Why Negative Capability is Relevant to Planologie


Poet John Keats defined negative capability as the ability to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” If this doesn’t sound especially profound or relevant to planologie, well, it is both. In yesterday’s post, Santi Tafarella linked negative capability with empathy, with attentive listening, and with the ability to sublimate one’s existential angst into larger mysteries of being. All admirable qualities. But what might it mean for an urban planner to practice negative capability? Or for the general populous? Or the city itself?

In addition to fixing messes of the present, the job of an urban planner is to recommend courses of action for dealing with a predicted future. Both actions are rife with uncertainties, with mystery. Planning is, by definition, engaging the unknown. A planner who empathizes with the full range of stakeholders will more deeply consider the impact of proposed interventions from many viewpoints. A planner who hears what people mean as well as what they say is more likely to conceive of interventions that go beyond appeasement and approach solution. An ability to step out of oneself reduces the risk of a planner becoming entrenched in his/her own ideas of what is right, of how things should be.

The need for certainty, for closure, for definition, has long been a hallmark of Western thought. It gave birth to modern science, but it also fuels intolerant religiosity, bigotry, and persecution. Homosexuality was “known,” definitively, to be the work of demons until it was “known,” definitively, to be a pathological disease. Think how many horrors could have been avoided if our forebears had admitted that they didn’t know what caused it. Definition is the death of possibility.

Too much definition strangles spontaneity. Too much certainty murders creativity. Enduring cities are magical places that shift with time and the changing notions of their inhabitants. They are mysterious, and that is why we love them. A city stripped of mystery is a man drawn and quartered. Sure, the pieces are still the same, but it feels kinda lifeless.

This is not an argument in favor of negligence or ignorance. Urban planners, architects, and landscape architects shoulder enormous responsibility. Interventions can be preposterously expensive and impactful. Diligence is crucial. But sometimes the only honest answer is, “I don’t know.” Decision makers should be comfortable saying it, and constituents should be comfortable hearing it. Small-scale experiments and trials should perhaps be employed more often. Efficiency should not be the only yardstick of success. Moreover, the conceptual paradigm of planning should perhaps change (I think it already is). Maybe the central question is not “how do we solve this problem,” but “are we providing a healthy context for living?”

Negative capability, as I understand it, leaves room for the unknown. It includes possibility. It recognizes and respects all that is other. Empirical thinking can be a zero sum game. If you are right, then I am wrong. Negative capability asserts that one can ask questions without seeking answers. One can empathize without rationalizing. One can exist within mystery and not reach for revelation. Negative capability might not draw up the plan your firm was hired to produce, but it could dramatically alter the questions you ask, and could in turn take the project in a completely new direction, one that otherwise would have remained unimagined.

This entry was posted in architecture, Culture, Josh Grigsby, Placemaking, Rants, Response Pieces, Sustainability, Uncategorized, urban design, urban planning, What if? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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