A week at the Edinburgh festival: good theatre, bad music and great books

August 29, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Last week Cathy and I spent our annual week at the Edinburgh festival. It provides a high intensity restoration of the mental flora (colonic irrigation of the soul?) before the autumnfringe grind begins. We tend to avoid the ubiquitous stand-up comedy, even though the heckling sounds pretty amazing, and go for a more NGO-compatible diet of miserabilist theatre, random music and heavy reading.

Best theatre was undoubtedly Grounded, a stunning one woman show about drone attacks (see what I mean about miserabilism?). The most random music was definitely the massacring of Dark Side of the Moon by ‘MacFloyd’ (seemed a good idea at the time). But as most of you won’t be going to Edinburgh, I’ll stick with the 3 books I got through. Two good and one great.

Let’s get the good ones out of the way: Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones unpacks the one form of abuse of what Robert Chambers called ‘lowers’ that has become socially acceptable among British liberals – ridiculing the ‘chavs’ – white working class kids in shellsuits and burberry. Think Vicky Pollard in Little Britain. (Does ‘chav’ mean anything in the US, or is there some other equivalent for modern rednecks?). Jones argues that it is the latest stage in the economic and political destruction of the traditional working class, which has allowed elites to move from 1970s fear of ‘the enemy within’ to today’s overt ridicule. It’s good old-fashioned polemic by a great young leftist writer, and I certainly won’t be using that word again.

Shame: Confessions of an Aid Worker in Africa’, by Jillian Reilly is a painfully honest autobiographical account of how a young American woman lost her messiah complex while inflicting capacity building and AIDS awareness programmes on Southern Africa in the 1990s. She never really had a chance – she writes far too well to be an aid worker.

jane-jacobsBut top of my Edinburgh reading list was a 1961 classic: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. It did for our understanding of cities what Silent Spring (published the following year) did for the environment. Jacobs loves cities, and was a devoted activist (see pic) in defending what she valued – the diversity and life of the streets.

The picture she paints is of city as organism, a living ecosystem far too complex for the simple linear approaches of traditional top-down planning. She was writing as the ‘projects’ of just such planners were spreading blight across the urban US. She has an instinctive grasp for complexity, and how to navigate it, and tried to introduce early complex systems thinking from the life sciences into debates on urban systems.

Basing her ideas on deep observation of particular neighbourhoods, she concludes that a diverse, dynamic urban district requires a combination of four elements: a range of primary functions (i.e. not just office workers who disappear at 5pm); short blocks with lots of intersections and corners; a mingling of old and new buildings, with old buildings providing cheap rents for lower-yielding businesses; and a sufficiently dense concentration of people. She contrasts this with the gut dislike of untidy, chaotic, heavily peopled cities that underpinned the ‘garden city’ movement and other modernist attempts at imposing ‘rational’ central planning.

Her focus is on the dynamics – how do slums emerge, and then ‘unslum’? Why is diversity inherently unstable, always at risk from the rise of a monoculture that becomes more profitable than the alternatives? She finds that the key to unslumming is not shipping in middle classes, or mass redevelopment, but making it possible for the talented members of the next generation to stay in their home neighbourhoods, by allowing them to finance and upgrade existing slum housing (often their childhood homes).

For Jacobs the proper role of planners is to observe the reality of city life, put their ‘master plans’ to one side, and instead ‘plan for vitality’, finding ways to ‘reweave’ the communities that have been destroyed, for example by restoring the four drivers of diversity.

And she has great throwaway lines: ‘the trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.’ Planners contemplate the messy unpredictability of the city and find it ‘in some dark and foreboding way, irrational.’

Lots of parallels with Donella Meadows here, and both resonate with current development debates:  the importance of preceding any intervention withSouth Sudan urban plan deep, slow, respectful observation; the need to understand the workings of the system as a whole (not just its elements); to think about processes, not objects (‘the park’, ‘the civic centre’ or in development-world, ‘the workshop’, ‘the borehole’); the need to start from the particular, not from the general rule; the case for gradualism and trial and error, rather than grand plans.

What I don’t know is how much has changed since 1961. Can planners really still be the top-down control freaks that Jacobs pillories? Has anyone put her ideas into practice and if so, what were the results? (Wikipedia cites her as an inspiration behind 1980s New Urbanism – what happened to that?)

And has she influenced thinking on international development? Chris Blattman once suggested her collected works be sent to South Sudan as a health warning on their development plans (see pic). Anything else?