Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Reading :: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and Life of Great American Cities
By Jane Jacobs

A few weeks ago I was visiting Link Coworking and Liz Elam, the proprietor, told me that Link was starting a book club. No fluff, either, she said: we'll be reading Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I recognized the title from a previous discussion with Bijoy Goswami, and it sounded interesting, so I picked it up. (If you're in Austin, come join us next month to discuss it.)

It's an interesting read, written well (and angrily). I see a lot of affinities with some of the work I've done, although Jacobs was working on a grander scale and in an earlier time (the book is copyrighted 1961). Jacobs wants to know: what makes a city healthy? How should cities be planned? More to the point, how should they not be planned?

Let's get into the book via the second question. Jacobs was unhappy with - really, livid about - the "modern, orthodox city planning" she saw in 1961's great cities. In particular, she was deeply unhappy with the plans and solutions of Robert Moses, who was deeply involved in city planning in Jacobs' home of New York City. This school of city planning relied on strong central planning: "As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge" (p.17). Such Utopias, she says acidly, would work if only people did exactly what the planners wished them to: "people do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners or designers wish they would," she notes in one example (p.90). Strongly centralized city planning results in inflexibility, she argues, and people must contort themselves to their environments (p.80). Of course, the planners are confounded. "Street gangs" fight, not in streets, but in parks - the open spaces that city planners want families to use, but that families avoid because of crime (p.76). As Jacobs says later in the context of slums: "The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so" (p.171).

Methodically, Jacobs examines various features of cities - sidewalks, parks, neighborhoods - and grimly describes how "modern, orthodox city planning" has re-engineered them in ways that destroy any sort of commons (p.82). She notes the proper function of sidewalks for putting specialized people in contact with each other in a non-specialized, mixing context (p.54), and laments how planners often narrow sidewalks. She deplores housing projects, which reduce people's opportunities for privacy, causing them to limit their number of friends for self-protection (p.67). She argues that in moving children from busy, broad sidewalks to city parks, planners have moved children from a high adult-child ratio environment to one in which few if any adults are present (p.77) - reducing supervision and mentoring, but also separating children from the working world of adults (p.84; cf. Rogoff; Hernandez). She argues passionately that city components must be mixed use (p.132), encouraging diversity of use, mixed times of use, diversity of residence, and diversity of social and cultural strata (see the entirety of Part 2). She condemns long blocks for sabotaging mixed use, since long blocks allow passers-by to ignore streets - the use pools in the main arteries, far from their natural use (p.183), and thus long blocks can't make an argument for relevance the way short blocks can (p.178). And just as blocks should vary, the buildings within them should vary in age (Ch.10).

As Jacobs argues in the last chapter, the city is not a simple problem, it's a problem of organized complexity; it's a complex system of interacting components (p.435; see p.376). The problem with orthodox city planning, she says, is that it takes cities' problems as problems of simplicity or disorganized complexity. In doing so, they lose the organic nature that makes a city work.

Given the age of the work and the subject, halfway through the book I was reminded of Saul Alinsky, whose work as a community organizer seemed to fit into the context of the community action that Jacobs advocates as resistance to simple-minded city planning. And voila: Alinsky shows up in a footnote in Jacobs' discussion of Chicago's Back-of-the-Yards city district (p.297).

Overall, it's a highly interesting book. But to what can we apply it? Jacobs makes clear that her prescriptions apply only to "great cities" and not to small cities, suburbs, or towns, which are "totally different organisms" - not dense enough for these prescriptions to apply (p.16; see also p.146). Jacobs doesn't clarify her criteria for what constitutes a great city, so let's put it in context. In 1960, New York had a population of 7.78 million and population density of 24,697; Austin today has just a tenth of that population and just over a tenth of that density (only 3,126.6)! For those of us not living in great cities, the lessons might be more analogical than direct. But they're still valuable. Particularly, Jacobs provides us some good principles in her notes on methods: "to think about processes"; "to work inductively"; and "to seek for 'unaverage' clues involving very small quantities, which reveal the way larger and more 'average' quantities are operating" (p.440). Good advice for any such project, I think. I can't wait to see what the others in the book club picked up from this book.

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