Dealing with Dichotomies: Toward Understanding

Photo via Lanpernas Dospuntotzero

Oppositional categories have been in existence throughout all of history: dark vs. light, good vs. evil, male vs. female—these are some of the usual suspects when we consider traditional dichotomies. It makes sense to categorize and label. We’ve been practicing taxonomy since before the time of Aristotle, attempting to organize the environment around us so that we can better understand, manipulate, and improve it. Categorizing in terms of two, however, becomes messy and can drastically oversimplify. The definition of dichotomy necessitates that a whole be divided into parts that are jointly exhaustive and mutually exclusive. There is nothing that fits outside the realm of the two, and any one item can only belong to one set.

One of the more dangerous and pervasive dichotomies that exist in our culture is that of Us vs. Them. On its face, this opposition isn’t necessarily bad, except that it is an opposition—when we paint ourselves and others with broad brushes, we assume that the two are mutually exclusive and there is constantly tension and conflict. When we put this in the context of creating, managing, and recreating our cities, this (as we’ve seen through history) can be disastrous.

A classic example in America is that of race. White vs. Black. This shaped our cities dramatically. We saw how us/them ideologies came into play as redlining practices concentrated race and then poverty in our urban cores. We used zoning practices to safeguard the character of “our” communities, which in some cases can be empowering, but in many ways also safeguarded against “them,” or more specifically the anxieties surrounding “them,” because by definition they must be different.

In our political realm we see a starkly divided set of individuals who spend more time trying to preserve their ideas of the American Dream than they do actually ensuring its success. The paralysis of the system gets blamed on “those Republicans” or “those Democrats,” while our infrastructure crumbles, our middle class shrinks, and our people struggle to find jobs.

There is nothing wrong or bad about having differences—in fact, diversity is a great asset to any city. When we only see the world in terms of us and them, however, we close ourselves off to a world of possibility and can in many ways sabotage the growth and functionality of our communities. Those of us responsible for making decisions, in particular, need to be cognizant of the harm we can do to the very people we are trying to serve when we perpetuate this ideology.

A recent example exists in the argument concerning density. The urban/suburban dichotomy is a hot one right now, as we rethink the ways in which we plan our communities. I have heard plenty of anti-suburban rhetoric among the planners I’ve met, talking about “those people” who drive their SUVs and fly away from the center so that they can lead insulated, affluent lives away from the realities of the inner city. I’ve also heard New Urbanism touted as a conspiracy threatening the rights of Americans to chase their version of the dream and live comfortably. I’ve listened to advocates cry out that if it isn’t rail, it isn’t good enough—and people rally against the institutions driving economic growth in an area because they are afraid these parasitic entities will come take away all of their homes.

Is there truth to any of this? Of course there is—because no one type of community, urban or suburban, is perfect. The problem isn’t that dense is bad or low-density is bad, but that they are not approached as ways to organize the built environment, they are approached as lifestyles that are considered completely different. When it comes down to it, though, what is it that we as Americans generally want? Safe neighborhoods, quick and accessible transportation, employment opportunities, entertainment, affordable living, functional infrastructure, good school systems—and like-minded people around us. Our job as planners isn’t to think through the lens of city and suburb, it is to create healthy, vibrant communities where residents thrive. Neighborhoods are not strictly “urban” or “suburban.” There is a continuum of qualities that make up neighborhoods, and a range of densities that encompass this continuum. While we can’t necessarily change the regulatory language, we can certainly start framing these issues differently and breaking down the dichotomies that inhibit compromise and complicate the decision-making process. 

How can we do this? It will certainly never be an easy task—but we can start by starting to eliminate oppositional thinking. In a city, region, or even country it shouldn’t be Us vs. Them. It should be everyone working together to find solutions that benefit the whole. We need to stop looking at “other” as a four-letter word. We need to open our minds and expose ourselves to difference so that we can also see similarities while celebrating our uniqueness. It is essential that we look beyond our own immediate needs to understand the system of the whole and how our decisions can affect it.

Because communities are made up of millions of interactions taking place spontaneously throughout space, within a diverse set of people with differing beliefs, talents, and preferences, it is easy to understand things in terms of us and them—because it’s difficult to be wrong. It takes a leap of faith to break free of our usual paradigms and open the doors for new ways of understanding and seeing the world we’ve categorized. When we do, however, we’ll find that possibility. Then it’s just up to us to seize it.

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