Ask Strong Towns Question #12

Did Haussmann open up possibilities or did prior success give him lots of margin for error?

Did Haussmann open up possibilities or did prior success give him lots of margin for error?

We invite our members to submit their questions on anything that they would like our thoughts on. We’ll give you a Strong Towns answer or find an expert who can. This week, Kevin from Atlanta asks:

Your latest podcast was awesome. But I agree with the commenter (Hormoz Nabili) that the Haussmann reference may be mistaken. I thought Taleb was talking about Baron Haussmann. And what's Taleb's beef with Haussmann or his precursor Sixtus the V for that matter? Didn’t they open up new possibilities for both those places?

Although I'm generally down with Strong Towns' incremental message, I think it has a small flaw, which this Haussmann vs Jane Jacobs confusion reveals. The urban experimentation must hang off of something. It needs a fundamental pattern, and fundamental patterns are very hard to change (unless you’re a Haussmann). Brainerd, MN didn't pop out of nowhere; it had been pre-planned somewhat by Jefferson in 1785. Humans didn't pop out of nowhere; we are a derivative of the Cambrian's Pikaia. The 'experimentation,' t-rex to tiny mouse, follows, but Pikaia is always under the surface.

There is little doubt that I got it wrong on Haussmann. It demonstrates that I've spent more of my reading time the past decade+ on economics, finance and statistics than on urban planning, which I rarely read about, actually. Once our listeners started pointing it out -- and lots of them did right away -- it gave me one of those hand-to-the-forehead moments. Yes, I can be an idiot at times. That essentially demonstrates the point I was trying to make in those last two podcasts: no matter how smart you are, you're going to make a lot of mistakes. Make them early and make them small.

So what is Taleb's beef with Haussmann and those like Sixtus the V? Didn't they open up possibilities? Can we imagine Paris or Rome today -- two of the truly great cities of the world -- without the changes these visionaries brought about?

No, but I think Taleb would argue two things. First, your small sample size should not give a license to every Haussmann wannabe with an AICP to think that they can do similar things in their places and get similar results. We have a little bit of confirmation bias when we look at Paris and Rome and attribute their greatness to visionary planning yet fail to acknowledge all of the atrociousness that has come about from top down planning. Urban renewal, interstate highways through cities and the pedestrian mall fad are three American examples where a similar scale of thinking created disaster after disaster.

So Taleb would argue, I believe, that the Jane Jacobs approach -- while not the high speed path to Paris -- is the tried and true way to success. And while every place might not become Paris, they are going to be really nice at their scale and, most importantly, on a continuous path to improvement. The Jane Jacobs approach, in that sense, is more about achieving optimal outcomes in a system that doesn't fail than undertaking great risk in order to achieve greatness.

Imposing order on successful chaos?

Imposing order on successful chaos?

A couple things to put this in a Strong Towns framework, particularly with your reference to a fundamental pattern. We're not in disagreement that there is a fundamental pattern to successful cities, a Pikaia of sorts that is the basis for all additional growth and expansion. Brainerd's original plat was brilliant. It created opportunities for a central square, a grand boulevard and several key civic buildings. But it was small; just a little area. Pre-automobile growth was incremental just like that; a little framework that built on the existing.

I don't know the early layout of Paris or Rome, but my readings on the latter suggest to me that it was rather chaotic and, for those that lived there, frustratingly so. Nero letting the city burn was looked at as his cruel way to bring about some long-overdue Haussmann-style changes. I think the key point here is that, in both cities, you already had centuries of Jane Jacobs style of success before the large-scale reworking was done. Did Paris and Rome become better with order in spite of the chaotic development or did the chaotic development give enough strength for these places to survive and thrive despite the imposition of grand order? That would be an interesting debate that I'm not sure has a clear answer.

Regardless, in North America today, and in much of the world where American-style of auto-oriented development has taken hold, we don't need to know the answer to that question. Our challenge is not bringing order to successful chaos but creating successful chaos within a well-ordered failure. If we spent the next two generations doing Jane Jacobs style of incremental development throughout every city in the United States, we would still have half of our currently developed area -- at least -- that would not be financially viable.

Maybe that means that the Strong Towns movement is an answer for our age and not for all time. I can live with that.