Thursday, October 11, 2007

Pedestrians as Anarchy

My friend and I talked at length the other day on anarchy. Initially were talking about squatters, and then he said, "You can't do whatever you want. That's chaos, that's anarchy!" Putting the discussion on squatting aside, I said anarchy does not necessarily mean chaos.

In case you haven't noticed, there is a lot of (created?) misunderstanding of big words here, just like communism is misunderstood as atheism. After arguing what anarchy really means (see some links on the right), I realized that I should have just quoted what James Surowiecki wrote about William Whyte in The Wisdom of Crowds. That should be easier. An example of simple anarchy in action, no chaos included.
No one has ever paid more attention to the streets and sidewalks of New York City than William H. Whyte... Whyte's work, which was eventually published in his book City, was full of fascinating ideas about architecture, urban design, and the importance to a city of keeping street life vibrant. It was also a paean to the urban pedestrian.

"The pedestrian is a social being," White wrote. "He is also a transportation unit, and a marvelously complex and efficient one." Pedestrians, Whyte showed, were able, even on crowded sidewalks, to move surprisingly fast without colliding with their neighbors. In fact, they were often at best when the crowds were at their biggest...

New Yorkers mastered arts like "the simple pass," which involved slowing ever so slightly in order to avoid a collision with an oncoming pedestrian. They platooned at crosswalks as a protection against traffic. In general, Whyte wrote, "They walk fast and they walk adroitly. They give and they take, at once aggressive and accommodating. With the subtlest of motions they signal their intentions to one another." The result was that "At eye level, the scene comes alive with movement and color - people walking quickly, walking slowly, skipping up steps, weaving in and out in crossing patterns, accelerating and retarding to match the moves of others. There is a beauty that is beguiling to watch."

What Whyte saw - and made us see - was the beauty of a well-coordinated crowd...

Anarchy is simple the absence of a ruler. And as the streets of New York shows, the absence of a ruler does not have to mean chaos. People - in many cases - can coordinate themselves beautifully.

PS: The picture above, is actually not of New York's pedestrians, but of Tokyo's. It's from UNFPA site.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting article. it's true, it's fascinating how pedestrians in a crowd navigate so easily and elegantly. compare that to cars in rush traffic... maybe the fact that the car has become the paradigm of modern society, has lead us to disbelieve peoples ability to cope with freedom.

    i'll check out the rest of your blog, which i found it via browsing for anarchist thinking about cities. i am myself a student of urban planning, and the more i learn about the history and sociology of cities, and think about the problems facing us, the more interesting the old anarchist classics become.