Jane Jacobs Part III: What did she get right?

Jane Jacobs has little in the way of formal plan in architecture, urban design or planning, rather her background was in journalism. This comes to the fore in the fact the book is, while fairly long at 450-ish pages, is immensely readable (I managed to plough through it in just over a week and I’m hardly the fastest reader on the planet). This is probably the merit of her journalistic background and her style which is not exactly concise, as well as the lack of technical detail and instead her accounts are largely rooted in personal and second-hand anecdotes. Her call to action was not a technical one, but captures the imagination on how to re-imagine how cities are planned, designed, and used.

This is probably both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand she lays down a perceptive and rigorous analysis of how mid-20th century American cities work which as a comprehensive written account is probably unparalleled by anything else at that time. Where it falls down perhaps is the lack of rigour in understanding on the one hand the wider socio-economic conditions beyond the hyperlocal and especially racial dynamics of the US at the time, but also the technical processes of city building.

While I do not agree with her thesis that good surveillance is central to a well-functioning city, she was a perceptive observer and did get one or two things right for the right reasons (and three or four things right for the wrong reasons).  Death and Life as an ethnographic project is also unequivocally impressive, and her style of narration is certainly unique. She is good a weaving a yarn, although sometimes the main point does tend to get lost in the story arc and I also wonder whether there was quite a bit of poetic licence sprinkled on a subject matter that ought to be reasonably empirical and scientific. But anyway. Let’s give Jacobs her due.

1. Cities are complex creatures; there are no easy fixes

Jacobs does have a sensitive understand of the complexity of cities. Their social challenges are very complicated and cannot simply be solved by architecture, planning and urban design in physical form. While she is clear that she does not want a police state and her idea is not for police to keep order and control on the streets, she is however strangely fixated with safety and security. Her vision seems to tend towards making cities into basically denser suburbs, which I think she gets wrong and this misunderstands the role and function of cities and their appeal.

2. Four principles for good urban planning

Jane Jacobs centred her thinking on four principles for urban planning (“Four generators of diversity”) that must be in place to ensure a successful city. Most of her anecdotes, first-and-second hand accounts, stem from these principles. While empirical evidence is hard to come by in Death and Life, on several counts it’s hard to say she was wrong. The basic ideas behind her four principles I do agree with, although the consequences of getting them in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong order need to be spelled out; as does why the principles should matter.

With these four cornerstones, the city will fail as a project:

1. Mixed primary uses

One of Jacobs’ major bugbears is that monocultural districts are a recipe for disaster. For example, a financial district, a docking area, a residential only district will kill off any vibrancy. She uses the example of the Wall Street area in New York, which hums with activity during the day but with a lack of amenities or leisure facilities beyond offices and the odd sandwich shop to serve office workers at lunch, the area is dead after a certain time in the evening and at the weekends.

Jacobs saw monocultures as the death of city life and wanted to see different uses all mixed together – butchers and bakers mixed with office blocks, mixed with cinemas and theatres, mixed with restaurants and so forth: “Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another” (Pg 177).

One example she draws on is an area where nightlife dominates. This is certainly something I have thought about in terms of my own city today: there are areas that can feel quite intimidating for people who are not familiar with our ridiculous culture of binging on alcohol, elderly people and those with mobility impairments, children, lone women etc. because they are full of drink-and increasingly coke-fuelled purple faced, ‘roided up, ill-tempered, heart-attacks-waiting-to-happen packs of men in 1-size-too-small polo shirts and cheap cologne, screeching hen parties and not much else (Collingwood Street, Westgate Road for example). I often wonder: does it really have to be like this? Could better planning make it more pleasant and accessible at night for people who do not want to be part of that scene?

“Night spots are today overwhelming the street, and are also overwhelming the very life of the area. Into a district excellent at handling and protecting strangers they have concentrated too many strangers, all in too irresponsible a mood, for any conceivable city society to handle naturally. The duplication of the most profitable use is undermining the case of its own attraction, as disproportionate duplication and exaggeration of some single use always does in cities.” (p. 259)

She mentions that docking areas are dead zones most of the time outside of industry hours:

(From page 171)
“The waterfront itself is the first wasted asset capable of drawing people at leisure. Part of the district’s waterfront should become a great marine museum – the permanent anchorage of specimen and curiosity ships, the best collection to be seen and boarded anywhere. This would bring tourists into the district in the afternoon, tourists and people of the city on week-ends and holidays, and in summertime it should be a great thing for the evening. Other features of the shore-line should be the embarkation points for pleasure voyages in the harbour and around the island; these embarkation points should be as glamourous and salty as art can make them. If new sea-food restaurants and much else would not start up near by, I will eat my lobster shell.”

 Jacobs would probably today be overjoyed at the gentrification and transformation of waterfronts throughout the world as prime real estate and site of leisure areas and centres of restaurants and nightlife. It would be far too generous to credit Jacobs’ for this development of the leisure city since deindustrialisation in the 1980s, which David Harvey deems urban entrepreneurialism from a political economy perspective, but she did recognise early on while waterfronts were still centres of industry, their potential to be transformed into generators of capital.

2. Small blocks
Cerdà’s Barcelona wasn’t referenced, but her description evoked his design of superblocks, where self-contained blocks are evenly spaced out with gaps between each to ensure both dense city living with spaces between to allow city dwellers to interact with each and allow a society to flourish.

(Insert pic)

Jacobs explains that the enormous, unbroken blocks in Manhattan kill off citylife. She wants to see short blocks with breaks between, to allow people to move between the blocks diagonally (insert pics).

3. Aged buildings
Jacobs outlined how there should be a mixture of buildings of different ages. She was partially right about this, but perhaps for quite obtuse reasons. Firstly, she seems old buildings as integral to housing small businesses which can then offer a sort of “steward” role towards their communities. This is a central thesis of Death and Life and one I disagree with quite strongly (which I will cover in more detail in the next entry). “[…H]undreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighbourhoods, and appreciated to their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings {…]” (pg. 201).

Her rationale is that old buildings should be cheaper than other newer builds (which today hasn’t aged very well). So, really her point is more about mixed economic groups than mixed primary uses. Jacobs was pro-gentrification of sorts, before the term gentrification even came into use (Ruth Glass first coined the term a year or two later).

Perhaps she does make a good point in that building an entire neighbourhood at once is a bad idea since they will all decay at the same rate. However, this is a bit of an off-beat observation and I’m not sure it holds true – surely it depends on who occupies the buildings and how they are used.

4. Concentration
I do agree with her demands for densification and need for things to happen at street level. However, I think she is a bit conflicted in some ways: she wants dense cities, but also low-rise. I think she is partially right and buildings that are too tall do provide an alienating atmosphere. The trick is to balance density with a human-scale. I think European cities built in the Hausmann style (Rome, Paris, Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, for example) do this very well: maximise the height without needs to go deeper structurally (so around 7-8 storeys). Beyond this, you need a deeper structure and therefore might as well go up higher (say 20+ storeys to make it worthwhile) as there’s no point in building deeper foundations for just one or two additional floors. Then, using Jan Gehl’s Human Scale theory, anchor the 7/8-storey to street level by adding in businesses with outdoor space on the ground floor, kiosks, trees, small squares. This is largely how mainland European cities are organised and it works very well. It’s also something we have got badly wrong in the Anglo-American world. Jacobs diagnoses this well without digging deeper into the theories behind it.

3. Cars do more harm than good

Jacobs references Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City ideal and its 20th century follow-up in Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. She rejects Howard’s Victorian-era Garden City idea, which advocates networks of green cities circled by greenbelt land and connected to each other by railway. Le Corbusier follows up on this by densifying the green city cores into sky-high tower blocks, which wealthier people living highest above ground, and connecting these dense but dispersed city hubs by super-fast motorways and highways for cars.

Jacobs’ main criticism of Howard’s Garden City is that densification patterns should not mean leaving large dead green space between housing, as these will kill any notion of life and create soulless vacuums. With Le Corbusier she was much more harshly critical (and I’m inclined to agree with her on this), in that dividing cities up around car usage is a recipe for disaster. While she is most concerned by the car posing a threat to safety and changing the use of streets for pedestrians, she was also ahead of the curve in terms of the pressing need now to clean up our act in terms of air quality.

This seems fairly obvious to say now in an era where more than a century of intense fossil fuel use is finally catching up with us and I think it’s fair to say now that the planet is in the grips of climate catastrophe. However, in the 1960s the automobile was a major source of US wealth: the Ford factory in Detroit, MI and automobile industry in other motorcities across the Midwest such as Cleveland, OH were seen as sacred. To the extent that Japanese cars, as the rival automobile nation, would be regularly smashed up if they were seen parked in American motorcities. Mass distribution of the private car was both a symptom and a cause of the suburbanisation of the US in the 1950s onwards. Suburbs were therefore planned around the assumption of private car use.

 Jacobs was therefore quite ahead of the curve in condemning the elevated status of the suburbs, and she was quite right about not expanding roadspace in cities to absorb the primacy of cars. She warned early on that planners should be making cities more hostile to cars, not making them more accommodating to ever-increasing volumes of traffic.

This may have been part of her polemic against Robert Moses and Le Corb – both of whom loved cars and wanted to create cities for cars. However, she has to be credited with her early grasp of in understanding that people will always default to cars if they can, and widening roads will just lead to more cars. This problem now is that cities in US are designed for cars and it would be near impossible now to re-organise the society without a major upheaval. In summary, Jacobs was right, but now it’s too late.

4.The role of planners

Jacobs was quite clever in her understand of the work of planners as striving to avoid negative feedback loops and balancing out so there’s not too much of one thing in one area. While her stance towards the state was on the more libertarian side, she did seem to realise that you cannot stop growth but there does need to be some sort of intervention to ensure that it is balanced. While she (perhaps rightly) felt that planners were too technocratic and lacked a human connection, she did recognise that their role was needed. Although, that’s not to say she was particularly sympathetic towards planners and probably wanted to see their roles re-imagined somewhat.

She often draws on Los Angeles as an example of really bad planning. From what I have read and heard (although I need to delve into Mike Davis’ City of Quartz to gain a greater understanding), LA is essentially a city-sized suburb and faces a complex set of mega-city sized challenges squeezed into disjoined and disconnected suburbs.

5. Zoning is bad

In the US, unlike in the UK where we use discretionary planning systems, they use fixed zoning systems. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, it’s hard to say one system is better than the other. The series Show Me a Hero illustrates how zoning systems can be weaponised in power struggles between classes, and the UK discretionary system is certainly not more equitable; the question is power is certainly a feature of our planning system, too.

Jacobs quickly shoots down zoning system too. While she does not provide an alternative, she does make a good point in that “Indeed, the notion that reek or fumes are to be combated by zoning and land-sorting classifications at all is ridiculous. The air doesn’t know about zoning boundaries” (pp. 244-245).

6. Anti-suburbanification; pro-densification

One of Jacobs main theses is a rejection of American suburbs which expanded rapidly in mid-20th century America and a car-centric all-American lifestyle, and a call back to small city-centre cores where people live, socialise, educate, and work in or close by their neighbourhood. This has definitely come back into vogue with the new 15-minute city model and has influenced models of New Urbanism.

While I agree with densification and the spectre of the suburbs makes my blood run cold, Jacobs did not, or perhaps could not, quite grasp the trajectory of the 1960s US into the horrorshow it is today. Today’s discussion has long shifted from making places “liveable” to actually being able to survive, whether through climate change or a collapse in the standard of living due to the withdrawal of the state.

She devotes most of a chapter on explaining the dynamics behind the suburbanisation of the US which peaked in the 1950s, how it was financed, and then a broad sketch on its consequences in the short and medium term. Certainly, white America does seem to have an obsession with the suburbs and as a child growing up in the 1990s and when US cultural hegemony was at a peak, the white picket fences and white wooden houses were ubiquitous depictions of American life in films and tv series. [Add pics from movies in – white picket fence, wooden houses etc].

It has only been since Trump really, that realisation dawned on the average European that the US is nothing like the giant monocultural suburb which radiated out of Hollywood and is in fact far more complex (and quite frankly, terrifying). Common among Brits of my generation and the post-1968 generations before me of a leftist persuasion, I took an extreme anti-American stance. I realise now I was incredibly ignorant about the inner workings of a complex and inherently violent settler-colonial society. I had always assumed the US was just a giant version of the UK with more extreme weather and an equally but more recently shady history, and the Hollywood depictions certainly reinforced this grave misunderstanding.

Jacobs explains that populations in city centres peaked just after WWI, and then declined from then on all the way until the until 1990s. During this time, what was deemed “white flight,” as more affluent, overwhelmingly white families left city centres for the suburbs while poorer, mainly black populations remained in the city centres. Although one thing that Jacobs misses is any recognition of the racial dynamic on the US and there is no mention of the story from a black perspective.

As inner city slums were cleared after the two world wars, the suburbs grew. A similar pattern was followed in London, arguably the most “American” of British cities. The New Towns of the 1950s and 1960s were born in the commuter belt around London as the UK too embraced the car-centric, suburban life enshrined in the attitudes and town planning of towns such as Stevenage, Watford, Basildon.

In the Anglo world, inner cities became run down spaces marked by urban poverty, decline and decay. Density and living shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow humans of mixed classes was shunned in favour of the privacy of the suburbs. This is where Anglo-American cities starkly depart from Continental European counterparts, where inner cities areas are the preserve of the rich (on average) and cities largely follow a doughnut pattern where the richer you are, the more central you live. In Anglo-American cities, as a broad-brush pattern the inverse is true.

Author: marianne

Urban design, planning, housing, buildings, music

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