Urban design theory has been criticised for being incoherent and insubstantial. It is suggested that this is partly because urban design theory is not robustly based on a fully scientific underpinning. In so far as urban design theory appears to be scientific, it is in danger of being pseudo-scientific. This article explores the relationship between science and pseudo-science, and questions the extent to which urban design theory could be called pseudo-scientific, by considering the hypotheses underlying four classic urban design theory texts. It is found that although the individual texts are more or less scientific, the way the field as a whole combines and uses these can be interpreted as pseudo-scientific. The article reflects on the interpretation of pseudo-science and suggests the need for urban design to have a better system of validation and critical assimilation of scientific knowledge.
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Science is not monolithic. It is possible to recognise different kinds of science (for example, logical, empirical, practical, Klaasen, 2007, pp. 471–472) and different stages in the evolution of a science (Shneider, 2009). A basic assumption is that science is characterised by ‘universalism, disinterestedness, organized skepticism, and epistemic communism (or the sharing of methods and findings)’ (Bunge, 2011, p. 413 after Merton, 1973); de Jong and van der Voordt (2002) suggest criteria of reliability, validity, openness to criticism and relevance.
The literature contains myriad criteria for identifying what is pseudo-scientific: Derksen (1993) discusses ‘seven deadly sins’; Lilienfeld (2005) suggests ‘ten commandments’; Bunge (1984, pp. 38–40) identifies 12 conditions, and 19 ‘typical attitudes and activities’ distinguishing scientists from pseudo-scientists (p. 41). But the problem of what is science or pseudo-science is ‘curiously inconclusive’ (Curd and Cover, 1998, p. 177). Science itself may sometimes be pseudo-scientific (Derksen, 1993, p. 19; Laudan, 1984). Defining pseudo-science is in danger of recursive arguments (Popper's suggestion of falsifiability is itself not a falsifiable statement; Ladyman, 2002, p. 85); Lugg (1987, p. 221) suggests that the prospects for demarcation are ‘exceedingly dim’; the so-called ‘demarcation problem’ has been described as a ‘pseudo-problem’ (or not: Lakatos, p. 26) whose presumed ‘demise’ (Laudan, 1983) has in turn been refuted (Bunge, 2011, p. 424).
All four appear in Lloyd-Jones and Roberts’ (1996) Urban Design Canon; the first three feature in Cuthbert's (2010, pp. 15–16) list and two recent compilations (Carmona and Tiesdell, 2007; Larice and Macdonald, 2007); ‘A city is not a tree’ has been republished at least 13 times (www.rudi.net/books/5613; accessed 1 March 2012). For the context of the genesis of these four texts, see, respectively, Raynsford, 2011; Orillard, 2009; Laurence, 2007; Grabow, 1983.
Lynch carefully states that these are ‘hypothetical’ and not ‘proved to exist, like Platonic archetypes’ (ibid., p. 154). In fact, Raynsford's (2011, p. 52) recent research suggests they were derived from previous ‘civic art principles’, but that Lynch ‘suppressed’ (ibid., pp. 44, 45, 62) or chose not to disclose the urbanistic roots of his work. In any case, scrutiny of Lynch's book (available for half a century) indicates that the elements arose from the author himself, not spontaneously from the survey participants.
Some other instances have been found where the basis of Lynch's theory has been called into question (Sommer, 2009; Taylor, 2009); it is too early to say if these will be followed up. Lynch (1984) himself seems not to have ever gone back to validate his own hypotheses, although he was critically reflective of the scientific basis of the text, and admitted the lack of validation.
This possibility of other alternatives did not depend on the graphic confirmation of Aragones’ and Arredondo's detailed empirical investigation. From even the most cursory contemplation of the issue, one could conjecture that there could be other elements that would be familiar and useful to urban designers. In any case, even if Lynch's five were the most robust elements identified by the public, this is not to say that there could not be more or better elements for design.
Death and Life is one of the most famous and most cited works in planning and urban design theory (Harris, 2011, p. 67), lauded as ‘the most influential American book ever written about cities’ (Schwarz, 2010), appearing at the top of Planetizen's list of ‘all-time top 20 planning titles that every planner should read’ (www.planetizen.com/books/20, accessed 1 March 2012).
Although some suggest that Jacobs’ work does not lend itself easily to scientific testing (Hill, 1988, p. 312; Harris, 2011, p. 72), or warn against reductionism (Sorkin, 2010, p. xvii) or reliance on science generally, Jacobs is quite clear about the categorical nature and the significance about this hypothesis: she stresses that ‘All four in combination are necessary to generate city diversity; the absence of any one of the four frustrates a district's potential’ (original emphasis, Jacobs, 1961 , p. 197); and furthermore ‘The necessity for these four conditions is the most important point this book has to make’ (ibid.).
The lack of follow-up is confirmed by Weicher (personal communication, 2012). Indeed, at the time of writing, Weicher's paper shows up with only four citations on Google Scholar, with just two for Schmidt (for comparison, Death and Life has over 8000). Glaeser (2012, pp. 147–148) also suggests that Jacobs was not correct on the issue of age of buildings, referring to various works in economics, which however were not direct tests of Jacobs’ proposition about mixed ages (and conditions) of buildings as one of four prerequisites for diversity.
Harary and Rockey are not widely cited in the urban design literature. A recent retrospective article (Harary, 2011) gives no hint that this strand of criticism ever advanced since 1976.
Discussions of pseudo-science in the literature surveyed tend to deal either with pure sciences, or applied crafts (such as astrology) that are direct extensions of their own theories, rather than those attempting to assemble findings from a wider body of ‘mainstream’ scientific knowledge.
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