Friday, November 9

Book: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs began her writing career as an outsider launching a powerful critique on the planning establishment, and it appears that she has largely been successful. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered a social and literary classic, and it launched Jacobs into near messianic status among those who care about cities, with acolytes from across the political spectrum.

Synopsis: Planners have long been ignorant of how cities actually function. They have concocted theories about how cities ought to function and have applied these theories in destructive ways under the guise of "urban renewal." The two branches "decentralists," who want to spread out cities, and "radiant city" proponents, who want skyscrapers in parks, are really one in the same. They miss the point of vibrant city life.

The street is the essential public space of a city. Heavy use at all hours creates "eyes on the street," which are essential to providing safety. A lively street also allows for a healthy level of informal human contact, balancing between the need for privacy and the need for community. A high ratio of adults and enough sidewalk space allows children to play freely, relieving some of the burdens and costs of parenting. Small parks can benefit an already vibrant neighborhood, but they must fit their context. Out of place or excessively large parks interrupt street life and denigrate its safety. Underused parks can be redeemed by specializing in a certain service or activity. It is most effective, politically and socially, to consider cities in three senses: as whole cities, as neighborhoods, and as districts, each with different needs and strategies.

There are four inter-connected principles for creating healthy cities:

1) The Need for Mixed Primary Uses. Putting residential, commercial, office, small industrial, and public uses within close proximity will create symbiotic relationships and increase the life of a city. People will be on the streets throughout the day.

2) The Need for Small Blocks. Smaller blocks help the circulatory flow the city, and prevent sections of streets from becoming dead zones.

3) The Need for Aged Buildings. Older buildings should be mixed with the new. They not only connect with history and provide character, but they are generally cheaper to use. This allows a broader range of business and housing to co-exist.

4) The Need for Concentration. There is a critical mass of population concentration necessary to support a cultural and economic life. Density has been confused with overcrowding, what happens if there are more people than a physical environment has been created for. This has led to the creation of "in-between" densities that are neither fit for suburban nor urban use.

Diverse mixture of uses is not chaos, but a more developed form of order. It can be more visually pleasing than homogeneous centrally-planned architecture. Diverse neighborhoods should also ease traffic congestion by encouraging people to walk. There are some uses (e.g. junk yards) that can hurt an area, but a diverse and vibrant block should be able to price out these functions. However, it is important to recognize that the scale of a use must be fitting for the particular urban area. Zoning should consider the scale of the uses (e.g. giant factory) above the kind of use.

A diverse urban area can be killed by "over-success." When people and businesses are drawn in, there may be a motivation to multiply the most profitable use, thus killing the originally attractive diversity. There are three ways to counteract this: zone for diversity, place public or quasi-public buildings in strategic locations, simply increase the supply of vibrant neighborhoods. Diversity can also be killed by "border vacuums," large scale single-use areas that disrupt the flow of life in the city. Besides eliminating these boundaries, the problem can be mitigated by building buffers between the areas (e.g. a skating rink on the edge of central park).

Cataclysmic change can also disrupt city life. Slums are places where people move in and out of before planting roots and taking pride in their residence. Government projects intended to replace slums have even more devastating consequences, uprooting entire communities and placing them in dull single-use environments. "Unslumming" occurs gradually, as people who could afford to move out choose to stay. Both slumming and unslumming are perpetual cycles which do not fit with current planning theory. A sudden influx or loss of money can also have a negative effect. The way financial institutions and government departments are structured often encourages either generous investment or complete blacklisting. In the twentieth century, divestment from cities in order to create suburbs has decayed urban areas.

The are some practical strategies. Instead of clearing out entire areas to build projects, the government could subsidize individuals and families in areas interspersed throughout cities. One strategy is to guarantee rents, incentivizing private landlords to accept low-income tenants. Automobile use should be discouraged. Eliminating them altogether is not economically viable, but there are several ways to make conditions less desirable for driving while benefiting the community at the same time. When this occurs, levels of commuting should diminish naturally and pedestrians will be more confident. But trucks and buses need to be preserved.

Aesthetics are important, but abstract notions of art should not replace the actual life of the city. Streets need smatterings of irregularity to provoke interest without disrupting visual order too much. These should be "corners" rather than "dead ends." Eye-catching landmarks, whether large or small, can be a source of civic pride if they are well placed. Even some government housing projects and civic centers can be salvaged. The goal is to weave them back into the fabric of the city. Mixed uses can be introduced gradually and cheaply (e.g. street vendors). All of this will take a politically active and informed citizenry, as well as the government bureaucracy necessary to facilitate such democratic positive change.

There is a method to studying cities. Drawing from the life sciences, the city should be considered an organic problem rather than a rational problem. It is organized complexity, rather than either simplicity or disorganized complexity. In studying cities, one should think in terms of process rather than static moments, reason inductively rather than deductively, and consider "unaverage clues" rather than statistical generalizations. Planners have failed to see cities in this way. Only a diverse city can inculcate true human vitality.

Engagement: These synopses are so long that I don't feel like writing much of an engagement. Anyway, Jacobs' ideas are certainly central to the philosophy of this blog, so in a way the entire project could be considered an engagement. However, there are two important points that I think are often missed. First of all, she states explicitly that her principles are intended only for large metropolitan areas. She does not claim that what works for New York City can be replicated in a small town in Iowa or a Californian suburb. Secondly, gradualism figures heavily in her ideals. High profile architectural projects or large-scale policy endeavors may purport to follow Jacobs' principles, but they are apt to fail on account of their introduction of "cataclysmic" change. They also may miss the third principle, failing to mix the new in with the old.

All in all, Jane Jacobs has reoriented both the methods for studying cities and the goals to which planners aspire. Although I think she may have been a bit too hard on some of the previous planning theories, a good shaking up was certainly in order.

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