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Hey Cities, Slow Down

Dan Hoornweg's picture

‘Lord give me patience, but please hurry.’1 Everyone working with cities has probably felt this sentiment. We see the new buildings, read the reports, and know that the hurly burley rush to urbanize across the world is picking up speed – we are about to repeat the amount of city-building we did in the last 200 years, but this time we will do it in just 40 years. Surely we have no time to slow down.

Chaucer said it well in Canterbury Tales, ‘In wicked haste is not profit.’ Or as in the sage Chinese proverb, ‘A hasty man drinks his tea with a fork.’ Haste makes waste. In the rush to urbanize, we are in danger of wasting many opportunities within our cities, as we lock in little foibles and big mistakes.

The world over, the bigger the city the bigger the haste, and it seems as if our patience is wearing thin almost everywhere. The too-long line at Starbucks, the maddening traffic, the Internet sound bites – we’re driven to distraction as we look to throttle the ‘demons of density’ in our cities.

Complex problems require patience. They demand running starts, collaboration, learning from mistakes2, and humility. Complex, or ‘wicked’ problems, like we now face as we try to house, feed and provide energy to an additional 3 billion increasingly affluent city-dwellers in an already over-stressed planet, won’t be solved in a cacophony of tweets. No matter how fast they come, or how clever they might be.

In her new book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz of Colombia University makes a powerful case for slowing down and paying attention to the details of a neighborhood. The average person misses 80% of what’s going on around them as they text or chat on their cellphone and use Google maps to watch the world unfold. Walk with a geologist and you see the fossils in the sidewalk, a wildlife biologist and you see where the raccoons and rats may be hiding. Sounds and smells get short shrift as we stare at our screens, missing critical signs.

The signs are everywhere. We need timely urban solutions, but they need to take into account as many opinions and as much information as possible. As Daniel Kahneman outlines in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, we have two types of thought processes – the faster, more biased, instinctive, first responder of thinking, and the second, slower, more deliberate, more logical, conscious thinking. Both are important, but in a rush, emotion often trumps logic.

Cities are the most complex works created by humanity. Building and running them well are huge challenges. We need to do the math, the planning, and the public consultation, and we need to know that it’s okay to re-do them when circumstances change. Studies and discussions can’t be reasons for delay but doing the homework first leads to a better solution.

You can’t pick up a city and move it away to get a fresh start. Mistakes are always visible as we build atop them. And mistakes can be extremely costly. We cannot afford to make many more. With an appreciation of the urgency and the need for a thoughtful response, we will build better cities. 


1From a sign purported to have been above the stove of Preston Manning’s mother. This blog suggested by an article on Preston Manning and his new Manning Center for Building Democracy.

2From Carl Honore, The Slow Fix: Solve Problems, Work Smarter and Live Better in a World Addicted to Speed. Forthcoming.

Photo:  Boston, Copley Square - The Tortoise and the Hare. Source: Wally Gobetz, Flicker.com/CreativeCommons