Jane Jacobs: How not to wreck cities

My favourite writer about cities, and a favourite of generations of my students, is Jane Jacobs, a sharp-tongued critic whose polemics were grounded in a strongly positive view of cities. She wrote her best-known book, The death and life of great American cities, when she was a New Yorker, but within a few years she had moved to Toronto, where she spent the rest of her life.

She loved cities and thought that the preservation of their livability and attractiveness was a key to the well-being of society as a whole. It’s central to Jacobs’s concept of cities that they are natural, that they grow organically out of the ways people choose to interact with each other.

As a result, in Death and life, she was scornful of the visions of planners and architects who wanted to create buildings, neighbourhoods, and parks in response to their ideas of what would look good — a philosophy we now know as modernism. (I’m not being entirely fair to modernism, but today’s topic is Jane Jacobs.)

The way to make cities work, Jacobs argued, was to watch how people interact in environments where homes, workplaces, and commerce existed side by side (or over and under) and then try to promote those interactions. Her view has become conventional wisdom in planning circles.

Urban politics, to her, was less a matter of fixing up cities than of preventing people who are hostile to them, or don’t understand them, from wrecking them. Among the many things Jacobs had to say, two themes stand out. Both are virtues of city life that she identifies, virtues that she thinks come naturally to people, things that will be there unless developers, planners, architects and politicians take special measures to kill them.

The most important single thing that makes cities work, she argues, is diversity, the opportunity for different kinds of people to interact in spontaneous and informal environments. One of the worst things about developers’ schemes is that they tend to promote uniformity. Uniformity, Jacobs tells us, kills cities.

Diversity comes when neighbourhoods are structured so that different people use them at different times of the day for different purposes. It is this mixture of people that makes for a lively street scene, and when streets are lively, they are both safe and attractive.

Balance between privacy and contact
Why does this kind of diversity attract people? One reason, according to Jacobs, is that it makes for a desirable balance between privacy and contact, between anonymity and the ability to mix with others. As Jacobs sees it, there are two major reasons why people want to live in big cities, reasons that sound contradictory at first.

The first is the desire to avoid the oppressiveness of small town, suburban or rural environments, where everyone is always minding everyone else’s business. The second is the desire to be around a lot of different people, to enjoy the excitement of being exposed to people and ideas different from the ones you’re familiar with and of being able to choose among a wide variety of people in search of the associations you want.

Trying to maintain both of those benefits at the same time involves carefully drawing the line between privacy and contact. Jacobs believes that city people do that instinctively, without thinking about it. In Chapter Three of Death and life she analyses how, in the neighbourhoods she was most familiar with, that line was drawn, how people instinctively made themselves available for contact, while at the same time protecting their privacy and refraining from encroaching on the privacy of others.

The details are different in different places, but the drawing of lines between privacy and contact happens in any truly urban setting. If you look carefully, you can see it going on any summer evening in the Exchange District, at The Forks, or on the streets of Corydon Village. If someone’s sitting at a table on the patio of the Bar Italia, leaning back and looking around while they sip their espresso, you might start a conversation with them, if you’re at the next table, but if they’re buried in their newspaper, you leave them alone. Everyone understands that, so well that, for the most part, we’re not consciously aware of it. Read Chapter Three of Death and life. Jacobs examines this point in detail.

Areas of the city that achieve diversity are magnets. People flock to them, even while they may tell themselves they hate cities. Most urban developers, meanwhile, aim to achieve what any self-respecting urbanite would regard as deadening uniformity:

  • Exclusively residential suburbs, each aiming to accommodate only people with similar purchasing power — and God forbid that someone should think of building a $250,000 house next to one that sells for $350,000.
  • Commercial districts for luxury shoppers, or for middle-income customers, or for bargain hunters — but never more than one of these at a time.
  • Residential developments for families, or others where children are not welcome.
  • Community centres accessible only by car. (Winnipeg has, deliberately or otherwise, achieved this end by closing down neighbourhood community centres and developing regional ones, complete with large parking lots.)
  • The aim of such developments is to ensure that, wherever you go, you’ll only meet people exactly like yourselves. Provided you’re not easily bored, it makes you feel safe, but it doesn’t strike sparks, stimulate creativity, or promote collaborations that grow out of chance encounters.

    2 responses to “Jane Jacobs: How not to wreck cities

    1. Reblogged this on James W Hoddinott and commented:
      Interesting Article about cities and ideas how to make them better as well as what doesn’t work

    2. Nice overview of Death and Life, especially the Bar Italia scene.
      I’m close to finishing my new biography of Jane Jacobs for Knopf, out in 2016.

      Robert Kanigel

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