Urban Philosophy

Review by Susan Sheng

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
368 pages
List Price
IndieBound, Amazon

Building and Dwelling

Ethics for the City

Book by Richard Sennett

This past March, a driver with a history of speeding and traffic light violations drove through a red light in Brooklyn, killing two young children, seriously injuring their mothers, and reigniting debates over road design and traffic law enforcement. In Tempe, Arizona, Uber came under fire after one of its autonomous vehicles hit and killed a woman crossing a wide highway, causing many to question whether autonomous vehicles can be the panacea for reducing traffic fatalities. At the heart of these tragic events is the notion that urban planning and technological innovations have a profound impact on the quality of life for city dwellers. Richard Sennett’s latest book, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City, a timely, sweeping, yet accessible addition to the urban studies literature, explores the interplay between design and experience, and insists on a role for ethics in urban design.

Building and Dwelling is the last volume in Sennett’s Homo Faber trilogy, which examines the “skills people need to sustain everyday life.” Here, Sennett, a professor of urban studies and sociology with appointments at New York University and the London School of Economics, considers the fraught relationship between the ville, or the physical built space, and the cité, or the character or culture of a place. That tension is especially pronounced in the current moment, with increasing concern over whether and how human contributions to climate change can be mitigated. Weaving together modern and historical case studies with his own experiences as an urban planner, Sennett describes how urban planners have attempted to change the lived experience in cities, and both the positive and negative consequences of their work. While technological innovations can improve the lived experience, Sennett points out that they often bring a new set of problems. He ultimately asks, “Can ethics shape the design of the city?”

Sennett traces the birth of urbanism back to 19th century Europe, when civil engineers sought to change societal behaviors in order to stem the spread of diseases such as cholera, dysentery and tuberculosis. While doctors tried desperately to treat the symptoms of disease, engineers, aided by improved construction materials, tested different design solutions to channel animal and human waste and make the streets easier to clean. Cleaner streets prompted societal changes in how people disposed of garbage and waste. Those hygienic improvements also made outdoor spaces more appealing as social space – “the sanitary engineer’s gift to urban civilization.” In this instance, innovative design vastly improved quality of life in cities.

Other changes to urban design have had mixed political and social implications. Baron Haussmann’s work in straightening the streets of Paris during the 1850s and 1860s, for instance, was both a response to the three revolutions that had upended Paris and France over the preceding 60 years, and an attempt to facilitate freer movement and access to public spaces in the city. But facilitating movement came at a cost. Sennett notes that “walking lost its value” as “freedom of movement was equated with speed of movement.” This ended up decreasing what Sennett calls the “lateral consciousness” of a space, as it is impossible to take in the nuances of an environment when hurtling by at high speeds.

This notion of speed as freedom can be seen in modern times as a near worship for private motor vehicles. Governments throw billions of dollars into building and expanding highways in an attempt to alleviate congestion. Even in a dense, transit-rich city like New York City, any proposal to remove parking spaces in favor of bus or bike lanes is met with outrage from the car-owning minority. I had to laugh at Sennett’s shrewd descriptions of community consultation meetings, where members of the public “howl in protest,” the planning authority gives “the illusion that a real negotiation has happened” and officials proceed to do exactly what they set out to do in the first place.

Sennett rightly argues that community input is critical in successful urban design. Due to their limited experience, however, many citizens are not aware of the full range of possibilities. Drawing on his expertise as an urban planner, Sennett highlights techniques he and his colleagues have employed to engage the community in planning designs — with varying degrees of success. While computer programs can easily render 3D models of the proposed design, Sennett favors Styrofoam, which is easy to carve and allows for closer-to-life-sized models which give a better perspective and improves engagement. For instance, in a project to design a park in Shanghai, they asked citizens to “cut and sculpt” the Styrofoam blocks into their desired benches and play-furniture.

When it comes to technological innovation in city planning, Sennett is more critical. He derides the ‘Googleplex’ concept – massive campuses (like those of Google and other tech companies) where every service an employee could need, from laundry to fitness and sleep, is included, so employees can focus on their work. He also remains dubious about “smart” cities like Songdo, South Korea, where computers constantly monitor all aspects of the city, from traffic flow to air quality, electricity and water usage, in order to maximize economic and environmental efficiency. Sennett argues that a closed, controlled smart city “stupefies its citizens” and stifles creativity and innovation in its attempts to optimize the user-experience and minimize struggle. He points out that this user-friendliness “deadens curiosity,” because there is no need to explore, and the need to find and solve problems is removed. Efficiency is prioritized over experience, and exploration can lead to dead-ends, which disrupts the careful homeostatic balance that the prescriptive smart city tries to enforce.

This is not to say Sennett is a Luddite. He argues that technology should be used to coordinate rather than control human activity — a strategy that not only costs less to implement than the high-tech omniscient approach, but also enhances and promotes citizen input. As an example of a positive application of technology, he cites how smartphone and big data technology has been harnessed in several Brazilian cities so residents can participate in the budgetary process and discuss how funds should be distributed in the community. This citizen engagement promotes democratic values and encourages people to “take ownership’ of their communities,” Sennett writes, as they are able to build the infrastructure required for their specific needs.

As a relative novice to the field of urban planning, I found Sennett’s narrative quite accessible, though the breadth of topics he covers can be overwhelming. He weaves together historical examples with his own stories and experiences, breathing life into what could otherwise be a very academic and philosophical topic. He argues that “open” cities, which promote fluid interaction between citizens and planners, are the most resilient and sustainable for the future. Technology is often lauded as the be-all solution to today’s societal woes, but Sennett cautions that blind worship of technology may actually hinder human progress. He does not offer any clear cut solutions, but emphasizes the need for flexibility and adaptability in order to build open cities that are resilient to internal and external forces. Careful integration of technology and urban design, combined with thoughtful discussions between urban planners and local residents about the ethical implications of design choices, can lead to safer streets and healthier cities.

As more and more cities sign on to Vision Zero, a movement that envisions road transportation systems where there are zero traffic-related fatalities, Sennett would urge urban planners to consider the underlying ethics of their proposals. For decades, planners have focused on moving motor vehicles as quickly as possible from point A to point B, resulting in wider roads that allow faster, deadlier speeds. At the same time, fossil fuel emissions from motor vehicles also contribute to the greenhouse effect and rising global temperatures. Is it ethical to keep promoting travel in single-occupancy vehicles? Or might it be better to begin shifting urban centers towards lower emission methods, such as mass transit, cycling, or walking? Sennett’s book is a timely reminder that as we design our cities to confront the challenges of the future, ethical thinking should be part of the plan.


Susan Sheng is a Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience and Physiology at New York University. After moving to New York, she discovered the joys, freedoms, and challenges that come with bike commuting. She joined Twitter as an outlet for venting her frustrations about cycling on New York City streets, and now uses it to learn from and connect with a community of safe street advocates.