During the 19th Century the American poet John Godfrey Saxe famously wrote about the story of the six blind men and the elephant. It began:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind
The story explains that each one of the men touches a single, different part of an elephant. They then compare notes on what they felt, and learn that they are in complete disagreement with one another as to what an elephant is. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe. The story illustrates how reality may be viewed differently depending upon one's perspective.
Now imagine that rather than blind men describing an elephant, the story is about built environment professionals tasked with describing a city. They may include highway engineers, landscape architects, town planners and urban designers. Each is looking at it from their own perspective. One professional may think of a city as a series of connected routes, another as a number of discrete public spaces, a collection of different land uses or a particular block structure. Each professional will provide different perspectives of the city and describe it in different ways. None of these descriptions will necessarily be wrong, but they are likely to fail to take account of a city as a whole.
Now imagine that these professionals not only have to describe a city, but also have to develop ways to improve it. What will be considered an improvement? How will this be judged? Only if they can describe a city holistically can they determine whether their interventions will ultimately improve it, rather than simply improve a city from their own particular professional perspective. Ultimately, the success of a city derives from optimising numerous, interrelated variables rather than trying to maximise a single one.
Our attempts to continually improve levels of connectivity within cities provides an example of how focusing on a particular professional perspective may not always lead to a better city overall. We can forget (or maybe not even realise) what it is that makes our cities special, undermining them through an unquestioning resolve to address the issues associated with a single perspective. Different professional perspectives are not bad things, it is only by not being aware of these differences and how they can affect interventions that they can become a problem.
Before any professional attempts to improve a city they must be sure that they truly understand it, or at least be aware of how their perspective skews their understanding. Only then should they contemplate how they can use their particular skills to improve it.
Donald Rumsfeld’s famously commented in February 2003 that:
“…there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know”
His speech may have been ridiculed in the press for its complexity, but it does help to describe the relationship between professionals and their knowledge of cities. Some professional are not aware of the limitations of their perspective – or their unknown unknowns about cities. This group are unaware of their shortcomings, believing that they already have the ability to fully understand a city and that their interventions will always be in a city’s best interest. In reality their professional perspective blinkers them from a more holistic understanding.
Others are aware of the shortcomings of their professional perspective, and strive to complete their descriptions of cities by calling on other professions and their alternative perspectives. For them there are known unknowns.
Finally there is the possibility that there are some professionals who do truly understand cities, for them there are only known known’s. However it is debatable whether anyone really can have such a complete grasp of the complexities of a city.