Don’t Worry, Be Messy

An alternative to all of the neatness that has dominated the popular perception of what makes an ideal city

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Imagine you’re at a town hall meeting where a local political hopeful pledges that—unlike her opponent—if she is elected, she won’t “clean up” the city—not even a little bit.

Not bloody likely, you say?

Well, according to Dylan Reid, senior editor of the urban-minded Spacing (Summer 2010), “there is a growing idea, developing independently in the minds of city lovers of many different stripes, that the ideal city is not clean and beautiful, but rather messy and all mixed up.”

For the past hundred years, thanks to the rise of bureaucracies necessary to implement it, cleanliness has dominated the popular perception of what makes a municipality worthy (think Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill”). It’s order and efficiency above all, which is why you’ll find many cities laid out on tidy grids.

Now there are signs that the cult of clean has overshot its utility. Reid connects cleanliness to problems like “bigger roads, sanitized suburbs, and failed megaprojects that destroyed the complex ecology of cities even as they tried to revive them.”

“Messy urbanism” is the term coined for an alternative to all of this neatness; it’s an attempt to strike a compromise between the need for order and maintaining the unplanned, energetic, and chaotic nature of city life. Not only does the nascent movement espouse structural diversity—old alongside the new, expensive alongside the cheap—it encourages looser governance and a higher tolerance for disorder.

Street food carts are a perfect example: They’re banned or highly regulated in most places. Yet, Reid points out, a sociologist studying New York City found that a solitary hot dog vendor can bring an entire plaza to life. For all the wannabe policy makers out there who are trying to kick-start stalled metropolises, that’s food for thought.

Image by SmileyReilly, licensed under Creative Commons.