Don’t Worry, Be Messy

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

| November-December 2010

  • Don't Worry Be Messy City Graffitti

  • Don't Worry Be Messy City Graffitti

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.

12/24/2010 12:44:31 PM

I totally agree with this article. Montreal' Québec is an example of a city that got excessively cleaned up in the 1960's by once mayor Jean Drapeau. He cleaned up all of the électric tramway and electric bus network and brought in gas guzzling buses before eventually bringing in the Metro lines to the network of polluting bus lines. Now, because of his pro-polluting vision for the city, we are now overwealmed by a car culture because the polluting bus network is too slow burdened by the same car traffic. To modernize and go back to the same ecological public transportation that we once had, will now cost us billions and take until 2020 to implement.During the same period street venders and newspaper boxes were eliminated. We sure have a clean polluted city now..

12/18/2010 9:10:57 PM

Why is it that the mention of hot dog vendor suddenly made me want a hot dog? And yes there can be too many regulations!

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