More Chronicles of Nairn-ier: Outrage! and Counterattack

A Manifesto for Good Planning in Nairn’s Outrage!, 1955 (Architectural Review)

The aim of the last entry was to introduce Ian Nairn and his ideas, although it went down a rabbit hole of comparing two influential post-war urban theorists, ethnographers and flaneurs – almost centrist-Situtationist psychogeographers of the rising Anglo-American middle class on either side of the Atlantic. The two did have certain traits in common and a similar place in the societies to which they belong either side of the Atlantic. Indeed, they were mutually aware of each other and they did meet in New York in the 1960s where they collaborated briefly following Nairn receiving a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation.  Nairn’s work clearly influenced Jacobs and his Outrage! is referenced in “Death and Life” and subsequent essays.

So, now let’s talk about Outrage! and the follow-up, Counterattack. In 1955, Ian Nairn issued the Architectural Review with his critique of the concept he termed as coined Subtopia, or the slow tentacles of suburbia spilling over increasingly into the British countryside. In effect, it is a call to arms to increase urban densification and protect the countryside from a process of urban sprawl. Written in 1955, it is eerily prescient and the dawn of mass ownership of private car certainly accelerated this process in the following decade. As the distances that people could easily travel increased, so did the reach of towns into lower density settlements into the countryside as city dwellers increasingly sought larger homes with bigger gardens and more space without having to compromise city living and access to work.

In essence, Outrage! calls for better town planning strategy in the Dutch style of densely packed cities with clearly demarcated green belt countryside between each. There’s a lot to say for this, and I certainly see huge merit in compact, walkable (or cyclable) cities, particularly from the point of view of minimising carbon footprints and promoting urban cohesion. However, this requires careful land planning strategies and coordination at a national level, which is certainly lacking in the UK with successive governments pushing for more and more planning deregulation. It also requires a significant degree of social cohesion, which is extremely weak in the UK, partially due to a deeply engrained national obsession with individualism and privacy. However this has been significantly exacerbated by past brutal 12 years of Thatcherite razing state institutions to the ground so that the state barely exists anymore, turbo-charging the dismantling of public services and privatisation of any notion of collective space. With that comes extremely weak social ties, and a zombie UK state left completely hollow and in a fragile and weak condition with spiralling levels of inequality and deep-rooted structural problems in economy and society that I cannot see improving in the foreseeable.

Ian Nairn would no doubt be horrified at the condition of Britain today, and in many ways Outrage! was eerily prophetic without ever expressing any political dimension. In fact his politics seem somewhat unclear, much less so than that of Jacobs. He never really articulated the reasons for the march of Subtopia, and Outrage! seems largely an exercise in nostalgia for an golden era where the private car didn’t exist and the countryside consisted of idyllic villages and the rural peasant life.

Outrage! and the follow-up Counterattack! are beautifully illustrated by one of the lead Townscape theorists Gordon Cullen. While Nairn didn’t seem to present any immediate solutions to the rapid, messy and short-term thinking behind the sprawling out of post-war Britain’s urban, the beauty of his two polemics lie in his engaging narration style, and a running commentary of the concerns and fears of those living through the social democratic, state-led reconstruction of a Britain ravaged by the war. In particular, his manifesto at the back of Counterrattack! on what not to do when planning cities, and his case-book of bad practice and examples of ugly bits of town planning in a route he took from Southampton all the way up to the Scottish Highlands.

The short book rich in illustration and photographs offers a window into a time when Britain was re-moulding itself following the bloody first half of the twentieth century. Looking at it from the perspective of someone who has grown up largely under a period where the state has been weakened and diminished into something unrecognisable from the state-led development from 1945 onwards, it’s easy to forget that this was a huge period of significant social change which no doubt led to a degree of upheaval for those living through that time.

The most striking thing about Outrage! and Counterattack is their lightness on theory and political context. They barely make mention of the strong municipal-led politics and social democratic policies of the decades following the end of the two world wars that forged modern Britain and lifted many out of poverty and gave them free access to high-quality healthcare, subsidised and good quality housing, education, and the building up of a strong welfare state that ensured everyone had a decent start and end to life, supported by a consensus that this is what a modern state should look like between both Labour and Tories. This has been brutally dismantled since the 2008 crisis and erased from the collective imagination, to the point where Labour’s manifesto for the 2019 election was deemed as dangerous and insane by the political elite , when it reality what it wanted to do was re-imagine the welfare state of the 1950s and 1960s but updated to suit the needs of the 21st century. Clearly, the post-war cross-party consensus of caring for every individual from cradle to grave has retreated, and instead replaced with a Labour-Tory consensus of a return to a Victorian age where life was nasty, brutish and short for most, whose sole purpose of existence was to exploit just so that small hoard of landowners and business owners could live in ostentatiousness and eye-watering luxury. We, the left, lost that debate it seems and now we can do little but sit back and watch the horrors unfold.

Anyway: in the absence of social critique rooted in political context, Nairn’s main contribution was his stimulating additions to the debate on the quality and nature of town planning and its aesthetic considerations. He brought to the fore the Townscape theory, which Cullen was an advocate as well as Kevin Lynch, author of “The Image of the City” and wider questions around urban design which perhaps had been lacking in the town planning discipline until that point. His contributions as an outsider to the discipline (certainly he ruffled the feathers of technical experts in the profession such as architects and town planners), and his assertion that the character of place cannot be created in a top-down, technocratic manner but by large teams, including sociologists, cultural theorists, commentators and especially, regular citizens.

The Townscape theorists were concerned with how aesthetics and conservation of rural character of British countryside villages could be combined with the social democratic modernisation of post-war Britain. Nairn railed against “clutter” or man-made necessities of urban living – roundabouts, signage, fences, electricity pylons, lampposts taking over the British landscape, and wanted to see it carefully planned and managed so it could be harmonised with the rural landscape.

In Counterattack! Nairn maps out varying archetypes of lampposts and rates them in terms of their ugliness and lack of harmony with their settings. He also critiques local council’s attempts to manage public spaces, with the characteristic flower beds and hanging baskets that filled high streets and town centres, which I recognise from my upbringing in the suburb of a deindustrialising northern town in the 1980s and 1990s. I wonder today, how Nairn would take the average British northern town battered by over a decade of austerity. Gone are the hanging baskets, much of the lampposts and street lighting, and many councils have even removed trees in a bid to save money, which is a neat illustration of the sheer madness of such deep cuts to public spending as we face increasing challenges due to climate change. Trees are a great way to keep dense urban areas cool in the increasingly warm summers, as well as great for natural drainage as our climate gets wetter and floodrisk becomes a near constant threat each year. Our town centres now are sad places: colourless, joyless, soulless with barely any landscaping left, blighted by boarded-up shops and empty properties as high streets decline at a fairly shocking pace.

The starkest difference now from even 10 years ago and certainly in Nairn’s time is the sharp increase in homelessness as more and more people are forced into poverty by the cruel regime forced upon us since 2010. In any given British city, and increasingly also suburbs and smaller town centres, high street doorways are used to shelter an unforgivingly high homeless population. This is a crisis that shows no sign of abating and the noises made by the latest prime minister indicate that he has no intention of providing any structural solutions. In a country as rich as the UK, this is nothing short of a crime of the government’s making.

Planning departments now have been stripped bare, the only planners left in local authorities are mostly left to handle the consequences of an ineffective and inadequate community consultation process and managing the needs of private developers. The planning system has been deregulated and the idea of a cohesive, European-style state-led overarching planning strategy has been sacrificed to profit gains for private developers leading to fragmentation and competition for profit rather than collaboration over shared social goals. Long gone are the days where the municipal planning teams would count sociologists in their ranks. Nairn would be horrified that the densification and townscape debate have both been well and truly lost. The expanded suburbs, Barrattification, are now are seen as a sanctuary for the middle classes, shielding them in new-build estates with private gardens and a lives moulded around privacy and car use, from the horrors of the social and physical dereliction of provincial inner cities and towns that have been systematically hollowed out and left to rot.

Jane Jacobs Part IV: What did she get wrong?

Jane Jacobs got some things right, albeit often for the wrong reasons as I mentioned previously. However sometimes she did get things wrong, plain and simple. Despite not having any technical training in architecture, planning, or urban design, she rejected fundamental urban planning ideals related to scale, density, urban grain, use of space (parks and sidewalks) and zoning. Some of these are good challenges certainly, although I don’t agree with all of them. My issue isn’t that she rejected these ideals outright, rather she didn’t delve deeper into the reasons behind why these ideals may exist, and her reactions against them felt somewhat knee-jerk.

As an anti-communist and something of a small-state libertarian, she tended to place a lot of emphasis on the responsibility of small business owners, shopkeepers, and homeowners for building a solid community. From this, she creates her famous “ballet of the street,” which feels like something of a magical universe, a kind of Disney-esque utopia which I struggle to believe really existed in the way she described it:

“The ballet of the city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations. The stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet. I make my own first entrance into it a little after eight when I put out the garbage can, surely a prosaic occupation, but I enjoy my part, my little clang, as the droves of junior high school students walk by the centre of the stage dropping candy wrappers […].

While I sweep up the wrappers I watch the other rituals of the morning: Mr Halpert unlocking the laundry’s handcart from its mooring to a cellar door, Joe Cornacchia’s son-in-law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber brining out his sidewalk folding chair, Mr Goldstein arranging the coils of wire which proclaim the hardware store is open, the wife of the tenement’s superintendent depositing her chunky three-year-old with a toy mandolin on the stoop, the vantage point from which he is learning the English his mother cannot speak. […]

The heart-of-the-day ballet I seldom see, because of the nature of it is that working people who live there, like me, are mostly gone, filling the roles of strangers on other sidewalks. But from days off, I know enough of it to know that it becomes more and more intricate. Longshoremen who are not working that day gather at the White Horse or the Ideal or the International for beer and conversation. The executives and business lunchers from the industries just to the west throng the Dorgene restaurant and the Lion’s Head coffee-house; meat-market workers and communications scientists fill the bakery lunchroom. Character dancers come on, a strange old man with strings of old shoes over his shoulders, motor-scooter riders with big beards and girl friends who bounce on the back of the scooters and wear their hair long in front of their faces as well as behind, drunks who follow the advice of the Hat Council and are always turned out in hats, but not hats the Council would approve of. […]

When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo. This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lea of the stoop with bottle tops and plastic cowboys; this is the time of bundles and packages, zigzagging from the drugstore to the fruit stand and back over to the butcher’s, this is the time when teenagers, all dressed up, are pausing to ask if their slips show or their collars look right; this is the time when beautiful girls get out of M.G.s; this is the time when fire engines go through; this is the time when anybody you know around Hudson Street will go by. […]

I know the deep night ballet and its seasons best from waking long after midnight to tend to a baby and, sitting in the dark, seeing the shadows and hearing the sounds of the sidewalk. Mostly it is a sound like infinitely pattering snatches of party conversation and, about three in the morning, singing, very good singing. Sometimes there is a sharpness and anger or sad, sad, weeping, or a flurry of search for a string of beads broken. One night a young man came roaring along, bellowing terrible language at two girls whom he had apparently picked up and who were disappointing him. Doors opened, a way semi-circle formed around him, not too close, until the police came. Out came the heads too, along Hudson Street, offering opinion..’Drunk…Crazy…A wild kid from the suburbs” (pp. 60-63).

She then describes a scene where a bagpiper comes out in the middle of the night, and the neighbours come out on to the street to crowd around him and dance a highland fling. Beautiful though these descriptions are, I can’t help but feel these are perhaps journalistic embellishments for the sake of entertainment.

Jacobs does indeed recognise this, an adds that “I have made the daily ballet of Hudson Street sound more frenetic than it is, because writing it telescopes it. In real life, it is not that way. In real life, to be sure, something is always going on, the ballet is never at a halt, but the general effect is peaceful and the general tenor even leisurely. People who know well such animated city streets will know how it is. I am afraid people who do not will always have it a little wrong in their heads – like the old prints of rhinoceroses made from travellers’ description of rhinoceroses” (pg. 64).

1. Centrality of small businesses

Central to Jacobs’ vision of a utopian city is one that is bustling full of small businesses and niche shops, and where the shopkeepers act as informal “guardians” of the city. This might include reprimanding misbehaving youth, to holding spare keys for neighbours, and from watching over the children of the neighbourhood to matchmaking customers to each other. Her rainbow-tinted vision could be that of a hipster before her time: “Cities, however, are the natural homes or supermarkets and standard movie houses plus delicatessens, Viennese bakeries, foreign groceries, art movies, and so on, all of which can be found co-existing, the standard with the strange, the large with the small (pg 158).”

The centrality she places on small businesses seems rather nostalgic and romanticised, and like the description of the sidewalk ballet above, I find it difficult to believe it was rooted in reality. Her view was the street itself as a socially embedded support system or infrastructure for security and safety where the streets are busy round the clock.

Small business owners, however, tend by their very nature to be advocates of low tax and small-state ideology. This seems to feed into Jacobs’ views that the role of the state should be limited. She also believed that impersonal streets are not related to “mystical” values of architectural scale, but related to what businesses are on the streets. This I disagree with, and there’s a lot of well-researched thinking on the notion of scale in architecture (I particularly like of the Danish architect Jan Gehl and his work around Human Scale), which Jacobs broadly dismisses.

2. ‘Eyes on the Street’
The importance that Jacobs placed on central businesses was related to her fixation with surveillance and keeping the streets safe. She sees deterring crime as a central need for improving city living. She recognises that a police state would only lead to dysfunction, so instead her solution is to ensure “eyes on the street” where residents and shopkeepers will keep calm and order naturally if the streets are always buzzing with activity. She also believes that cities should be designed to stop crime, which seems in essence to mean widening sidewalks, packing them full with shops, building densely, and removing parks and empty spaces.

One example she uses of business owners maintaining a sense of security in the street is that of Joe Cornacchia, the deli owner on her block in Hudson Street. She explains that: “The incident that attracted my attention was a suppressed struggle going on between a man and a little girl of eight or nine years old. The man seemed to be trying to get the girl to go with him. By turns she was directing a cajoling attention to her, and then assuming an air of nonchalance. The girl was making herself rigid, as children do when they resist, against the wall of the tenements across the street.”

She then goes on: “Joe Cornacchia, who with his sons-in-law keeps the delicatessen, emerged about the same moment and stood solidly to the other side. Several heads poked out of the tenement windows above, one was withdrawn quickly and its owner reappeared a moment later in the doorway behind the man. Two men from the bar next to the butcher shop came to the doorway and waiting. On my side of the street, I saw that the locksmith, the fruit man, and the laundry proprietor had all come out of their shops and that the scene was also being surveyed from a number of windows besides ours. That man did not know it, but he was surrounded. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.

I am sorry – sorry purely for dramatic purposes – to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man’s daughter.” (pp. 48-49).

Her fixation with surveillance translates into a primacy of sidewalks above everything else: while it seems sensible to prioritise pedestrians over cars, she also ranks sidewalks higher in priority than parks. In terms of biodiversity, reducing air pollution, city cooling, water management, and health benefits of nature, this preference to wide sidewalks over accessible green spaces and parks seems a bit misplaced. In this Jacobs is oddly conservative. She expresses a strong dislike for areas that aren’t under surveillance by the street and those that border and/or connect areas with transient, high-turnover population. She considers good areas to be “[those] where a strong tone of civilized public sidewalk life prevails” (p. 89).  

In the US, crime diffused by neighbourhoods and the unofficial “Guardians of the Street” seems to be imbued with racial discrimination. There have been countless reports, highlighted especially in the summer of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, of suburban white women who feel unease at the activities of their black neighbours, and react to benign activities with force and quickness on calling the cops. This includes innocent men relaxing in Starbucks, children with lemonade stands, and fatally and tragically, joggers such as George Floyd.

The Karens of the world unite is one example about why the “eyes on the street” could backfire horribly. The other example is Oscar Newman’s ideas around Defensible Space, which as Richard Sennett points out in Designing Disorder, is the dark side of Jacobs’ Eyes on the Street.

Defensible space theory centres on the idea of urban design for prevention of crime, which the UK has embraced recently in Secured by Design, which I think is dreadful and I’ll write more on that another time.

3. Dislikes water and parks

Contrary to research on the importance of parks (green space), and water (blue space) in cities on public health, Jacobs’ has a strong aversion to both. This is perhaps her railing against Robert Moses, who was NYC’s Parks Commissioner at the time and her arch-enemy.

She does make a good point that badly managed parks can be dangerous, and I certainly would never pass through any city park alone late at night regardless of whether the threat may be perceived or real. During the day, if the park in question is well-used by a wide variety of people then it feels safe and secure; the problem is parks that are not used or are used only by rough sleepers, alcohols and drug users with poor lighting and lack of visibility that is the problem. This links back to a need for some state intervention however: my experience of city parks is that if they are accessible, in good order, have decent lighting and are kept clean, they will be well-used. If they are overgrown, poorly lit and have a lot of nooks and crannies with no specific play areas or sports facilities, they will tend not to be used by those who have wider options on what to do with the time and where to go. I disagree with Jacobs in that parks should never be an obstacle: they should be nurtured and encouraged and used by a broad cross-section of society.

Similarly, water should be treated as a positive asset to a city. Water has a tendency to calm and especially in a world facing climate catastrophe, has an important cooling effect on our warming cities. One of my major bugbears is how poorly waterfronts are developed in the UK: in my city, the waterfront area is filled with shitty chain restaurants, or empty boarded up properties, or tacky pubs. It has well proportioned buildings at human scale, wide pavements, yet the space is poorly organised and misused.

4. Early advocate of gentrification
Jacobs never uses the word gentrification, which was coined by Ruth Glass a little after the publication of Death and Life. However, what she describes is a sort of community-led, gentle gentrification where decent, young and early professional but yet not-yet- well-off folk from provincial New England (like her) buy up dilapidated properties (left abandoned after the exodus of the well-to-do for the suburbs after the Great Depression until the 1990s) for cheap prices, and then pour their heart and soul into bringing them up to date.

In her mind, these good folk then bring their strong morals and smalltown mentality to ensure that the city streets are kept safe and orderly. While the 1960s only saw the beginning of the gentrification process and the violent mechanisms used today by property developers, such as “decanting” of residents of lower socio-economic status to smaller and less fortunately located homes, Jacobs is a clear advocate of a system that has caused harm and misery to millions and millions of city inhabitants.

Her middle-class Pennsylvanian ideals fail to take into consideration that the pull of big city life for many people is not about orderly, community-oriented, tight-knit neighbourhoods. In fact, many move to New York or Chicago or San Francisco or London or Paris or Berlin (and so on) not only for the economic opportunities but for the anonymity big cities provide. Indeed, many people move to big cities to get away from exactly the smalltown mentality that Jacobs wishes to see replicated in big cities. In all, her vision seems to lack flexibility and she cannot seem to consider other points of view that may contradict with her own.


There’s a lot of good in Death and Life but also, I feel, quite a few fundamentals that Jane Jacobs gets wrong. The work was published in 1961 and the parts that have aged well versus the parts that have not are telling.  Her evidence is largely anecdotal (either her own or second-hand) rather than rooted in empirics, and she challenges many of the basic principles of urban planning. Some of these, such as er criticism of zoning, are fair challenges; others seem rather kneejerk, such as her fixation with sidewalks over parks.

There is also more than a smattering of moral righteousness, and she tends to slip rather easily into a barbarism versus civility narrative. While she had a progressive mindset in some ways, she was mostly weirdly conservative. Her politics seemed to be influenced by conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke, in that she did not believe in the role of the state and seemed to support a laissez-faire economic system. She writes extensively about the damage cultural institutions built in the wrong place can inflict on a community, and she has a strong aversion to underused resource and inefficiency in cities. Strangely, the main role she envisages that the state should play is simply a broker for organising cultural institutions and ensuring they are used correctly; well-maintained and networked. She was clear on her stance against communism, although she did back unions and supported grassroots community organising.

In short, her ideas seem to hark back to a Victorian New York or London, where there are no cars, horse and carriage is king, and the streets are bustling at all hours of the day with servicemen, the help, tradesmen, industries, shopkeepers, and people going about their business. This is a very specific and rigid idea of a city, rooted in a particular point of time which cannot hold while material conditions have changed around them. She also makes little mention of socio-economic circumstances, race relations and tensions, inequality, and other big city challenges which certainly existed in the 1960s too.

She is largely sympathetic to homeless people, or “people of leisure” as she refers to them. However, she does not delve into the reasons as to why they might be homeless and a wider social critique around that. I do wonder, though, what she might make of today’s US with record levels of homelessness with complex needs, collapsed industries, a state long in retreat, failing empire status and a hegemon in retreat in a troubled world. I do suspect that she may not recognise her New York; and that there is rather more death than life in the Great American cities of today.

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.

JANE JACOBS: Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs crops up in almost every piece of literature related to planning and urban design. Despite not having any formal training, her magnus opus, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is integral to the urban planning canon.

I have to confess, that more than a year deep into my urban planning studies I still hadn’t read the entire book. She crops up in countless secondary sources and she is cited at some point in many books on the subject matter written after the 1960s, and so I was intrigued to read her account of urban planning direct from the source.

From bumping into her work in other sources, her work seems to be fairly well-liked or at least respected by contemporary urbanists across the political spectrum. Richard Sennett’s Uses of Disorder, published just a decade after Death and Life, is clearly influenced strongly by Jacobs’ conceptualisation of cities and her celebration of street life as ordered chaos. In Sennett and architect Pablo Sendra’s collection of essays Designing Disorder: Experimentations and Disruptions in the city, both authors clearly continue to hold Jacobs in high regard. This is despite Sennett’s clear New Left roots and Sendra’s post-2008 Podemos politics and participation in Right to the City type movements, while Jacobs’ thinking is clearly quite a long way from that. Sennett goes so far as to describe her as an “anarchist urbanist.”

The only two urbanists and writers I have encountered (and I am sure there are more, but these are the only ones in my readings so far) who are critical of Jacobs’ work and thinking are one of my favourite writers ever ever ever Owen Hatherley, as well as the great Mike Davis. I was pleased especially to stumble across Owen Hatherley’s chapter on Jane Jacobs’ Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances after finishing Death and Life, as it confirmed quite a few suspicions about Jacobs’ thinking that I had formed while reading her tome.

It would be a disservice so summarise her opus in one go, so to do it the justice it deserves I will present Jane as an act in three parts: An introduction to her (for the uninitiated), followed by what she gets right and then what she gets wrong in Death and Life.