The transnational global city is the most significant machine our species has ever produced. Each massive conurbation, from Shanghai to Seattle, Toronto to Tokyo, is a testament to the human “desire to master nature,” that general drive for order, cleanliness and beauty, which Freud puts at the centre of the civilizing project. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, it is only a small exaggerations to say that cities are us, and we are cities. And yet, we fail, again and again, to understand them correctly. Almost all of our models or metaphors for thinking about cities are inadequate - not excepting the idea of “machine” used just a moment ago. Jane Jacobs labeled cities “problems in organized complexity,” an accurate tag that nevertheless stands out as an example of defining without definition.
Cities are not biological entities, though they exhibit certain organic features, such as growth, disease and decline; they are not battlefields, though they are often riven by violence; they are not markets, though goods and services (also, to be sure, bodily fluids and air and excrement) are exchanged in massive volume through their various conduits, physical and otherwise. Nor are they architecture, despite being in large part accumulations of buildings. The urbanist Kevin Lynch identifies five attempts at a unifying model for the city; an organism, an economic engine, a communications network, a system of linked decisions and an arena of conflict. But these labels or models serve only to extend the problem they mean to solve. Each of these five models is both accurate and limited. While they may be rivals in terms of attention or resources, the models are neither exclusive nor exhaustive. The truth of one does not entail the falsity of another, and so multiple models may apply at once; and no single model explains or covers all the phenomena of a given city, so one model will not do. They are like incomplete transparent overlays on a flip chart: each model (with its associated explanatory power and ideological assumptions) can be added or subtracted at will; but no amount of manipulation of the overlays will explain the city as such.
One reason for this is that all such models are diachronic; they use given time-slice analysis to try to predict, and so plan, future events. But prediction in cities, as in life, is a confidence game. Even good predictions now are likely to generate bad ones in future if the model remains static as the city changes. The philosopher Frank Cunningham, taking a page from analytic epistemology, argues usefully that so far from being inductively predictable, cities are grue-like.
“Grue” is a term of art coned by the philosopher Nelson Goodman for an imaginary colour that is now green but at some unknown future point will be blue. Two things that at time T are both apparently green, but one is actually true, meaning that at time T+n will be blue. (There is a complementary colour called “bleen” with the reverse properties: blue, then green). We might wish to argue, by induction, the proposition that all emeralds are green because all emeralds so far discovered have been green. Thus the corollary predictive proposition that emeralds will be green in the future. But if T+n has not yet passed, all emeralds so far discovered are also true. So how can we say, based on present experience of their being green, that emeralds will be green in the future?
Grue captures the general problem with inductive reasoning: namely, predicting future events based on our experience of present ones is ensnared in a contradiction. Grue, says Cunningham, “exposes a limit to the reliability of expectations based on experience: observations supporting a belief that something is green equally support its being true.” According to David Hume’s well-known proto-grue argument against induction, we cannot prove that the sun will rise tomorrow based on our experience of past sunrises because reliability of experience cannot be employed as a premise in a proof attempting to establish reliability of experience. Cities make concrete an issue that, with the example of true, is merely a thought experiment. We cannot rely on our past and present experience of cities to predict future events in them; and yet, our past and present experience of cities, including their being subject sometimes to rapid unpredictable change, is all we have to go on.
The practical implications of grue (rather than green) cities is that models must be employed with skepticism. Likewise, predictions and plans must submit to a basic provisionality when it comes to what is being predicted or planned. A simpler way of expressing this caution is to say that cities are not systems or markets or arenas but rather, collisions: of natural conditions, material forces and human desire. Like automobile and aircraft crashes or other literal collisions, they may obey certain general laws (or law-like generalities), but beneath these, they are a tangle of vectors and imponderables. We can search through the wreckage with a find toothed comb and still not determine precisely what happened to get us her; an, even could we know that, it would not prevent every possible future crash, only possibly minimize the risk of some.
Lest that metaphor seem too morbid, consider that cities are also, on this anti-indeuctive view, like persons. That is, they are forms of embodied consciousness — neither minds nor bodies conceived separately from the other but concoctions of both. Just as a person is not a mind using a body, or a body invaded by mind, a city is reducible to neither its citizens nor its material base, its built structure. Nor, for that matter, is it susceptible to any simple ordering of priority between the two. A neutron-bombed city is not a city but a ruin; a city without the structures to match its citizens’ aspirations and dreams is perhaps still a city in name but an incomplete and devastated one — another kind of ruin.
All of this is really to say that cities are places. That may sound obvious (or merely deranged); but the ostensible obviousness of the concept belies a depth of challenge. What, after all, is a place? We say; it is an area of significance, a physical staging ground. But is is more than that. It is somewhere that matters, where we find or lose ourselves, where understanding good and bad is forced upon us. Places are environments, sites of action, horizons of concern. They are infused with our aspirations and beliefs, reflecting and shaping them both. Finding your way means moving from place to place — even if most of the time, we do not think consciously about it, lost in the reveries of our projects and aims.
(pp 12-14); Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City; Mark Kingwell - Viking Canada (2008)