attempts that have failed prematurely for lack of funds. Yet in order to make cities survival communities, where the affluent as well as the poor will have to deal directly with each other in order to survive, the bureaucracies of control in these cities must change their form.

For certain city functions, a pyramid-shaped central organization is necessary for economies of scale. One police dispatch system is more productive than ten, one central department to control fires or to deal with sanitation better than many small ones. The problem with such central organizations is not whether they should exist, but what they should do. People today are imbued with the technological belief that the larger the structure the more inclusive should be its scope, an idea derived, again, from the nature of machine productivity; thus it is difficult to accept the idea that a strong central control apparatus can exist in the city and yet do very limited, defined tasks. Part of the difficulty in imagining this curb is that those who traditionally have wanted to limit central authority have wanted the result to be a public power vacuum, so that in the place of public power there is substituted the power of a few individuals who control the private enterprises of the city. Almost all advanced countries, with the exception of the United States, have come understand this fallacy of "decentralization." The removal of central authority, following libertarian lines of nineteenth century, all too often means the passing of central authority to a few private individuals who cannot be touched by the public at large.

What is needed in order to create cities where people are forced to confront each other is a reconstituting of public power, not a destruction of it. As a rule of change, situations creating survival encounters would be as follow: there would be no policing, nor any other form of central control, of schooling, zoning, renewal, or city activities that could be performed through common community action, or, even more importantly, through direct, non-violent conflict in the city itself. This abstract idea comes clearer by examining a second change needed in city structure.

To make the experience of conflict a maturing one requires the destruction of an assumption regnant since the work of Baron Haussmann in Paris, an assumption that the planning of cities should be directed to bring order and clarity to the city as a whole. Instead of this idea, whose basis is found in mechanical ideas of production, the city must be conceived as a social order of parts without a coherent, controllable whole form. The planning of functional divisions, of processes, of land use in advance of the habitation of the land should be abolished. Rather, the creation of city spaces should be for varied, changeable use. Areas, for example, that during one period serve as commercial places should be able in another era to serve as living places. The creation of neighborhood areas must not mean that the socioeconomic level or activities of the area are frozen by predetermined zoning specifications and the like.

This prohibition on preplanned, functional space is important because it permits great diversity to arise in city neighborhoods, and because it permits whatever social encounters and conflicts exist in the neighborhood to "take hold" in the character of the neighborhood itself. Once preplanned city space is removed, the actual use of the space becomes much more important in the lives of its users. For when predetermined use through zoning is eliminated, the character of a neighborhood will depend on the specific bonds and alliances of the people within it; its nature will be determined by social acts and the burden of those acts over time as a community's history. The preplanned "image" of city neighborhoods would not be definable on a planner's map; it would depend on how the individuals of the neighborhood dealt with each other.

Encouraging unzoned urban places, no longer centrally controlled, would thus promote visual and functional disorder in the city. My belief is that this disorder is better than dead, predetermined planning, which restricts effective social exploration. It is better for men to be makers of historical change than for the functional design of a pre-experiential plan to be "carried out”. If the element of history in city places is allowed to re-emerge in this way, if functional dislocation and a jumble of concurrent events and peoples inhabiting common ground is permitted, then the desires for purified identity can have a testing ground of the strongest sort.


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