Smart Growth and One of Its Mad Men

USC’s (and before that, during her formative years, UCLA’s) Lisa Schweitzer has a concise, incisive take on smart growth evangelist Jeff Speck’s commentary on academic Robert Bruegmann’s review of his new book, The Smart Growth Handbook (with Andres Duany and Mike Lydon), in Architect Magazine.

Each of these — the Bruegmann review, the Speck response, and the Schweitzer surgery –is aggressively brief, making for good reads (though unfortunately, with the exception of Schweitzer’s irony, they are also completely lacking in humor).

Two points about social scientists to set the stage.  (a) Social scientists are trained to be skeptical by instinct, more like auditors than ad men, as (b) their main interest is in how to solve problems, which is to say to get things to work better, which thus ultimately requires they understand how those things work in the first place.   They advocate for credibility rather than proclamations of the right and the wrong.

Say there are three kinds of people interested in smart growth.  One is a true believer, who aims to fix cities by proselytizing the one true path.  To be effective in such sales, and move the goods, might involve glossing over where smart growth falls short, is incomplete, where it is internally contradictory, or even where it makes promises it can keep based only on faith.  Using available evidence selectively is justifiable as the alternative is, after all, hell.  Not only are you either with them or against them, the latter is a moral choice rewarded with damnation.

A second group likes what smart growth aspires to — a better life for all — but wonders aloud, or quietly, about the ability of faith and contradictory evidence alone to get the job done.  They worry about unintended consequences, about making things worse in the name of making things better, about the whole thing sounding great but maybe blowing up in their face, like those BoA call options they researched carefully and then bought … just before someone warned of greeks bearing debt.  They also worry about the details of doing smart growth right and wonder if architects have their act together to do so.

(An aside about architects.  Architects are trained to believe in what they do based their ability to defend utterly subjective work against aggressive would-be critics.  Where engineers get their answers out of a book or an HP calculator, architects study books, and architectural products of all kinds, much the same way artists do: To find gaps they can fill by doing things differently.  Architecture is all about originality and individual voice.  It literally is art, where technical prowess is part of the story but where ultimately the metric is how much you like the result.

There are technical elements to be sure — buildings have to work within the laws of physics — but the merit of architecture is how it does things differently within those laws — which is why architecture is among the most challenging of the arts, as it involves creativity within lots of rules.

Architectural training involves getting past years of withering assaults by very articulate, arrogant opponents, each telling you that your ideas are weak if not shamefull, and indeed now that they think about it, you too are weak if not shameful.  An architect can only survive by learning to successfully defend each and every idea they put forth, evidence be damned.  Laypeople might well think that successful architecture is about who has the prettiest pictures, but it is more about who can convince others that their pretty picture is the best solution to the design problem at hand. Architecture is therefore fundamentally about (a) subjective originality and (b) the ability to sell each vision, based on little more than the individual architect’s personal strategy and personality.  Those who survive either have popular ideas, or learn to defend their unpopular ideas.  In the end, successful architects have immense confidence based on little more than a popularity contest favoring their subjective take on the issue at hand.  More than many other professions, each architect has survived both American Idol and Survivor.  So, yes, they do think quite a lot of themselves.  Why shouldn’t they?)

When architects and social scientists debate a policy issue, any disagreement is among unequals.  On one side is the American Idol winner; on the other is just some untrained heathen, no matter their credentials.

That all said, plenty of architects are well behaved around us regular barbarians.  But faced with Robert Bruegmann’s critique of his The Smart Growth Handbook, the only real question for Jeff Speck seems to have been which category of idiot to put Bruegmann in.

That Robert Bruegmann is a successful academic, with the attendant credentials in architectural history no less, hardly mattered.  The architect is unlikely to bend, let alone budge, unless the social scientist uses the language of architecture in a way that causes the architect to reexamine their subjective response to the problem, based on gaps in other architects’ (and perhaps cultural theorists’) subjective evaluations of the problem.  Other evidence or logic simply does not carry as much weight or respect.

Therefore the debate is almost child’s play.  It almost goes without saying that a disagreement not based on architectural theory or experience or debate breaks in favor of the architect.  How could it not?

It turns out Bruegeman likes some of The Smart Growth Handbook but finds it incomplete, leaning toward unsubstantiated boosterism and partisanship, and occasionally wildly speculative — sort of a well drawn snake oil sales pitch.  In figuring out which category of moron to put Bruegeman in, Speck typologizes Smart Growth opponents as one of three moronic sorts: Libertarians (let people sprawl if they want, which they do), Mods (unintellectual architectural neocons), and Saints ( those claiming Smart Growth is imperfect).  If you question the Smart Growth argument or evidence, such as they are, you are one of these.

Bruegmann’s strength is showing that sprawl, which is to say suburbanization, is neither new nor uniquely American.  Indeed, as any economist will explain with a pen and a napkin, it is the almost unavoidable consequence of income growth and falling transportation costs.  His weaker arguments are those taking issue with modern Smart Growth designers straight on, as their arguments are intuitive and political rather than empirical.  They know they are right, just as my dad knew democrats aim to destroy the country, one tax at a time, because that is what he was taught.

Speck’s strength is in structuring the debate as us against them.  Then there can be only one.  Rather than defend Smart Growth on either value-based or empirical grounds, he explains the deficiencies of his, um, enemies.  He doesn’t even pretend to refute Bruegmann’s point that Speck and his coauthors cherry pick supporting data.  Instead, he imagines the character flaws of those who don’t step in line.

I thought Schweitzer would go all cuisinart on Speck but instead she counsels him that people do not in fact hate the new urbanists, but do find them very annoying.

Thursday, August 5th, 2010
randall Crane