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All Food & Nature in Cities

Seeing Like a State

The concept of legibility at different scales was my primary takeaway this week. Le Corbusier-favored right-angled streets and geometric divisions of land make cities and communities legible from a government office or an airplane; last names make people legible for population accounting and tax purposes. Our interstate highway system, while the right-angles were adapted around where population centers into a constellation, makes cities and states legible, offering predictable routes and expectable travel times. Standards—from S.I. units of measurement to documented specifications of dog breeds—are a key component of legibility. One level up from the interstate system, airports utilize standardized IATA codes and physical infrastructure including runways make all shipping and travel legible. Passports being standardized within each country provide their value inside countries, and the standards between countries provide their international value. Inside the U.S., the USPS standardized addresses across all of the U.S. and networks them with its mail service. People often first resist standards, but looking back, imagining life without them seems chaotic and impossible. Logic—what Le Corbusier referred to in his own work as the “prodigiously true” and “incontrovertible”—appears to have been the prevailing reason in hindsight, but in the moment, they were often to settle conflicts, such as feudal landlords’ grain sacks.

Maps and databases based on structured, standardized data gives panopticon-like powers to the state, which frequently has a monopoly on the ability to collect and store this data. (Less so in the United States, where the federal government buys phone location data from ad brokers and hires Palantir to keep track of citizens’ identities and activities.) Transparency is what makes that power monopoly worthwhile, because many of these systems, when designed ethically, provide key tools for journalism, activism, and civic understanding, from get-out-the-vote canvassing based on public voting records to San Francisco’s citizen adopt-a-storm-drain website. Berlin is an example of stellar transparency efforts for city data, with thousands of maps and bilingual articles on their city website. But technical access does not ensure accessibility—how quickly can you find and understand the budget of your local schoolboard, or see dangerous pollutant levels at a nearby industrial facility from the EPA databases? Information design requires focus and funding so open data is useful for more than beaurocrats.

Seeing Like a State as a book omits the element of time or sense of time progressing, and its introductory chapters continue the trend of mentioning people only as momentary examples. It’s written from a high altitude with a statement-of-fact approach to describing the world. Its central conceit of German planned forestry, turning the wild diversity in a forest ecosystem into a perfect human-designed timber-production factory, provides an excellent metaphor for many systems. Le Corbusier’s approach, which to quote him, “expressed all the splendor of modern times,” did offer critical entries in the design of modern architecture, and should be kept in mind alongside his unending arrogance, Nazi complicity, and spectacular failures. At the higher altitude of his work applied to city planning, for example, where he banished all third spaces to install massive paved squares for city centers, we see the loss of ecosystem diversity in the human social graph of the city, plus the conflict of natural water system needs where human logic is rendered in unending concrete.