I've started playing (a lot of) Sim City, not for the first time, because of its newest incarnation as a too-fun, too-cheap and too-addictive to play iPad app. Sim City gets a bad reputation amongst serious urban planners, and not only because it's a frivolous time waster. No, it gets a bad reputation because it embodies the old-guard logic that urban planning is a centralized, master plan-driven affair. It's a game that, for that reason, as served as a foil for New Urbanists, progressive city thinkers, and mostly anyone who has read and loved Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
The parallel decline of centralized authority, traditional institutions, and values, coming alongside the organic, decentralized model of urban revitalization is interesting of itself. Terms like "empowering" and "crowd sources" and "inclusive" are aplenty in these conversations. This decentralization is a feature not so much of old-fashioned conservatism, as of a growing discontent with centralized power to provide an adaptive responsiveness to local concerns.
But hold the civil society free-for-all, says the new review "The City and the State: American Urban Planning and the Role of Government" in Foreign Affairs. The move away from modernist hierarchy in urban planning may have shifted the balance too far in favour of decentralized activism. What the review discovers is the pressing need in North American cities for not merely activist social justice, but public justice—the legitimate, positive work of government to provide an environment within which urban communities can flourish.
The swing back to recognizing that some authority, some convening power necessarily sets the terms of our engagements also has its cultural parallel, as postmodern critics feedback onto one another the trenchant criticisms of power and privilege. Thus Heidegger accuses Nietzsche of retaining in his thought an unacknowledged metaphysical remnant, and so Derrida has in turn similarly accused Heidegger. Nietzsche said, "I fear we have not got rid of God because we still have grammar."
Neither shall we ever be rid of city government, so long as we still have zoning and water mains. And all the better for it. Far from an inconvenient fringe power in our common lives, governments of all kinds take up the task of public justice, the work of setting conditions and priorities for the common good. City planning is not like work of just any other department. It's work is neither fluid nor interchangeable based on taste and desire. Like politics of many kinds, it builds a common architecture that is not soon or easily swept away.