Jane Jacobs at 100

May 4th was the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, whose works certainly need no introduction here. Rightly revered for successfully blocking Robert Moses’ plans to build freeways across Lower Manhattan and her works that helped redefined urban planning, Jacobs has become the patron saint of urbanism, however loosely defined that term may be. Her 100th birthday has prompted many retrospectives and celebrations of her work, with the Toronto Star calling her more relevant than ever.

Recently, though, some of her writing in The Death and Life of Great American Cities has come under fire. Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism sees the seeds of NIMBYism and gentrification in her opposition to dense construction being proposed in Greenwich Village and other parts of Manhattan in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Jacobs’ writing is extensive, spanning over four decades, and even within Death and Life itself there are many different concepts that can be examined on their own merits rather than as a portion of the whole.

When I first read Death and Life many moons ago, I was living in Boston’s North End, which is cited frequently in the book as an example of a neighborhood that, by virtue of its built environment – mixed uses, small blocks, aged buildings, & density – had produced a successful urban community. Young and smug, I wallowed in the self-satisfaction of having chosen to live in the right kind of neighborhood and built environment.

Over time, though, it became impossible to pretend that I was living in Jane Jacobs’ North End. The neighborhood had already undergone tremendous change since 1961, when Death and Life was published. Gone were the noxious waterfront industries and the surface-running freight railroad, and the Central Artery’s days were numbered. Many Italians had long since decamped for the suburban dream on the North Shore. My North End was not that of former Boston City Councilor Paul Scapicchio, who described the eyes on the street of his childhood as “like having a thousand grandmothers” ready to tell your mom if you were up to no good. In fact, a nice feature for some of us living there was not having eyes watching all the time.

I had friends there and knew some business owners, but had nowhere near the extent of social interaction described in Death and Life. I certainly wasn’t assimilating anyone’s kids; even in those days, disciplining someone else’s children would get you long looks, if not a tongue lashing. Entire blocks that would have had ground-level retail in 1961 had been converted to exclusively residential use, their shopfronts replaced with small windows set high in the wall for the privacy of the occupants, who certainly didn’t want to be interacting with anyone on the sidewalk. Yet these streets had not been doomed; rather, they were more desirable because they were likely to be quiet at night. In years, I never really knew anyone else who lived in my building.

What’s going on? Like many questions on urban development, the answer can be found in Palms.

Palms is neighborhood that, according to Death and Life, should fail. The definitive dwelling type of Palms, the dingbat, built on the definitive zoning of Palms, R3, produces residential densities of about 50 dwelling units per net residential acre (du/ac). This is half the density that Death and Life speculates is the bare minimum for urban neighborhoods, but more than twice the posited maximum density for a suburb. Palms should be a “gray area” under the great blight of dullness. It’s not. Palms is one of LA’s most diverse neighborhoods, attracts new investment, and offers a wide variety of commercial amenities.

The neighborhood I live in now in Glendale is zoned for 19 du/ac, but has higher density in reality due to a significant amount of legacy development built when the zoning allowed more. It doesn’t suffer from the issues ascribed to middle densities either. I know more people in my building here than I did in the North End. This isn’t a reflection of the neighborhood’s design; it’s a reflection on people, myself included, being in different places in life.

Jacobs was badly needed in 1961, when American cities were being sacked on a scale that is almost unimaginable now. Nothing today comes close to the wholesale destruction of urban renewal and freeway construction; no one wields concentrated power of the magnitude Robert Moses had then. We should be thankful that the Lower Manhattan Expressway wasn’t built, and that the tide of public opinion turned against demolishing entire neighborhoods and towards respecting communities.

However, it seems to me that two things have gone wrong. One, we have underestimated the ability of people to form communities in different ways and flourish in different environments. Two, we have taken the lessons on urban aesthetics too close to heart.

On the first point, consider that people use and need cities in many different ways. For some, the ability to form a tight knit community is essential to survival because of the need for support; this is frequently the case with immigrant communities, like the North End when it was home to new Italian immigrants. Others are looking for social and cultural community; artists and writers are the stereotypical examples here. Still others might be trying to escape bad situations elsewhere, looking for new friendships and opportunity, but wanting or needing the anonymity that only a city can afford. People can successfully do these things in many different types of built environments. If you’re a recent Chinese immigrant to SoCal, you might end up in pretty suburban Monterey Park – not because of how it looks, but because that’s where the community you need is located.

On the second point, we have become focused on programming the details of new buildings – materials, interaction with the street, unit sizes, mandatory mixed use in some places, and mandatory single use in others. We obsess over design while much larger market forces are reshaping cities. We let our cities become cartoons of themselves – maintaining the same appearance while serving a smaller portion of the people who need them. It’s the urban answer to Disney’s Main Street USA – looks and feels like a real city neighborhood, if you can afford the price of admission.

This is not to say that Death and Life is irrelevant or dated. But for many cities, the problems that it discusses are. There are cities that are struggling the way New York was in 1961 – places like Detroit, Cleveland, St Louis – and they really do still face plans for extensive demolition of old neighborhoods, new roadways through the urban core, and urban renewal schemes. But no one is trying to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway anymore, and no one is trying to demolish the North End and replace it with another West End. People talk about the need for aged buildings as if Robert Moses were still lurking around the corner, as if places like LA weren’t largely comprised of old buildings. We have lots of old buildings, what we need now is some new ones. On my entire street in Glendale, you could probably count the buildings finished in this century on two hands; on my street in Palms, in four long blocks, there were probably three or four. And of course, many of LA’s single-family zones have functionally added no new dwelling units in decades.

If we are to use the lessons of Death and Life to help address the challenges many cities face today, we have to start with the recognition that neighborhood character comes from people, not buildings. The buildings don’t make the community; they just make it possible for the people who make the community to live there. Design matters and can make a difference, but only if you have enough buildings for all the people who want to be a part of the city.

Greenwich Village today is not what it was in 1961. Do we like how Greenwich Village, and countless other neighborhoods in coastal cities, are actually functioning today, with rising rents and reduced access to the city for those who need it most? Or do we just like how they look?

I tried to look up rents in my old building in the North End, but it’s been condo converted. A mortgage on the cheapest unit would be at least two and a half times my rent. Are we really willing to pay such a price just to look good?

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2 thoughts on “Jane Jacobs at 100

  1. Matthew

    Jacobs wrote a long paragraph about how selecting precise numbers for density is very difficult and context dependent. And then she settles on this “100 du/net acre” figure for some reason. She probably felt some pressure to quantify, somehow, but should have gone with her first instinct.

    In any case, I spent some time, years back, to try and understand these numbers and whether they translated to modern terms. I came to the conclusion that they didn’t make sense in the context of Boston of the 21st century. Whether that’s because our measurement methods are different, because people are different (they have more money and free time now), or because she was just wrong is uncertain.

    The North end, she reports, had 275 du per net acre. I found that in modern census reports, it had 170 du per net acre, estimating net acres as best I could. Is that measurement differences, or 50 years more of unslumming?

    The Boston area has reasonably functional (if not necessarily affordable) city neighbourhoods at densities of 60 du per net acre, sometimes less. The North end remains the most densely built, alongside Fenway and Beacon Hill. Of the downtown neighbourhoods, the North end probably retains the most affordability, but that’s not saying much.

    The need for aged buildings is not so much a problem in old areas, as you rightly point out, but rather in new ones, like Assembly square. And redeveloping ones, like Dudley square. Unfortunately a lot of the good old buildings were lost there, and many of the existing ones now are those awful, unusable for any other purpose, single story box buildings surrounded by parking. Affordability there is relying on subsidies. Which might have to be the case either way. In any case, her point was that of a need for diversity in building ages: not just old buildings, but a mix of old, new, and middle aged buildings, to provide many points on the spectrum, and so that eventual building replacement can occur gradually.

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  2. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Los Angeles

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