26 Apr 2012

The Death and Life of... Cities -- The Review

I read Jane Jacobs's Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) a few months ago.[1]

Jacobs, a lifelong 30-year inhabitant and fan of New York City, wrote her book in protest against the planners' assault on a complex, rich and robust urban life.[2] Her observations are still relevant these 50 years later; her guiding philosophy will remain informative for many decades to come.

Here are some notes I made while reading:

Old cities have an organic character that reflects hundreds of years of interactions among people coming from many places to do many things.[3] These interactions modified cities as they grew, a characteristic that may be harder to see by just looking at a city's current physical layout. The soul of the city is not in the streets or buildings, but the interactions among people that take place on these streets. Proponents of planned and charter cities often underestimate the importance of urban evolution through the act of living, or, in Jacob's words (p 238), that "cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."

How is it that it's so easy to spot "social housing"? Because planners equate low cost uniformity with efficiency. That's not true if people do not want to LIVE in those houses or if sterile developments discourage human traffic. Jacobs spends MANY pages on these topics, lamenting the replacement of old lively neighborhoods with "modern" housing developments that are boring and deadly.[4]

I am not a fan of rental subsidies (compared to a straight income transfer) to help the poor, but they would be better than directing the poor to "appropriate" housing in ghettos.[5] Jacobs describes how rental subsidies would let people live where they wanted to, in housing they prefer, rewarding good landlords with rent instead of employing monopolistic bureaucrats to collect funds they may not earn. Rental subsides are also "dignified" in the sense that they leave control over living space to the individual, not a patronizing bureaucrat. In the words of Marshall Shaffer (p. 324): "A fool can put on his own clothes better than a wise man can do it for him."

What should Detroit do to recover? Jacobs was writing when Detroit was at its peak, but I reckon she'd want to shrink Detroit down to a core (to get people closer to each other) while leaving enough empty space for people to find news ways to interact and add depth to their evolving urban life, i.e., treat Detroit as a growing village rather than a shrinking city. Such a light touch in management would allow people to find their own ways to "unslum" areas into forms that work for them, now. Evolution will take place when it's necessary not when a plannign "expert" decides.[6]

The richest human interactions involve the least machinery: feet are better than bikes are better than buses/trams are better than cars. It's ironic, I think, that "developed" countries could borrow habits from developing countries -- more street vendors, shared-taxis, and mixed-use buildings -- to improve street and urban life. Most of these habits have been regulated out of existence by myopic planners -- with help from bureaucracies and businesses that do not want competition.[7] Jacobs explains and defends how diversity in land uses leads to a robust, prosperous and interesting environment that builds on itself, as people arriving to enjoy urban life make their own contributions.[8]

Jacobs has a very impressive and perceptive analysis of real neighborhood safety -- not a neighborhood watch sign on a lonely corner, but hundreds of eyes and ears of people who mind the children and keep order as they go about their business. This observation is not as strong as it used to be (more mobility, technology and social evolution), but it can be cultivated and protected with reasonable effort. Children in these environments, btw, are raised "by the village," leading to less stress/burden on parents, more diversity in experiences for the children, and stronger interpersonal relations.[9]

Cohesive communities are not composed of people from the same ethnic group, religion or income. They are composed of people who are there to STAY. Companies call it "institutional memory," Jacobs calls it the "soul of a community." She goes on to compare lively cities with dead suburbs. This superficial comparison is accurate in describing the contrast between the two, but she goes further, to trace how government subsidies for suburban sprawl and condemnation of urban slums has damaged the organic growth of cities (p. 310):
Herbert Hoover had opened the first White House Conference on Housing with a polemic against the moral inferiority of cities and a panegyric on the moral virtues of simple cottages, small towns and grass. At the opposite political pole, Rexford G. Tugwell, the federal administrator responsible for the New Deal's Green Belt demonstration suburbs, explained, "My idea is to go just outside centers of population, pick up cheap land, build a whole community and entice the people into it. Then go back into the cities and tear down whole slums and make parks of them."

The cataclysmic use of money for suburban sprawl, and the concomitant starvation of all those parts of cities that planning orthodoxy stamped as slums, was what our wise men wanted for us; they put in a lot of effort, one way or another, to get it. We got it.
That was in 1961, and the urban/suburban divide that worsened has only reversed in the past 10-15 years, as hipsters and other "new urbanites" have moved back to the "inner city." The return to urban centers in other countries (IMO, since I lack statistics) has been much more gradual, since people did not move out -- and were not encouraged to move out -- as much in the first place.[10] Jacob's puts a damning finger on federal policy as a destroyer of our quality of life and community.

Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for Jacob's deep critique of the planners whose hubris, myopia and mismanagement has damaged and even destroyed cities, cultures and communities. She offers a splendid alternative in describing how many uncoordinated people can interact with "disorganized complexity" [her phrase] to create a place worth inhabiting. Read this book and walk around a great city to see the magic of the human "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."

  1. I abbreviated the book title so the blog post title would fit on one line, but that shorter title is also appropriate. Jacobs speaks truth for all cities, living or dying.
  2. Interesting -- to me -- that another great book by a woman -- Rachel Carson's Silent Spring -- came out the next year. Both of these women made deep and perceptive critiques of the over-engineering of nature, a tendency that I am happy to blame on the male proclivity to conquer everything in sight.
  3. Scott's 1998 masterpiece Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed owes many of its ideas to Jacobs.
  4. Jacobs points out a sad irony about such myopia (and the lack of results that follows): it's expensive to move people out of existing neighborhoods and into new "communities." You pay once to destroy a nice area and again to put people in a worse area. Disaster. She description of these dynamics over many pages should be REQUIRED reading for any student or "professional" urban planner.
  5. I prefer rental subsidies to government-owned housing (the same way I prefer school or medical vouchers to government run schools or hospitals), but are there rental subsidy programs anywhere in the US? In the world? (Not in the UK or NL, AFAIK).
  6. She notes that the difficulty in coordinating and managing inputs from numerous city departments and bureaucracies is the result of trying to engineer a community instead of allowing it to grow on its own organic, chaotic -- yet ultimately efficient -- way. This is the same critique I make of the call for "managing" the food-energy-water nexus. Such management risks leaving us hungry, cold and thirsty while "experts" figure out what's best for us.
  7. Recall that many terrorists are engineers. Engineers tend to think they can plan how things aught to be; some of them want to force that vision on others.
  8. My favorite place in a city is the market -- where this mix is the most spontaneous, chaotic and interesting. Watch this little bit of "market art."
  9. Here's an example of how backwards we've become: a lady rescues a kid from getting run over by a truck; the mom yells at her for "touching my child." WTF.
  10. Redevelopment has happened -- and continue to happen -- as the popularity of and prices in neighborhoods rise and fall.