How Chaos Leads to Creativity: A Conversation on City Development.

Upper Manhattan from Fort Tyron Park. || Photo credit to Bernadette Berdychowski.

Upper Manhattan from Fort Tyron Park. || Photo credit to Bernadette Berdychowski.


“You can’t plan a great city—and you really shouldn’t try.” Dr. Sandy Ikeda, a specialist on the economic nuances of cities, stated.

Ikeda tackled the complicated nature of city development in the City Room on November 13 and shared his findings regarding the purpose and future of metropolises.

“When they work well, cities are naturally disruptive,” Ikeda said.

City planners, then, should be wary of trying to contrive an ideal metropolis. “A living city is not only good at solving problems, it’s good at creating them…finding solutions is good, but having problems to solve is better.”

While cities may be noisy, crowded, and sometimes unsightly, this mess provides the breeding ground for innovation. The chaos and inefficiency of cities is not simply a liability to be endured, but an opportunity to be leveraged.

“The largest and most rapidly growing cities at any given time have to be the least efficient,” Ikeda stated, quoting Jane Jacobs. “By this, I do not mean that cities are economically valuable despite of their inefficiency and impractically, but rather because they are inefficient and impractical.”

In this mess of population diversity, systematic problems, and inevitable growing pains, human creativity catalyzes innovation. When unhindered by governmental oversight and allowed to evolve, the value that cities add is astronomical.

“Governments should provide infrastructure, but beyond that, they should not try to impose a vision to the overall order of the city,” Ikeda said.

Cities attract the artists, the entrepreneurs, and the innovators, as well as the marginalized, the revolutionary, and the delinquent. Great cities, by their very nature, force these groups to intermingle: they bring “the widest range of socially distant people close together, exposing each of us to experiences and ideas we would not encounter anywhere else, nor would we want to,” Ikeda explained. “Any city that aspires to greatness has something to offend everyone.” This intermingling—diverse people with complicated problems—leads to creative solutions.

Based on this analysis, perhaps , “city planning” is a misnomer.

The unique contributions of metropolises can only emerge through the muck and chaos, and ensuing innovations of individuals—a  “spontaneous order” that, by its very nature, cannot be orchestrated.

In Ikeda’s estimation, the inevitable issues incumbent of a dense population (pollution, congestion, noise, etc) ought to be allowed to emerge. Planners should not preempt these problems with contrived fixes, because doing so stunts the gemination of the most powerful solutions. “We need to permit experimentation, trial and error,” he argues.

“The future of cities is promising if political authorities trust and enable the resourcefulness of ordinary citizens… and facilitate problem solving on the part of the ordinary people who encounter the issues,” he concluded.

“Other than that, I don’t know what the future of cities is, nor does anyone else, and that is a very, very good thing.”