“soft city of illusion”? “hard city of maps”?

You can always construct a wise one-liner by dividing the richness of urbanism into two opposing boxes.  This move is most interesting to me when done by someone I admire, for purposes that I largely share.  The great Cascadian writer Jonathan Raban, for example:

"The … soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps [and] in statistics …”

This came to me via Bruce Katz on Twitter, and it's so affecting that I retweeted it before I had time to think:  "Hey, wait, this is BS." 

Yes, the importance of illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare always needs to be stressed if you feel that your city is being run by statisticians.  But it's still a false and misleading dichotomy, as almost all dichotomies are.  We often need dichotomies as crutches, but when they get too easy, it's time to let them go.

Maps are full of illusion, myth, aspiration and nightmare.  We may think of them as technical, and we can argue for the value of replacing illusion with information.  But as Mark Monmonier devotes a famous book to explaining, maps always distort for some purpose.  The aspirations that drove the settlements and conquests that created today's "New World" were unimaginable without maps — maps designed to inform the conquerer but also to encourage his illustions and aspirations.

Anxiety about statistics, on the other hand, is a masking of the real problem, which is a confusion about the location of goals and ideas of the good.  Statistics and maps tell us about facts of life, and you can't go anywhere with your aspirations if you can't deal with the present reality.  We all have to start where we are.

Statistics, math, and maps also tell us something about the limits of aspiration.  You may aspire to a city where the circumference of a circle is only twice its diameter, because this may open up wonderful  possibilities for the ideal city.  When the mathematicians respond that the circumference of a circle will always be 3.14 times the diameter, it's easy to dismiss them as "statisticians," or to use a common urbanist stereotype, "engineers" who can't engage with vision.

Inside Raban's epigram, and also inside the quotation from the last post, is the confusion of why and how.  "Why" we do things and want things must ultimately lie in the space of "illustion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare."  (Even the balance-sheets of developers express such motives.)  To get what we want, however, we have to interact with reality, and statistics and math do contain some important information about reality, as does our lived experience.

If we could ever separate why from how, we'd save a lot of time, a lot of rage, and move forward much more quickly in thinking and acting about cities.  We might suppress some great literature, but a writer as great as Jonathan Raban would turn his mind to the subtler issues that remain.

3 Responses to “soft city of illusion”? “hard city of maps”?

  1. Eric O June 1, 2011 at 6:42 am #

    Interesting, I (a mapmaker) feel instead the angst in the statement going the other way. I relate well to the angst a mapmaker or a statistically minded person shares with fellow investigators in relating the observed reality you encounter on the ground to those whose experience of the city travels only paths familiar to their well-traveled assumptions. We encounter this is our work as consultants all the time, no?
    This, btw, is the way the angst might be taken by Edwin Heathcote in his article on city lists (mentioned by Katz) “Livable, Lovable – and Lauded” (on FT.com) to make a point about the “personal” nature of city lists. Relates perfectly to some angst displayed in previous posts on this blog. 🙂

  2. Zoltán June 1, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    We may aspire to a city in which everyone can aspire to private motoring, yet the city is not destroyed in facilitating that – actually, many people do exactly that. But for that soft urban space of illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare to exist, we must understand why we mustn’t destroy it in that manner.
    And if we’ve decided not to destroy our city so that we can all drive cars all of the time, we must still be able to experience the city beyond our front door, and that means understanding what makes transit networks work properly.
    That soft city is something we build in our own and/or a common imagination on top of the hard city of buildings, roads and so on that we can reasonably establish to exist. That maps are any different is a strange argument.
    Firstly, maps must be designed to communicate what matters to us – on a city map, that’s where streets, buildings etc. are, on a transit map, that’s where transit goes and preferably how often it runs. Inclusion on a map is based upon a judgement of what’s important.
    Secondly, once we’ve got that information, we add our own understanding of the city to it. When I see the districts that I’ve been to on the New York Subway map, I think about what those districts mean to me, and what I’ll find when I go there. When I see 8th Street/NYU station, I think of my experience in the vicinity while staying with a friend nearby. And so it goes on, in a way that will be different for every user of the map, because they have all had different experiences in, and understandings of, the city. But they all share the same reality of where the subway goes.

  3. Trevor June 1, 2011 at 8:33 am #

    My issue with the quote is not that it somehow distorts how we understand cities, but that it totally rips off Italo Calvino.
    More seriously, I think the Raban quote gets very well at the distinction between “thick” and “thin” accounts of the social world, and the crucial importance of the “thick”. CrookedTimber held a nice discussion of this distinction as it arises in Calvino’s Invisible Cities: http://crookedtimber.org/2009/09/17/in-which-italo-calvino-discourses-on-the-fundamental-cleavage-of-the-social-sciences/