Urban Ecology

Peter Saunders. Handbook of Urban Studies. Editor: Ronan Paddison. Sage Publications. 2001. 

This chapter starts out from three basic axioms. First, social life in cities is ‘patterned,’ and cities are in this sense ‘socially organized.’ It is this ‘patterned’ and ‘organized’ character which enables us to talk of cities as ‘urban systems.’ Second, cities are part of what Anthony Giddens has called the ‘created environment’ (Giddens, 1984). It may sound trite and obvious, but it is important to recognize at the outset that in analysing cities we are dealing with the products of human intervention in the material world. Third, this intervention occurs over an extended period of time, and at any one time, the possibilities of intervention (the conditions of action) will depend upon the legacy bequeathed by the efforts of earlier generations. Furthermore, millions of individuals are involved in shaping the social structure of the city, both consciously and unconsciously, and the combined results of their actions may turn out to be very different from what any of them specifically intended.

Drawing these three points together, it is clear that, while cities may appear to be organized systems created through human intervention, we cannot deduce from this that their organized character is necessarily the result of deliberate human agency. My aim in this chapter is to consider the extent to which the social organization of cities may arise spontaneously as an unplanned outcome rather than the product of conscious human design and intentionality

To explore this question, I shall first return to the insights of the pre-war Chicago School of human ecology. Although this work has long since lost its attraction for most contemporary urban sociologists, I shall identify two linked but distinct themes which arise from its focus on ‘biotic competition’ as the driving force shaping urban social organization. These are, first, the idea of a ‘natural’ process shaping social life in cities, and second, the idea of cities as ‘evolved’ systems. I shall conclude, albeit tentatively, that both of these insights continue to have some validity, and that the post-war reaction against the biologism and evolutionism of the Chicago School has blinded contemporary urban theory to some crucial processes which still shape the organization of urban systems. Robert Park and his colleagues at Chicago did not simply found the new subject of ‘urban sociology,’ but they also bequeathed it some fundamental tools which remain central to its future scientific development.

Created Environments and Human Design

According to Anthony Giddens, nature was for our ancestors a threatening and uncontrollable force, but we have learned (up to a point) how to tame nature and to transcend many of the limitations which it once imposed upon us. In the modern period, we live in a ‘created environment.’

Giddens emphasizes that the created environment is found everywhere. For him, the old distinction between town and country has ceased to have much meaning or significance, for the rural landscape is no less of a human creation than the urban one. Nevertheless, modern cities are perhaps the clearest expression of this transcendence of nature. In a city like New York, where it is possible to shop for one’s groceries at four o’clock in the morning if one is so inclined, the division between daytime (a period of natural light during which social activity is possible) and night time (a period of darkness in which social activity is closed down) has collapsed. The seasons, too, pass virtually without notice as we pursue our year-round rhythms of life insulated by central heating from the winter snows and by air conditioning from summer heatwaves. The original physical topography of the city has also long since been obliterated, for we daily defy the contours and constraints of ‘nature’ as we hurtle through the earth in subway trains or speed half a mile upwards in the elevator of some monumental skyscraper. Even distance itself has largely been overcome, not only by revolutions in transportation technology such as the automobile and the jet aeroplane, but also by advances in electronic communications including the telephone, television, and latterly, the internet.

The urban environment in which we live out our lives is, therefore, a testament to human will, ingenuity and creativity. Like Sherman McCoy, in Tom Wolfe’s New York novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1988), those who today participate in creating this environment—planners, developers, politicians, architects, business executives—could be excused for believing themselves ‘masters of the universe,’ limited in their designs for the future only by the constraints of their own imaginations.

For much of the twentieth century, these putative ‘masters of the universe’ exercised their imaginations to the limit. The history of the past hundred years is littered with blueprints for revolutionary urban environments which sought to harness the potential of modern technology in order to realize the ideals of modern social and political Utopias. Ebenezer Howard’s plans for ‘garden cities’ harmoniously combining the advantages of town and country; Le Corbusier’s dreams of ‘cities in the sky’; Albert Speer’s designs for an imperial Berlin as the showpiece centre for a thousand year Reich; the miles of concrete barracks stretching out across the landscape of eastern Europe to house the new socialist men and women of the Stalinist empire; the ‘New Towns’ and sprawling high-rise council estates of post-war Britain; the demented (and now aborted) plans of the Rumanian dictator Ceaus-escu for a mega-palace in the heart of Bucharest -all are evidence of the desire of powerful men (for there are few mistresses of the universe) to sweep away the clutter of urban ‘chaos’ bequeathed by an earlier age and to replace it with the authoritative stamp of a rational and planned new social order.

Looking back on this history, two things are immediately apparent. The first is that even the most determined ‘masters of the universe’ have often encountered limits on the effective realization of their dreams. In the late 1960s, which was perhaps the highpoint of the twentieth century’s flirtation with rational planning and technocratic social engineering, a British urban sociologist, Ray Pahl, proposed a framework for analysing cities which became known as ‘urban managerialism’ (Pahl, 1975). According to Pahl, the city could be seen as an organized system of resource allocation, a system which is recognizably patterned and which gives rise to systematic inequalities. In order to explain this pattern and to account for these inequalities, Pahl argued that we should look to the people who determine how resources shall be allocated—the ‘urban managers’—whom he deemed to be the crucial ‘independent variables’ in any sociological investigation.

It soon became clear, however (not least to Pahl himself), that ‘urban managers’—planners, politicians, housing agencies and the like—were not operating in a vacuum. Their actions were constrained, partly by economic and political factors, but also partly by the operation of what is best described as a ‘spatial logic.’ Those who appeared to be running the urban ‘system,’ the individuals who decided what should be built where and who should get access to which locations and facilities, were in fact themselves the subject of ‘forces’ beyond their control. It was not just that local managers were constrained by national governments (which were themselves limited by international movements of capital), nor even that planning so often encountered the brute force of a market logic which could not simply be ‘wished away,’ but that they also ran up against a ‘spatial logic.’ At its simplest, this dictated that no two people could simultaneously occupy the same point in space (which means that inequalities of distance are to some extent unavoidable under any social arrangements), that the existing use of any one piece of land tends to set limits on its possible future uses (a problem which became particularly acute for socialist planners working in cities developed during an earlier, pre-socialist, era), and that the potential uses of any one area of land are limited by the existing pattern of use of the areas around it.

The tyranny of higher level politicians, the tyranny of market forces, and the tyranny of distance all served to limit what was possible, and by the mid-1970s Pahl had virtually abandoned his earlier formulation, recognizing that even the most powerful urban actors merely ‘intervene in’ or ‘mediate’ processes which, ultimately, are under nobody’s control. As he vividly expressed it, holding urban managers responsible for the social consequences of their actions is ‘rather like the workers stoning the house of the chief personnel manager when their industry faces widespread redundancies through the collapse of world markets’ (Pahl, 1975: 284).

The second point is that, where ‘masters of the universe’ have been able to refashion urban environments to express some ideal of how people ‘should’ live, the results have generally been disappointing, if not downright disastrous. Of course, just as Marxists have long argued that Marx’s blueprint for a future socialist society was faultless, but that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Honecker and the rest somehow consistently failed properly to implement it, so too defenders of urban utopias have always been able to claim that the original vision was flawless but that it was implemented badly (defenders of Le Corbusier, for example, have often claimed that the high rise housing disaster in Britain does nothing to undermine the brilliance of the original idea). The point, however, is that when blueprints are implemented from the pristine white pages of a planning document, they encounter real-world obstacles and flesh-and-blood people. If, repeatedly, the ideas do not work as intended when they are put into practice, it is because there is something about the real world which fouls them up. I am reminded in this regard of Marx’s caustic critique of nineteenth-century Hegelian idealism in which he tells of the ‘valiant fellow’ who believed that ‘men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads … they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water’ (Marx and Engels, 1970: 37). The same caustic response is appropriate in the case of the twentieth century’s urban visionaries who blame reality when their ideas fail.

The test of ideal blueprints is whether they work as they should, and by and large, planned urban utopias have not worked. In Britain, for example, New Towns designed to break down social divisions and to sustain a more rounded and fulfilling way of life for their inhabitants have ended up as soulless suburban deserts with gangs of youths roaming the streets on a Saturday night with nothing to do once the pubs have shut. High-rise housing blocks, intended to create ‘communities in the air,’ have ended up with their lifts vandalized and their stairwells scarred by graffiti and urine, and in many cases, they have been dynamited within 20 or 30 years of their proud unveiling. Huge council estates designed to replace the clutter of nineteenth-century inner city back streets with planned environments ‘fit for heroes to live in’ have ended up as ‘hard-to-let’ estates avoided if at all possible by all but the most desperate of homeless families, their ‘community centres’ wrecked on a regular basis by the very youngsters for whom they were designed.

Planned visions for urban living are, therefore, hard to implement, and when implemented, they tend not to work. Why is this?

My argument in this chapter is that large-scale designs for urban living tend not to work because they violate certain human and social ‘needs’ of which we are still only dimly aware. Over many centuries, human beings have, largely unconsciously, evolved forms of living which reflect these ‘needs,’ but these forms have wilfully and deliberately been replaced in the modern period by consciously articulated designs which have been implemented through large-scale interventions intended to embody rational plans for social improvement and refashioning.

It is true, as we have seen, that all urban environments are to a large extent humanly created. But the fact that human beings actively create their environments does not mean that we can collectively decide to recreate them in accordance with one or other blueprint for living and expect the result to work. It is also true, as Pahl recognized, that all urban environments are generally patterned, and that in this sense they have some of the properties of organized ‘systems.’ But it does not follow from this that the pattern has been the result of deliberate human design, nor that the ‘system’ has been the result of conscious planning and coordination.

There is a crucial distinction to be drawn between the idea of the ‘created environment’ and the idea of the ‘designed environment.’ For at least five thousand years, human beings have been busy shaping the landscape, taking what was bequeathed them by earlier generations and working on it further, refashioning it and modifying it as their requirements and their technology have changed. Throughout this time, the environment has perpetually been created and recreated through the purposeful activity of individuals, but there has been no overall plan to which these developments have been forced to conform, and no grand social objective to which they were expected to contribute. It is only in the modern period that we have attempted to plan the landscape in accordance with some single, grand design. Convinced by a belief in their own omniscience and omnipotence, twentieth-century masters of the universe have impatiently swept away the accumulated legacy of earlier generations and have replaced it across the board with environments—housing estates, shopping malls, leisure complexes—which have been planned from scratch on rational-technical principles. The results, very often, have been environments which do not ‘work.’

Social Evolution and Biological Reductionism

Evolutionary change is non-teleological. If, as a result of a long-term process of evolution, we end up with a ‘system’ which ‘works,’ it is not because any single agency planned it that way, but because, through trial and error, people have come to learn which arrangements best enable them to fulfil their own individual needs and requirements, and how these arrangements can best be adapted to those developed by other people around them. Evolutionary change entails a process of constant innovation at an individual level coupled with iterative mechanisms for mutual adjustment at the level of the wider community. Nobody runs such systems, nobody directs their course, and they have no final end-point. Evolved systems ‘work,’ not because they are consciously ordered or coordinated, but because variants which do not work so well (i.e. those which do not ‘fit’ the environments in which they arise) are jettisoned along the way.

In sociology, evolutionary theory has been a long time dead. The idea that, like natural organisms, societies have systemic elements which become increasingly complex and functionally interdependent through time as a result of a process of unconscious evolution was powerfully expressed in the work of the late nineteenth-century sociologists such as Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim, and, as late as the 1960s, Talcott Parsons applied evolutionary theory to an explanation of why and how societies ‘develop’ towards modernization (Parsons, 1964). From the 1960s onwards, however, evolutionary theory became discredited and fell out of fashion in orthodox sociological circles. There were at least four reasons for this.

First, growing political sensitivities about the newly independent nations of the ‘Third World’ and the historic role of Western imperialism in fostering what Marxists saw as their ‘underdevelopment’ could not easily be reconciled with evolutionary thinking, which seemed at least to imply that the West was at a ‘higher’ stage of evolution than its former colonies. Furthermore, the idea that the countries of the ‘Third World’ would have to pass along much the same road of capitalist development in order to achieve affluence was anathema to those who held out the prospect of an alternative, socialist, route to modernization. Second, a resurgence of interest in ‘social action’ approaches, in which individual agency figures prominently as a source of change, flew in the face of evolutionary perspectives with their focus on ‘system properties’ and ‘evolutionary universals’ implying little scope for individuals (including politicians and sociologists) to bring about desired outcomes through a mere act of will. Third, increasing agitation to effect radical social change in the Western capitalist countries, expressed within sociology by the groundswell of neo-Marxist writing from the 1960s onwards, could not easily be squared with forms of theory that emphasized the historic significance of gradualism and adjustment as against tumultuous upheaval and destruction. And fourth, there was a new commitment in many areas of sociology to forms of ‘humanist’ thinking which rejected any approach, such as evolutionary theory, which seemed to suggest or imply that human action and human institutions could in any way be explained with reference to ‘natural’ or biological processes.

It was this last consideration which was probably the key one. Social theories of evolution have their roots in the Darwinian revolution within biology. The same fundamental principles discovered by Darwin—notably the principle of survival through competition (natural selection) and the idea that species development entails growing functional interdependence and complexity—are replicated (often by means of an ‘organic analogy’ such as that found in Durkheim and the later ideas of structural functionalism) within sociological theories of evolution. Of itself, this does not necessarily result in ‘biological reductionism’ (the explanation of social phenomena with reference to ultimate biological causes). Durkheim, for example, was strongly committed to an evolutionary explanation of social change (set out mo st clearly in his The Division of Labour in Society, 1984), but he was also equally strongly committed to the irreducibility of sociological explanation, arguing (in The Rules of Sociological Method, 1938) that social phenomena have social causes and social effects which are independent of psychological or biological factors. As we shall see later, it is quite possible to analyse social phenomena (like cities) as complex evolved systems without necessarily implying that they are in some way the result of ‘natural’ causation.

Nevertheless, biologism and evolutionism are related, if only through the pervasive influence of the organic analogy in sociological accounts of evolution. It is but a short step from arguing that ‘societies function in a similar way to living organisms’ to arguing that ‘social arrangements come to reflect natural, biological needs of human organisms.’ Given sociology’s longstanding resistance to all forms of psychological or biological reductionism, and its commitment (until recently) to Enlightenment values which hold out the promise of using rationality to escape from nature, it is not surprising that evolutionary theory, with its pessimistic message about the possibilities of refashioning and directing social development, should have been abandoned.

Human Ecology: Evolution through Biotic Competition

The abandonment of evolutionary theory within sociology as a whole was reflected within urban sociology by a sustained attack on the theory of human ecology. Described by Leonard Reissman as late as 1964 as ‘the closest we have come to a systematic theory of the city,’ human ecology was perhaps the most explicit example anywhere in sociology of an attempt to analyse patterns of social life with reference to (a) natural or biological forces operating beyond the consciousness of human agents, and (b) social organization as the product of unconscious evolution.

The theory was developed in the first 30 years of the twentieth century by Robert Park and his associates in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago (Park, 1952). Looking at Chicago, Park was struck by the systemic properties which the city exhibited. With little in the way of purposive planning or consciously directed coordination, the city—a seething mass of several million individuals—nevertheless appeared to be ‘organized.’ In particular, certain kinds of people and activities tended to locate in certain kinds of areas and, somehow, these turned out more often than not to be locations in which they could thrive. Designating these locations as ‘natural areas,’ Park hypothesized that there was some underlying process at work through which cities spontaneously grow while simultaneously ensuring that different social functions—retailing, family housing, prostitution or whatever—come to be located in the most appropriate spatial locations.

The process which he went on to identify he termed ‘biotic struggle,’ and he contrasted this with more conscious activity—economic trading, political decision-making, law-enforcement, moral socialization and the like—which he summarized under the heading of ‘society’ or ‘culture.’ This distinction between ‘biotic’ processes of unconscious competition and adaptation, and ‘cultural’ or social processes entailing economic, political and moral cooperation or conflict, lay at the heart of the theory of human ecology. Park was well aware that much of what happens in a city is a product of more-or-less conscious, inter-subjectively meaningful and purposeful activity pursued by human agents in social relationships with one another. This ‘level’ of activity corresponds to the traditional subject matter of the social sciences (for example, to what Weber defined as ‘social action’—Weber, 1968: 4). But he also insisted that, behind and underpinning this social action, there was an unconscious process operating which was akin to the process of ecological competition taking place in plant and animal communities. Furthermore, it was only as a result of unconscious biotic struggle that human beings found themselves in a position to develop social-cultural institutions, for it is biotic struggle which sifts and sorts us into socially complementary spatial units where we can find a functional niche, put down roots, and begin to interact positively with those around us.

According to Park, biotic struggle entails a process of competition for space. Those social activities which are functionally best suited to a given location will gradually come to dominate that space, driving out and repelling alternative uses which will then gravitate towards other locations where they in turn can achieve dominance. As certain areas become established for certain uses, so there arise symbiotic relationships between different types of users which can thrive through close proximity with each other, and the resulting ecological system tends towards a state of equilibrium as different social functions based in different areas come to adapt to the wider environment of which they form a part. If this equilibrium is disturbed (for example, by an influx of population, or the introduction of a new technology), biotic competition is once again sparked off, and different groups begin jostling to establish a new niche in the changed ecology within which they find themselves. Old uses find themselves displaced by newer ones which are now better suited to that location, and in this way, different areas of the city undergo a process of succession from one dominant use to another. As things once again gradually bed down, so the intensity of biotic competition recedes, and social (cultural) activity reasserts itself within and across the new communities which have been formed.

Cities therefore grow and sustain themselves as functioning systems through a process of evolution which entails recurring periods of unconscious competition between different social groups, invading, defending and dominating the natural areas to which they are functionally best adapted. Overlaid upon this ecological system is a social system with its economic institutions, its political agencies and its cultural forms.

Park’s theory was subjected to criticism from very early on, and the principal target was his distinction between biotic and cultural processes. Basically, critics charged that the distinction could not be demonstrated empirically, for whenever we look at urban areas, we see only social-cultural processes at work. Biotic competition, precisely because it is an underlying process, can never be identified distinct from the social institutions and social actions through which it is expressed. Firey (1945), for example, cited evidence from Boston to show that so-called ‘biotic’ and ‘cultural’ factors were inextricably linked and could not empirically be distinguished. Certain areas—the upper class housing on Beacon Hill, the Italian slum area, the city centre graveyards—were invested with such a degree of symbolic importance by various residents that the biotic processes of competition posited by Park had been modified, mediated or even transcended to a point where the processes of invasion and succession predicted by the theory had apparently ceased to operate. With its location so close to the expanding Central Business District, for example, Beacon Hill should, according to Park’s theory, have been successfully invaded, and the traditional WASP residents should have moved out to a new area. The fact that this had not happened suggested either that biotic competition can be blocked by cultural factors (in this case, the sentimental attachment of the residents to this area), or that biotic competition does not actually exist at all.

In retrospect, we can see that Park’s theory encountered much the same sort of problem as both Marx (for example, in his claim that a ‘material base’ shapes a social ‘superstructure’) and Durkheim (for example, in his claim that a ‘suici-dogenic current’ shapes the observed ‘social rate’ of suicide) had encountered before him (see Saunders, 1986 for a more extended discussion). What are we to make of the claim that some underlying process exists when it cannot be directly observed independently of the phenomenon which it is said to generate?

The problem as it applied to Park’s theory was summarized by Alihan (1938), who questioned the existence of an underlying process—biotic competition—which, by definition, could not be observed empirically. Park argued that this process created observable entities—‘natural communities’ such as the Central Business District, the red light area, the immigrant slum area or the suburb—but (as Firey’s examples showed), it was impossible to find evidence to support such a claim. It is noticeable, for example, that much of the inter-war output of the Chicago School of human ecology took the form of ethnographies which provided detailed accounts of ‘ways of life’ of different urban groups -Italian slum dwellers, hobos, women working in taxi-dance halls, the inhabitants of a Jewish ghetto—living in different ‘natural areas’ of the city (for a review, see Hannerz, 1980), yet none of these studies was able (or even tried) to demonstrate the existence of a ‘biotic struggle,’ for ‘natural areas’ are, according to Park’s own theory, precisely those areas where biotic competition has receded and ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ processes have come to the fore.

Alihan suggested that Park’s problem could have been resolved by presenting the biotic and cultural levels of human organization as ‘ideal types,’ analytical tools for thinking about urban processes rather than empirically observable categories. This, however, would have dramatically weakened the theory, for there is a world of difference between claiming that biotic competition exists, and claiming that it can be useful to classify observations by imagining that it exists. More recently, Peter Dickens (1990) has drawn on so-called ‘realist’ epistemology to highlight a second way out of the problem. Biotic forces can, he says, be represented as ‘real’ yet ‘unobservable’ tendencies in human organization, tendencies which may or may not become manifest according to ‘contingent’ conditions operating at the level of social organization. This would certainly help to get around the sort of problem posed by Firey’s research, for it could enable us to claim that, just as gravity is a real force which continues to operate on aeroplanes in flight even though we do not observe them plummeting towards the earth, so too biotic competition is a real force which is always operating in cities, even though its effects may fail to manifest themselves due to countervailing contingent cultural conditions (such as symbolic attachments to certain areas, as in Boston).

As I have suggested elsewhere (Saunders, 1986, Appendix), however, this sort of theorizing is still problematic for as long as it remains impossible to identify whether or not the theorized underlying force really does exist. Unlike physical scientists, who can set up experimental conditions in which contingent effects are held constant to enable us to observe the operation of the underlying forces, social scientists have rarely been able to demonstrate independent evidence for the underlying processes they have theorized. Is there a ‘material base’ behind the superstructure? Is there a ‘suici-dogenic current’ behind the suicide statistics? Is there a ‘biotic struggle’ behind the cultural processes at work in the urban environment? In every case, we end up unable finally to answer the question, in which case we may be excused for asking why we should accept the theory as valid in the first place.

Park himself never resolved this problem. Given his commitment to an empiricist epistemology (he once famously described his methodology as ‘walking the streets’), it was in principle irresolvable, for no amount of walking the streets was ever going to uncover direct evidence of biotic competition, and this proved to be his Achilles’ heel. As things turned out, later social ecologists like Amos Hawley simply side-stepped the problem by dropping altogether Park’s concern with observing cities and their natural areas. Post-war human ecology limited itself to developing Park’s theoretical concern with processes of differentiation, dominance and functional interdependence while ignoring his specific empirical concern with observing these processes at work in different city locations. Human ecology thus survived into the post-war years, but its association with urban sociology was gradually weakened as the theory became more general and less applied. By the 1960s, ecological theory, with its emphasis on questions of adaptation and functional interdependence, had become almost indistinguishable from general sociological theories of evolution and structural function-alism—in his 1964 article, for example, Otis Dudley Duncan explicitly tied ecological analysis to evolutionary theory in general. Not surprisingly, therefore, the revolution in sociology which swept evolutionary theories out of mainstream debate from the 1960s onwards took ecological theory along with it.

What Can Be Salvaged from Human Ecology?

What, if anything, can be salvaged from Park’s theory of human ecology? His ideas are still discussed in most urban sociology courses and textbooks, but they are normally represented as little more than an intellectual museum piece, an example of where the subject started rather than a theory which has anything much to offer to contemporary thinking about the city. Like Park, urban sociologists still recognize that cities are patterned and that they have many of the properties of an organized system, but attempts to account for these patterns and to explain the genesis and functioning of the system generally avoid any reference to ‘natural’ or ‘biotic’ processes.

Today’s theorizing about the city can be divided into two broad types of approaches. In the first, emphasis is placed on the activities of powerful individuals or groups who more or less consciously shape the city to their own requirements. Pahl’s early version of the urban manage-rialist thesis is one obvious example of such an approach. So too is the tradition of ‘community power’ research and its legacy in later work on the city as a ‘growth machine’ and in so-called ‘regime theories’ of urban politics (see Judge et al., 1995, Part I, for a review). What all of this work shares in common is a focus on purposeful human agency as the core explanation for patterns in urban systems.

The alternative approach derives from the resurgence of Marxist theory in urban sociology from the 1970s onwards. Influenced by Castells’s attempt to analyse cities through the role they play in the reproduction of labour power in advanced capitalism (for example, Castells, 1977), and by Harvey’s attempt to link patterns of urban development to flows of capital between different ‘circuits’ of investment (for example, Harvey, 1982), Marxist geographers and political economists have gone on to analyse cities in the context of changes in the international division of labour, processes of industrial restructuring, and regimes of accumulation (see Savage and Warde, 1993 for a review). This type of theorizing seeks to explain urban systems with reference to the changing requirements of capital accumulation as mediated by interventionist states (which operate largely in the interests of one or other ‘fraction’ of capital) and the ebb and flow of class struggle and resistance.

It is not my purpose here to criticize either of these approaches. Adequate sociological accounts are always multi-faceted, and it would be absurd to deny that cities are influenced by the actions of powerful groups or organizations (political organization), or that they are subject to the exigencies of global capitalist markets (economic organization). It will be remembered that Park himself recognized what he described as ‘a kind of cone or triangle’ which has at its base the ecological organization of human beings, upon which develops economic, political and moral systems (Park, 1952: 260). The question, therefore, is not whether contemporary political and economic theories of the city are right or wrong, but whether there is another level of analysis, corresponding to Park’s conception of a biotic or ecological system, which contemporary theories are neglecting altogether. If we believe there is, then the further question arises of how it can be empirically observed.

There are two possibilities we need to explore, and they correspond to the two linked aspects of Park’s analysis of ecological processes. On the one hand, we find in Park’s work a clear reference to the operation of ‘natural’ forces in human organization (this is clearest in his argument that ‘biotic competition’ occurs in human as well as plant and animal communities, and that it results in the formation of ‘natural areas,’ or habitats dominated by particular ‘species’). On the other hand, we also find in Park’s work a strong focus on processes of evolution (the basis of his theory of urban growth and development which was further elaborated in Burgess’s famous model of ‘concentric rings’ and in McKenzie’s theory of the ‘stages’ of urban development). These two aspects of ecological theory are, of course, closely related, but as noted earlier, they do not necessarily entail each other. It is quite possible to identify ‘natural processes’ underpinning human organization without necessarily adopting an evolutionary theory, just as it is also possible to analyse human organizations as evolved systems without necessarily arguing that they are in some way rooted in biological needs. In the case of Park’s human ecology, however, both elements are present, and this has not always been fully appreciated in the secondary literature.

In his review of Park’s ideas, for example, Peter Dickens takes as central the concern with natural or biological processes, and he explicitly argues that Park’s focus on the ‘biotic’ level reflected his commitment to analysing social processes in the context of human biological and psychological imperatives:

The Chicago School of Urban Sociology … has much to teach us, especially as regards incorporating an understanding of instinctive behaviour into an understanding of social relations … Park … was not attempting a direct and obvious analogy between the workings of nature and those of human societies. Rather, he was arguing that there is indeed a ‘biotic’ level to human behaviour, one constituted by instincts of survival and competition. (1990: 29-33)

Dickens then attempts to develop the biologism in Park’s theory by drawing upon more recent work in ethology, sociobiology and psychology in an attempt to identify the basic ‘needs’ and ‘instincts’ which operate through and help shape social institutions and processes, and in later work (Dickens, 1992, 1996) he has tried to outline the contours of a new approach to social science which explicitly links social action to the psychological, biological and even physical processes which come to be expressed through it.

In stark contrast with this, Savage and Warde suggest that Park’s ecological theory has little to do with biologism, but is essentially an evolutionary theory:

One should not assume that human ecology is necessarily a form of biological determinism … ecological ideas, rather than being biologically derived, were largely forms of evolutionary social theory … Rather than actually arguing that patterns of urban life were the same as those of plant life (which a moment’s thought tells us is a ridiculous argument), the biological arguments are used as analogies, in order to show how comparison with biology might throw light on urban life. (1993: 15-17)

The authors are dismissive (even incredulous) of Dickens’s interpretation of Park, arguing that the Chicago ethnographies explicitly rejected instinctual theories and that, when Park spoke of ‘human nature,’ he saw it more as a social than a biological construct.

In my view, however, both biological and evolutionary interpretations of Park’s ecological theory are valid. It is true, as Savage and Warde suggest, that this was an evolutionary explanation of urban change and development, but Park seems also to have been suggesting (as Dickens recognizes) that the way cities evolve somehow reflects the natural instincts and biological and psychological needs of the individuals who compete for territory within them. The evolution of urban environments cannot, for Park, be explained simply with reference to economic, political and cultural factors, for it also reflects something else, a biotic imperative beyond the level of human consciousness and reflexivity It follows from this that, in attempting to build upon Park’s insights, we need to consider more recent developments in both biological and evolutionary theory to see whether either or both of these can help explain why conscious designs for urban living so often fail to produce the effects which their designers intended.

Biologism: Natural Areas as an Expression of Natural Will

One of the best known, yet least read, books in urban sociology is Ferdinand Toennies’s 1883 study of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. In this book, Toennies sought to identify ‘the sentiments and motives which draw people to each other, keep them together, and induce them to joint action’ (1995: 3). The strongest bonds, he argued, were those based in what he called ‘natural will’ which he defined (1995: 121) as the ‘inborn and inherited’ feelings and instincts which draw us to those with whom we share a common identity. For Toennies, the principal expressions of such natural instincts are through blood ties (the strongest example of Gemeinschaft is the mother-child relation), shared territory and common religious beliefs. The weakest bonds -those of Gesellschaft—were those based on ‘rational will’ involving calculations of self-interest, for these depend solely on legal contract, and relations in the Gesellschaft are ultimately reinforced only through the imposition of state power.

Since Toennies wrote his book, a huge amount of sociological effort has been devoted to understanding what makes a ‘community’ work. Toennies’s central typology has perpetually been recycled in this literature, but few twentieth-century sociologists paid serious attention to his analysis of ‘natural will’ as the foundation of Gemeinschaft (this, of course, reflects sociology’s rejection of instinctual and biological explanations). It is true that many community studies -such as Young and Wilmott’s classic study (1957) of the working class in the East End of London in the 1950s—have pinpointed the central importance of close kin ties (‘blood’) and lengthy common residence (shared territory) in underpinning social cohesion, and many sociologists have also been alert to the decline of religion as a factor explaining the erosion of ‘moral community’ in the modern period. Few, however, have gone on to pose the obvious question of why social cohesion is so often grounded in common ties of blood, residence and belief.

For many nineteenth-century writers, Toennies among them, the answer was obvious. It was ‘natural’ for human beings to care more for those to whom they are in some way related and to seek out others similar to themselves with whom to form common areas of residence. Today, in the wake of a critical feminist onslaught against the traditional family together with 30 years of sustained argument in favour of social-constructivist explanations of social identities, such arguments seem almost heretical. Sociological orthodoxy is today wedded to the view that there was nothing ‘natural’ about the bonds of kinship and common territory which cemented human beings together in the past, and many sociologists seem to believe that we are free to create new forms of social organization which break radically with tradition, and to shape them according to our own designs and purposes.

It is ironic that sociology has become ever-more resistant to biological explanations of social behaviour at precisely the same time as biologists have been discovering evidence to suggest that Toennies may have been right to identify ‘inborn instincts’ as the source of a ‘natural will.’ Research in molecular biology is now beginning to map human DNA in order to pinpoint which genes appear to be responsible for which biological and behavioural characteristics. When Toennies and Park were writing, it was impossible to imagine that we could ever find empirical evidence for the existence of underlying ‘instincts’ and predispositions, but today this seems to be within our grasp, and this opens up the possibility of documenting some of the underlying ‘natural’ processes which Toennies and Park suspected were operating.

It is a key proposition of contemporary socio-biology that human beings are ‘programmed’ to pursue forms of behaviour which maximize the survival chances of their genes (for example, Dawkins, 1976). Such theories do not deny that cultural factors can and do modify selfish behaviour (any more than Park denied that cultural processes can and do coexist with biotic ones), for the process of socialization is precisely one in which instinctive drives are gradually harnessed and controlled by internalized norms of social behaviour. Nor do these theories deny that altruistic behaviour is common—indeed, they take as a central axiom the idea that the unit of natural selection down the ages has been the gene rather than the organism, and this means that organisms (including human beings) will be predisposed to self-sacrifice where this improves the chances of genetic survival into the next generation (the obvious example being parental altruism towards their natural offspring).

The key point of these theories for our present concerns is that, in the process of natural selection and mutation, individuals born with a genetic predisposition to favour strangers over self will have been disadvantaged in the struggle for survival relative to those born with a predisposition to favour self over others, and their genetic stock will therefore have been less likely to have survived into subsequent generations. This means that we are almost certainly programmed to favour those whom we recognize as genetically close against those whom we recognize as genetically distant. When we behave in this way, taking more care of our own children than of other people’s, for example, or donating more to charities ‘near to home’ than to those which touch us less directly, we are not necessarily acting consciously in order to maximize the survival chances of our genes. Rather, we are responding to our ‘feelings,’ our strongly felt sentimental predispositions. Put another way, there are good grounds for arguing for the existence of a ‘natural will,’ inborn and inherited, which predisposes us to care more for those with whom we identify -which is precisely what Toennies argued over a hundred years ago.

What does all this have to do with human ecology and the urban environment? One illustration will have to suffice.

Regular patterns of residential segregation can readily be found in virtually all big, modern cities. Urban residents tend to cluster in certain distinctive areas on the basis of their social class, their ethnicity and their common lifestyles (shared status identities). So marked are the resulting patterns that the advertising industry in Britain can now target highly specific sub-groups of the population simply on the basis of their postcodes (the so-called ACORN system of classification of neighbourhood types).

How does such a marked ‘system’ of segregation come about? Social factors—politics, economics, culture—have a lot to do with it, of course. Politically, local housing authorities may allocate certain types of people to certain areas of public housing, lending institutions and real estate agencies may help steer certain kinds of buyers towards certain kinds of neighbourhoods, planning authorities may try to ensure that new developments are consistent with the ‘character’ of the areas in which they occur, and local pressure groups often agitate to maintain residential exclusivity against threats of ‘invasion’ by other social groups. Economically, the operation of supply and demand leads groups like students to gravitate towards areas of cheap rents, while developers buy up riverfront properties to convert them into luxury apartments for affluent clients, and the lower middle classes take out mortgages which buy them modest houses in the suburbs. And culturally too, people exercise choice in where to live and will often seek out areas in which they ‘feel comfortable’ and can best express their values and desired lifestyles—the elderly often retire to the seaside, for example, well-educated young couples tend to head for gentrifying inner city areas (Jager, 1986), and in America, a city like San Francisco has become a magnet for gays (Castells, 1983).

But is there something else going on in all this? Are these patterns of residential segregation fully explained by politics, economics and culture, or is there some fourth factor also operating, some sort of ‘natural’ or ‘instinctive’ process which leads us to seek out others like ourselves? Why, when people can exercise some degree of choice over where to live, do they tend to opt for areas where they will find others like themselves, and why, when deprived of such choice, do they often go to such extraordinary lengths to distance themselves from others who are unlike themselves?

Take, for example, the ethnic minority settlements in parts of inner city Birmingham, in England. An early study by Rex and Moore (1967) suggested that recent black immigrants were congregating in areas like Sparkbrook because they had no other choice. Local authority housing policies were effectively excluding them from predominantly white council estates in suburban areas of the city, and lending institutions were excluding them from suburban home ownership through the application of loans criteria involving security of employment and size of income which new immigrants could not hope to meet. The result was that immigrants concentrated in run-down inner city areas where large, old houses could be purchased cheaply and could then be sub-divided and let out at cheap rents. The whole study was premissed on the assumption that immigrants aspired to live in predominantly white council or private housing estates but were prevented from doing so by political and economic factors.

Some years later, Rex returned to Birmingham, this time conducting a study (with Sally Tomlinson) of the predominantly black area of Handsworth. The message from this later work is very different, for they found that most residents had no desire to move out into what Rex and Moore had thought of as more ‘desirable’ locations. After two decades of settlement, the area had been adapted to the needs of the newcomers, and it was experienced by them as a defensible area where they could feel relatively secure and could lead a way of life which was distinctive to their needs. Translated into the terminology of the Chicago School, a newly arrived group had successfully ‘invaded’ inner city areas like Spark-brook and Handsworth, had achieved ‘dominance’ over these areas, had ‘adapted’ the local environment (shops, cinemas, clubs, etc.) to their needs, and had begun to develop a distinctive ‘culture’ within it. Biotic competition in the early period had resulted 10 or 20 years on in the establishment of a new ‘natural area’ in which people felt a sense of communal belonging.

Contrast this with evidence of what happens when people are forced (normally as a result of the imposition of artificial political or administrative boundaries) to live in close proximity with others who are socially distant from them. The most dramatic examples can be found in recent events in Kosovo, in Northern Ireland, and in Burundi, but less bloody patterns of dysfunctional communities and interpersonal antagonism can be identified in other, less obvious, contexts. In his review of residential segregation in the British new towns, for example Heraud (1975) found that the original aim of achieving mixed-class neighbourhoods had to be abandoned. Those who could, voted with their feet, and segregation increased as time passed. Heraud concluded that, Any attempt to effect widespread social mixing on a local basis, however this is designed, will meet with little success,’ and he warned that ‘heterogeneity at a local, or block level, seems undesirable and may promote more conflict than cohesion’ (1975: 285-6). Perhaps the best example of precisely such a case where enforced mixing sparked increased conflict is that of the ‘Cutteslowe Walls’ in Oxford, where residents on a private housing state successfully pressed the local authority to build an imposing physical barrier between them and the tenants of a neighbouring council estate in order to enforce social segregation (see Collison, 1963; Robson, 1982).

It seems from these examples that the social organization of the city may express more than simply the outcome of economic or political processes. We can decide (as in the case of the New Towns) to encourage different people to live together, yet we often find that little or no spontaneous social organization results. By contrast, no decision was ever taken to direct ethnic minorities into inner city areas like Sparkbrook and Handsworth, yet within a relatively short space of time, these areas developed strong and distinctive cultures and residents became committed to remaining in them.

All of this suggests that there may be some connection between what Toennies saw as ‘natural will’ (or what sociobiologists identify as genetically programmed instincts) and the formation of what Park later identified as ‘natural areas.’ Natural areas of relatively high cultural homogeneity work, not only because of social factors, but because we are genetically predisposed to feel greater sympathy and concern for those we recognize as similar to ourselves. Of course, those with whom we identify in the modern urban neighbourhood may not be—and generally are not—closely related to us in genetic terms. This, however, is not the point, for as van den Berghe (1981) suggests, our disposition to cooperate with those carrying the same alleles prompts sympathy towards those categories of people whom we have learned to recognize as ‘one of us.’ Ethnic solidarity, for example, is a cultural phenomenon insofar as we have learned to identify certain physical signs, such as skin colour, as indicating inclusion in or exclusion from membership of a social category, but it is a biological phenomenon insofar as the sentiments of cooperation or competition which members or non-members feel towards each other are the products of genetic programming orienting us to favour related individuals over unrelated ones.

Residential segregation, therefore, may be understood as a natural process, culturally mediated. In addition to the economic, political and cultural forces leading us to locate in one or other area of the city, there seems to be a biotic process, grounded in genetic predispositions to seek out others like ourselves, which is also operating.

Other phenomena studied by urban sociologists may be analysed in a similar way. Elsewhere, for example, I have considered the extent to which the desire for home ownership can be explained as the culturally mediated product of an instinctual drive towards territoriality and other forms of possessiveness (Saunders, 1990), and Peter Dickens (1990) devotes much of his urban sociology text to a reanalysis of themes—urban violence, domesticity, political leadership—which he suggests can more fully be understood by bringing together sociological theories with psychological and biological ones.

There is, however, still a very strong resistance in sociology to the use of biological theories to help explain social phenomena, and critics still often assume that such theories can be discredited simply by denouncing their ‘reductionism,’ or by asserting that they are ‘ideologically motivated.’ In his attack on my work on home ownership, for example, Samson treats the idea of analysing instincts as self-evidently absurd—‘Saunders seriously entertained the notion that desires for home ownership and private property may be natural instincts’—and he went on to dismiss the entire enterprise as simply ‘a means of reinforcing attitudes about the nature of existing social inequality’ (1994: 93-4). With a few honourable exceptions (e.g. Hirst and Woolley, 1982), sociologists remain intent on keeping their distance from the biological sciences.

Leaving such predictable criticisms on one side, it does nevertheless still have to be recognized that, like Park’s original theorization of a ‘biotic’ level, much of the work on genetic instincts remains speculative. Despite recent staggering advances in the mapping of the human genome, we are still a long way from being able to identify the genes which are thought to be producing the sorts of behavioural tendencies considered in this chapter. It is one thing to demonstrate, as Dawkins does, that certain kinds of genetic predispositions ‘must’ have been selected through processes of competition for survival, but it is another to provide the definitive empirical evidence for their existence. Unless and until such evidence is found, this kind of work is likely to remain suggestive rather than conclusive, and one of the legitimate criticisms which can be made of Dickens’s recent work is that, like so many social scientific applications of realist philosophy, it ends up still begging the question of whether and how the posited ‘underlying mechanisms’ actually operate.

Evolutionism: A Social Logic of Spatial Forms

The second strand bequeathed us from Park’s human ecology is the concern with evolved spatial forms. Chicago, it will be recalled, was an unplanned city which nevertheless functioned as a patterned system. We have also seen evidence that some planned communities conspicuously fail to function in this way. The question is therefore whether certain kinds of spatial arrangements have evolved in such a way as to enable social life to thrive, while more modern designed environments have generated dysfunctional outcomes because they have failed to replicate these evolved patterns.

An early attempt to raise this question was Jane Jacobs’s pioneering analysis of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which represented an explicit attack on the legacy of American town planning. According to Jacobs, planners have imposed grand schemes which destroy the vibrancy, spontaneity and safety of urban areas because they fail to understand the hidden dynamics which have shaped urban evolution in the past. ‘It is,’ she says, ‘futile to plan a city’s appearance, or speculate on how to endow it with a pleasing appearance of order, without knowing what sort of innate, functioning order it has’ (1961: 24, emphasis added). Conscious design has obliterated a spontaneously-evolved ‘natural’ order, and the result is physical uniformity, neighbourhood demoralization and social paralysis.

Several subsequent researchers have taken up this issue and have attempted to identify the evolved patterns in human communities which best enable them to function as local systems of social order. As in the work on the instinctual basis of urban environments, however, the problem again arises of how to find evidence for an underlying process or structure which is not immediately observable, and this is reflected in a divergence in views as to the precise nature of the ‘innate, functioning order’ hypothesized by Jacobs.

On the one hand, studies by Oscar Newman (1972) in the United States and by Alice Coleman (1985) in Britain have suggested that evolved spatial forms succeed in maximizing security and safety for those who live in them by limiting the potential access of strangers and ensuring high levels of surveillance of surrounding space. Such arrangements encourage residents to feel and accept some degree of responsibility for monitoring behaviour in their areas. Modern, designed environments, such as high-rise and deck-access blocks of flats, fail to correspond to these elementary principles of socio-spatial order. They are generally characterized by large areas of ‘confused space’ for which nobody feels responsible, and by a profusion of exits and entrances which make escape by strangers relatively easy and monitoring by residents extremely difficult. Failing adequately to demarcate territorial boundaries, these designs facilitate anti-social behaviour and minimize effective surveillance of public behaviour.

Utilizing a very rudimentary methodology, Coleman shows that the frequency of occurrence of indicators of anti-social behaviour—litter, vandalism, graffiti, urine and animal faeces—is found to correlate significantly (though not always strongly) with various features of building design such as the number of dwellings per building, the height of blocks and, most crucially, the number of exits and entrances. She also demonstrates, not only that conventional housing is much less associated with anti-social behaviour then modern, purpose-built blocks, but also that housing built in Britain between the wars—bay-fronted, suburban, semi-detached homes set back from the road behind low garden walls—is much more successful than post-war housing designs involving flush facades, high screening walls and projecting garages blocking the view from the house to the street. In her view, there was, until the Second World War, an evolutionary process of ‘natural selection’ in vernacular building—design evolved through trial and error and builders competed for buyers by adopting proven best practice while rejecting styles which had produced problems for residents. Since the war, however, architects and builders have been responsible less to prospective buyers than to local authority planning departments which have encouraged developments that reflect current architectural fashion yet fail to embody the design principles of the earlier period. The inter-war semi was thus ‘the most advanced design achieved by British mass housing before natural evolution was broken off by planning control’ (1985: 103).

Coleman concluded her book with a range of design recommendations, and there is some evidence that, where these have been adopted on housing estates, crime rates and vandalism have fallen appreciably (Ballantyn, 1988). Nevertheless, her work has been criticized. Predictably, perhaps, given their lack of patience with all forms of ‘reductionism’ and physical determinism, sociologists have argued that the social problems in high-rise estates have more to do with the poverty of the residents than with the design of the blocks (Spicker, 1987), and architects too have argued that the problems associated with high-rise housing have been exaggerated (Glendinning and Muthesius, 1994). There are also some serious weaknesses in Coleman’s data analysis which have been exposed by Hillier (1988) who goes on to suggest that her prescriptions are more likely to exacerbate than to relieve the social problems she identifies.

Hillier, it is, who represents the main alternative to Newman and Coleman. Echoing Jane Jacobs’s earlier arguments, he suggests that a functioning community depends upon encouraging diverse flows of people rather than shutting strangers out, and on linking residences into the wider urban environment rather than shutting them off from it in ‘defensible spaces’ behind walls and fences. His arguments derive from his earlier book with Hanson, in which the authors analysed the way in which patterns in the built environment express variations in a set of simple ‘syntactical rules.’

Hillier and Hanson’s work (1984) is far more sophisticated and complex than anything attempted by Jacobs, Newman or Coleman. They demonstrate through a series of computer models that, by specifying some simple restrictions on a random process of aggregating cellular units, well-defined aggregate patterns emerge which resemble those found in real-life communities. For example, if we begin with cells (representing houses) of four sides, one of which is an entrance opening onto an open space, and if we specify only one rule—that cells should be added by joining the open space one to another—then we end up with what the authors call a ‘beady ring’ form of settlement which corresponds closely to some real-world hamlets such as those found in the Vaucluse region of France, and which can be found in more complex combinations in many larger settlements as well. Such settlements are interesting because they share a recognizably common structure (the beady ring) while varying widely in their particular forms, and this suggests that they developed not through conscious design but by some unconscious process of cumulative growth.

Hillier and Hanson go on to show that, by varying the initial rules in a limited number of ways, it is possible to identify a set of core principles according to which a wide variety of different building and settlement patterns are structured even though they develop through what are essentially random processes of aggregation. These principles can be codified into what they call a ‘space syntax’—that is, spatial forms can be represented in a rule-based ‘language’ varying in its complexity according to the number of restrictions placed upon the process of random aggregation.

It is through the analysis of these syntactical rules that Hillier is able to assert so authoritatively that Coleman is wrong to argue for designs which limit access by strangers, for in his work with Hanson, he finds a recurring principle in evolved urban environments which combines what they call ‘axial extension’ of public space with intermittent ‘convex’ spaces along the lines (essentially the ‘beady ring’ pattern). Put simply, this pattern provides multiple strong routes of access for strangers while ensuring maximum connectedness of residential units to these routes, and this results in main thoroughfares being crowded with strangers while inhabitants are able to maintain surveillance. One of the crucial unintended yet beneficial outcomes of the unplanned structure of such environments is, therefore, that safety is maintained by a high rate of flow of people in public spaces overseen by a high number of local residents. As Hillier and Hanson put it, ‘The strangers police the space, while the inhabitants police the strangers’ (1984: 18).

What is striking about all this is that these structural properties of evolved urban environments are very often missing in modern, planned housing estates, and Hillier and Hanson demonstrate that this is reflected in much lower levels of use of public spaces in even the most progressive, well-established, low-rise estates. Put crudely, the absence of spatial order in modern, designed environments is mirrored in an absence of social order, and interaction and social contact is minimized as space becomes unintelligible. This has nothing to do with population size or density, for even high-density designed environments generate and sustain much lower levels of activity than lower-density evolved ones, and the authors describe life in these new estates as ‘like living in perpetual night’ (1984: 23). Like Newman and Coleman, therefore, Hillier and Hanson recognize that modern design has broken disastrously from the evolved wisdom of traditional spatial forms, but unlike them, they are able to identify what has gone wrong by uncovering the underlying principles of successful spatial and social order. These principles demonstrate that the problem lies, not in the lack of territorial defence and demarcation (as Coleman believes), but in the failure to integrate cores linking the interior of urban systems to the outside world.

This work on space syntax is important, not only for its substantive findings, but also for its methodology. Just as arguments about the ‘natural’ basis of urban social organization need to go beyond mere assertion and to demonstrate the causal properties of the underlying genetic code which is said to be producing the observed forms, so too analysis of evolved spatial forms depends upon our ability to detect the fundamental principles of urban growth and development which are generated through random processes of aggregation over time. Like analysis of the structural properties of DNA, analysis of the structural properties of space syntax holds out the promise of empirically testable insights into the unconscious and unrecognized forces shaping complex phenomenal forms.

Conclusion: A Fatal Conceit?

Through much of the Western world, the immediate post-war years were suffused with an uncritical spirit of optimism about our ability to plan a better future. In Britain, Keynesian economics offered the prospect of stable, low rates of unemployment achieved through government intervention in the operation of the free market, the establishment of the welfare state promised a way of abolishing poverty and providing a comprehensive system of health care for all, and the Butler Education Act held out the hope of achieving effective equality of opportunity for all children. The remodelling of urban environments, presaged by the 1944 and 1947 Town and Country Planning Acts, was a further, integral element in this new spirit of optimistic grand design. Many British towns had been badly damaged by wartime bombing, and much of the remaining housing stock dated from before the First World War. For 20 years after the war, city centres were reconstructed, new towns were created and old residential neighbourhoods were obliterated as politicians, planners and architects joined forces in a concerted attempt to create a more rationally ordered urban environment better suited to the modern, post-war age of social reconstruction.

In the midst of this reformist euphoria, a few isolated voices of caution were raised warning of the dangers and difficulties inherent in attempting to impose universalistic rational blueprints on the apparent chaos of collective life. The most notable sceptics were Friedrich Hayek, whose book The Road to Serfdom was published in 1944, and Karl Popper, who published The Open Society and its Enemies just one year later. But such views were widely dismissed at the time as reactionary (Cockett, 1994), and in Britain the critics were effectively marginalized for many years by a bi-partisan commitment to expanding the scope of social and economic planning.

In retrospect, we now know that much of this concerted effort aimed at planning new forms of social organization failed to achieve the hopes and objectives of those who championed it after the war. Keynesian demand management policies eventually resulted (as many of Keynes’s early critics had forecast they would) in a vicious spiral of mounting inflation and inefficient subsidy of declining industries. State welfare provision swiftly became an open-ended commitment in which ever-increasing levels of public expenditure chased ever-increasing demands for new forms of provision while ‘social problems’ continued to multiply. The state education system still produced poorly educated and in some cases barely literate adults and left employers complaining about the quality of the labour pool from which they were obliged to recruit. And urban planning resulted in the wholesale demolition of perfectly serviceable areas of housing redefined as ‘slums,’ the shattering of traditional communities as people were shipped out into new estates, the blighting of large areas awaiting redevelopment, the widespread destruction of areas of architectural heritage, and the creation of new ghettos for the poor which, in the more notorious examples, have become ‘no-go areas’ characterized by high levels of criminality, drug abuse, unemployment, street violence, educational truancy and dysfunctional families.

There are many specific reasons why specific policies failed, but one general factor underpinning this whole period was the belief in the omnipotence and omniscience of comprehensive state planning. In the last book he published before he died in 1992, Hayek (1988) identified this belief as what he termed ‘the fatal conceit.’ This conceit consists in the belief that, as rational beings, we can use our intelligence and our knowledge to create institutions which will serve our purposes better than social arrangements which have evolved through time and which nobody designed, nobody controls and nobody even fully understands. It is our conceit as human beings which makes modesty in the face of evolved or natural systems so difficult to accept, for we are constantly tempted to try to improve upon them in order to turn them to our desired purposes. As Hayek suggests, intelligent individuals find ‘humiliating’ the very idea of being subject to forces which they do not understand and do not control, and they respond by resolving to take control of and direct these impersonal forces towards their own desired objectives.

Such a conceit is ‘fatal’ because we have neither the intelligence nor the knowledge required effectively to organize and manage what Hayek calls an ‘extended order.’ He accepts that we can learn something about the principles which underpin this order, and that we can make some limited and successful attempts to modify it, but he sees as disastrous the spirit of rationalism (epitomized in socialism) which rejects forms of organization inherited from the past if they cannot be scientifically justified, if they cannot be fully understood, if they have no defined purpose, and if their effects cannot be fully known in advance. Irritated by the ‘irrationality’ of tradition, state planners have assumed that they can improve upon it through the application of intelligence, and every failure of design simply provokes a fresh attempt to do it better next time.

Hayek’s argument is mainly a defence of the free market as an evolved and unconscious system of coordination of human action, but it applies equally to what this chapter has identified as the ‘biotic processes’ shaping human created environments. What I have tried to show is that there is an inherited ‘wisdom’ in evolved urban forms which, although it lacks ‘purpose’ and is opaque to our conscious understanding, nevertheless helps structure and order the environments in which we live. There is often a spontaneous order in the apparent chaos of the largely unplanned city just as, conversely, there is a profound absence of social organization and cohesion in many post-war planned urban environments. I have suggested that one reason for this may have something to do with the way human beings instinctively feel comfortable with and gravitate towards those whom they recognize as ‘similar’ (a product of the operation of the ‘selfish gene’), for as the Chicago ecologists recognized, left to ourselves we tend to sift and sort ourselves into what Wirth (1938) called a ‘mosaic of social worlds.’ If this is correct, then attempts to re-engineer social cohesion by forcing spatial proximity upon socially distant groups have failed because they have run against the grain of our genetic inheritance. I have also suggested that unplanned urban environments often ‘work’ because they (unconsciously) incorporate an evolved spatial ‘syntax’ which is lacking in consciously designed urban blueprints. Again, Park and his colleagues seem to have been at least partially aware of this in a way that post-war planners and politicians have not, for the early work of the human ecologists points to the importance of an evolved wisdom, barely understood, which has led us down the centuries to create spatial patterns that maximize feelings of security and personal autonomy.

Park’s essential insight, an insight which was once central to urban sociology yet which is today widely ignored or simply forgotten, was that urban systems are patterned partly as a result of processes which operate independently of human intention, processes which reflect both the innate instincts of human beings and the evolved logic of spatial forms. This is an insight which we continue to ignore at great cost. If many modern urban environments have today become lifeless, soulless and even dangerous places in which to live, it is in part because we have been conceited enough to believe that we could plan an environment which would work better than that bequeathed through the trial and error of the countless generations that have lived before us.