Michelangelo, responding to a question about the sculpting technique by which he created David, his masterpiece, is rumored to have said, “I took an unfinished block of marble and simply removed everything that wasn’t David.” While this story is probably untrue, it’s a useful metaphor for what is known as "Via Negativa" — the idea of arriving at some truth or idea by way of what it is not.
Via Negativa has its origins in theology and philosophy. In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb, the patron saint of Strong Towns thinking, expands the concept into actions. The idea is that it is better to avoid practices that cause harm over interventions that mitigate or fix problems. For example, consider your health. There are a number of strategies to combat heart disease, ranging from proper diet and exercise to medical procedures and pharmaceuticals. A Via Negativa approach to health care emphasizes removing unhealthy foods over doctor visits and medications.
Via Negativa has several significant advantages over an interventionist mindset. One relates to unintended consequences. Another relates to cost.
The Unintended Consequences
Cities are complex systems, more like living organisms than self-contained machines. One crucial property of complex systems is that interactions between parts of the system are difficult to isolate, subject to feedback loops and non-linear. In practical terms, this means an action targeted at one part of the system — say, mandating off-street parking minimums to reduce on-street parking — can have massive impacts on other parts of the system that appear unrelated at first glance, like housing affordability, health, or the environment.
The kicker is it’s never totally clear exactly how impacts are related or the magnitude of their relationship. Academics spend entire careers trying to pick it all apart with mostly unsatisfactory results.
Like the hydra of Greek mythology, each ill we slay with official intervention tends to spring forth two or three new ones in its place.
Let’s return to our heart disease example. If you tally up the monetary costs of switching to a healthier diet and regular exercise, chances are it pales in comparison to the costs of doctor visits, prescription medications and hospital stays. Healthy eating cannot guarantee you perfect health and a long life, but if you’re playing the odds, it’s a clear winner.
Cities across the country are consistently strapped for cash. There’s no single culprit for this problem, but by and large, this is a self-inflicted wound; we have consistently chosen expensive interventions to solve our problems.
So What Do We Do?
One common criticism of Strong Towns that I come across on occasion is that it spends too much time dwelling on things cities shouldn’t be doing and not enough time offering solutions. This pattern makes more sense in light of Via Negativa; our collective efforts are better spent eliminating our worst practices in urban policy than instituting new programs that promise to solve whatever ails your city.
This isn’t to say there’s no room for positive action when something in your city is broken. Our current system of regulations and subsidies arose in part to address problems our ancestors faced. As we strip out harmful practices, we may need to think of new ways to solve problems of the past.
In these cases, Strong Towns advocates a cautious, incremental approach focused on local, adaptable, responsive solutions. A detailed examination of this is an article for another day, but this again explains why triage and elimination of harmful practices is a larger part of the Strong Towns message than prescriptions for more action. The way forward for any one place is highly dependent on local circumstances, culture, and history — elements that a national organization like Strong Towns can’t adequately account for.
Consider the following actions that follow a Via Negativa approach to many urban problems:
- Eliminate parking minimums
- Relax residential zoning restrictions to allow small multi-family buildings such as duplexes and fourplexes in all residential areas
- Eliminate tax breaks and sweetheart deals
Not all of these may apply to your place and there are certainly strategies that didn’t make this list. There’s no checklist for this stuff, and that’s exactly the point.
Via Negativa is about a mindset that looks to reduce our negative impact on our cities and towns before we try the next trendy planning gimmick.
(Top photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)