See like a state, make your city happy

Interesting thinkers who I read have penned… interesting ideas lately. I believe I read them in the following order, but any order works.

  • Mr. Money Mustache reviews The Happy City.
  • Scott Alexander reviews Seeing Like a State.
  • Nassim Taleb tells us to know ourselves.

The links should be obvious. I hope my questions will be, too. Come back in a week when you get through all of those.

On one level, Seeing Like a State appears to criticize exactly the same thing as The Happy City. From MMM (part his critique, part a lesson from Happy City):

The average American city builds the largest roads and parking lots it can possibly fund, maximizing the amount of available space for vehicles, in a noble attempt to reduce traffic and serve its citizens. But the result is that cities become nothing but wide, well-engineered, fast, deadly expanses of concrete….

And yet, for over 50 years we have been designing our cities in almost the most stupid, expensive, ineffective way possible… But we don’t get any value for these dollars: we spend more time and money getting around than ever before, which leaves us with a chronic shortage of time to enjoy any potential benefits of dispersed living.

From Alexander on State:

Natural organically-evolved cities tend to be densely-packed mixtures of dark alleys, tiny shops, and overcrowded streets. Modern scientific rationalists came up with a better idea: an evenly-spaced rectangular grid of identical giant Brutalist apartment buildings separated by wide boulevards, with everything separated into carefully-zoned districts….

More descriptions from Alexander on State explaining potential origins of the concrete wasteland MMM finds so horrendous:

Some of the greatest early 20th-century thinkers were High Modernist to the point of self-parody, the point where a Young Adult Dystopian fiction writer would start worrying they were laying it on a little too thick.

The worst of the worst was Le Corbusier, the French artist/intellectual/architect. The Soviets asked him to come up with a plan to redesign Moscow. He came up with one: kick out everyone, bulldoze the entire city, and redesign it from scratch upon rational principles… The Soviets decided to pass: the plan was too extreme and destructive of existing institutions even for Stalin….

So if this was such a bad idea, why did everyone keep doing it?

Start with the cities. Scott notes that although citizens generally didn’t have a problem with earlier cities, governments did….

But reading about the planning that seems to animate Happy City, compared to the planning that State seems to claim fails repeatedly, I find the latter much more persuasive. More than that: the criticism that State places on city planning — in and of itself — seems to put it completely at odds with the animating spirit behind Happy City. That is, that city planning cannot improve things.

I don’t think Scott Alexander or MMM agree with that, but I wonder if the author of State does. (I suspect he does, since his reviewer identifies him as an anarchist.)

What about Taleb? A similar objection to MMM against the spacious suburbs, but coming from a different angle:

Same with real estate: most people, I am convinced, are happier in close quarters, in a real barrio-style neighborhood, where they can feel human warmth, have company, but when they have big bucks they end up pressured to move into a [sic] outsized impersonal and silent mansions, far away from the neighbors. On late afternoons, the silence of the large galleries has a funereal feel to it, but without the soothing music….

Some things can be, simply, too large for your heart. Rome, he [Vauvenargues, the French moralist] wrote, was easy to love by its denizens when it was a small village, harder when it became a large empire.

I suspect Taleb is more sympathetic to the Seeing Like a State author than Scott Alexander or MMM. But these are my somewhat-regular reads, and I’ll be damned if Taleb and MMM aren’t ultimately seeking the same thing (generally, not just talking about this narrow planning/living arrangements thing). Taleb again:

To put it another way: if wealth is giving you fewer options instead of more (and more varied) options, you’re doing it wrong …


I will have to find the time to read the books.


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