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.