The Fair City part 2: Aesthetics of Urban Order and Disorder

Urban agglomerations have taken many forms and been understood in a variety of ways, but density and difference have long been understood as definitive aspects of cities. From the earliest urban settlements and historical cities, the urban condition has been contrasted with rural settlements as sites of man-made chaos opposed to natural harmony. In his classic historical survey of urban settlements, The City in History (1961), Lewis Mumford thusly describes the functions and effects of early cities:

If early man had deliberately sought to break through the isolations and encystments of a too-stabilized community, set in its ways and reluctant to break into its happy routines, he could hardly have devised a better answer to that problem than the city. The very growth of the city depended on bringing in food, raw materials, skills, and men from other communities either by conquest or trade. In doing this the city multiplied the opportunities for psychological shock and stimulus. (p. 96)

Mumford traces the development from early, “organically” developed Greek cities to more structured Hellenistic cities, a process Mumford describes as a transition “from supple ‘disorder’ to regimented elegance” (p. 190). This new type of urban settlement was characterized by practices evocative of contemporary urban planning, including the imposition of geometric order, the use of surveying, and the application of a gridiron design plan. These new “orderly” aspects of the physical form of cities were enabled by technological advancements, and enabled further cultural developments such as libraries and museums. “Without system and order,” writes Mumford, “no one could have utilized these vast accumulations of economic and intellectual capital, unless justice and love had altered the whole scheme of distribution” (p. 199).

When the social scientific studies of cities developed as an academic discipline in the 20th century, disorder reemerged as a constitutive component of city life. Cities were still defined by density and difference, but there were new concerns about disorder among urban populations. This was evident in some of the early writings on modern cities. Georg Simmel (1903/2002) made sense of encounters and relationships in the modern city at the start of the 20th century in the classic essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life”. Similarly to how Mumford characterized the psychological experience of ancient cities, Simmel describes the experience of the modern metropolis as “the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli” (p. 11).

Many of the foundational authors in the field of urban sociology were scholars associated with the Chicago School of sociologists. Louis Wirth, one of these sociologists affiliated with the University of Chicago, penned an influential essay called “Urbanism as a Way of Life” (1938). In this essay, Wirth develops a sociological definition of the city that presages Richard Sennett’s valorization of the generative aspect of difference encountered in urban spaces. The city, Wirth argues, does not merely tolerate individual differences but rewards them, and cities have thusly “brought together people from the ends of the earth because they are different and thus useful to one another” (p. 10).

In another foundational essay of urbanism by an influential Chicago School sociologist, Robert Park (1915) characterized cities as “artless” agglomeration of “visible vastness and complexity” (p. 578). Park gives particular consideration to the experience of immigrants settling in American cities, and the establishment of ethnic enclaves and racial segregation within urban areas. The moral order and mores of immigrants undergo stress “under the influences of the American environment,” Park argues, and social control “breaks down” due in part to the fact that “the effect of the urban environment is to intensify all effects of crisis” (p. 596). Park states that “certain urban neighborhoods suffer from isolation,” and refers to efforts that “have been made at different times to reconstruct and quicken the life of city neighborhoods and to bring it in touch with the larger interests of the community” (p. 581).

In contrast to these social scientific discourses of urban spaces and bodies, other writers and theorists have valorized the disorganization that characterizes both the built environments of cities as well as the relationships that develop within them. In this perspective, the “artless” and disorderly elements of cities are not problems to be solved, but rather unique elements of the urban ecosystem to be cultivated and nurtured. American urbanist Jane Jacobs is among the foremost representatives of this view, as represented by her influential writings on city life in her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Writing about her home neighborhood of Greenwich Village in New York, Jacobs emphasized the importance of both interpersonal connection and a plentitude of strangers in contributing to the safety of a neighborhood. The presence of diverse groups of people on the sidewalks, and thus “eyes and ears on the street,” contributes to a culture of “casual surveillance” that discourages visible disorder and criminal activity, increasing both the perceived and actual safety of the neighborhood. Jacobs privileged “organic” neighborhoods characterized by diversity not only in the physical aspects of the built environment, but also in the demographic constitution of the neighborhood’s residents.

Jacobs’ emphasis on “eyes and ears on the street,” as well as the importance of an active and vibrant street scene, have contributed to her association with “anti-automobile” rhetoric and urban development discourse. This association has been further cemented through her infamous “battle of the wills” with urban planner Robert Moses in 1960s New York City. Scott Larson has characterized the ideological struggle between Jacobs and Moses as a “fight for the city’s soul.” The automobile has become emblematic of this division, as Jacobs was particularly opposed to Moses’ plans to demolish large sections of Manhattan to accommodate the construction of a midtown expressway. Moses’ plans were ultimately foiled, and the contentious initiative has come to popularly symbolize the victory of Jacobs’ vision of community as the future of the city, over Moses’ vision of a future city designed around the car. Larson characterizes a central irony of this legacy, saying “Moses’ support for the automobilization of the country fostered the forces that propelled people and businesses out of the city centers he was attempting to save.”

David Fleming applies a rhetorical lens to analyze new urbanist discourses and their deployment of Jacobs’ writing and ideas. New urbanist practices distill Jacobs’ insights into a focus on the role of good streets and sidewalks for promoting safe neighborhood conditions, generating contact among residents, and facilitate the assimilation of children to urban life. In rhetorical terms, Fleming says, Jacobs’ ideal city is a “talkative city,” characterized by “casual conversations among diverse, non-intimate but mutually dependent strangers and acquaintances.” The intrusion of automobile traffic is seen as one of the primary impediments to fostering the kinds of safe and connected neighborhood spaces that Jacobs privileged. Fleming contrasts Jacobs’ ideas with the urban planning ideals expounded by Christopher Alexander in his book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Alexander offers patterns of urban design intended “to limit the intrusion of the automobile into human space.” Jacobs’ ideal talkative city and Alexander’s patterns of limited automobility have influenced discourses of new urbanism, where these concepts are employed, as Fleming notes, in explicit appeals to evoke community. In this framework, the ordered imposition of streets designed around the rationality of automobile traffic disrupts organic neighborhoods and the sense of community that are seen to produce.

The early sociological accounts of cities as sites of disorder predominated in urban studies, and influenced the emerging criminological approach to studying urban areas. The sociology and criminology of the period was concerned with diagnosing the causes of the disorder, and developed into the “social pathology” perspective. Sutherland (1945) characterized social pathology as synonymous with “social disorganization” and concerned with “a loose collection of social problems” (p. 429). “One of the persistent and perplexing problems,” Sutherland states, “has been the definition of social pathology” (p. 430). Sutherland argues that the problem of definition in social pathology is not “a mere verbal problem” but one “intricately linked to the theories of social pathology,” stating that any “definition necessarily lacks precision when theory lacks it” (p. 431). In spite of these limitations, the social pathology perspective persisted in social science and policy applications for decades. Such pathological discourses continue to impact the lives of urban populations, as will be discussed further in the subsequent section of this paper. As we shall see, these policies have often employed Jacobs’ aesthetic valorization of “organic” communities to promote further pathologizing programs.


Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. A Pattern Language : Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Fleming, David. “The Space of Argumentation: Urban Design, Civic Discourse, and the Dream of the Good City.” Argumentation 12, no. 2 (1998): 147–166.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961).

Larson, Scott. ‘Building Like Moses with Jacobs in Mind’: Contemporary Planning in New York City. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013).

Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. [1st ed.]. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961.

Park, Robert E. (1915). The city: Suggestions for the investigation of human behavior in the city environment. The American Journal of Sociology, 20(5), 577-612.

Sutherland, E.H. (1945). Social pathology. The American Journal of Sociology, 50(6), 429-435.

Wirth, Louis. (1938). Urbanism as a way of life. The American Journal of Sociology, 44(1), 1-24.

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