Tag Archives: Jane Jacobs

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.


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?

The Death and Life of Parks

A short post on parks, relevant for discussion of the area of downtown between 2nd St and Union Station.

The function of parks is probably the least-appreciated lesson of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Let’s turn it over to the master:

In orthodox city planning, neighborhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion, much as savages venerate magical fetishes. Ask a houser how his planned neighborhood improves on the old city and he will cite, as self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask a zoner about the improvements in progressive codes and he will cite, again as self-evident virtue, their incentives towards leaving More Open Space. Walk with a  planner through a dispirited neighborhood and though it be already scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with old Kleenex, he will envision a future of More Open Space.

And yet, modern day urbanists still deplore the lack of open space in places from Boyle Heights to Long Beach, based on open space ratios. These are people who ought to know better than to analyze city parks using the same analytic framework behind parking minimums. Here’s Streetsblog:

You see, there’s this thing called a Healthy City–and according to the National Recreation and Parks Association, a Healthy City has 10 acres of parks for every 1,000 of its residents.

In 2001, a debate in Long Beach was sparked: how had a city of a half-million dwindled its park space to 5.2 acres per 1,000 residents?

I don’t mean to single out Streetsblog or any of the Long Beach park proposals in particular, since I don’t know the area very well, but this is simply the wrong framework. Any urban design goal that could be met by people leaving your city is likely to be focusing on the wrong thing (see GHG emissions reductions for another example). If the population of Long Beach drops from 468,000 to 234,000, the park ratio will go up to 10.4 acres per 1,000 residents. Would anyone argue that the city or its parks would then be better off?

How Parks Work

The most important design feature of a park is everything surrounding the park. In general, we know how design good parks. You need some sun, you need some trees and shade, you need places to sit, you need some space for kids to run around, and you need paths that go places people want to go. Usually, the detailing of the park is relatively unimportant. Drop the High Line in the middle of a towers-in-a-park housing project, and it’s just another failed “promenade that go[es] from no place to nowhere and [has] no promenaders”, as Jacobs put it.

The things that make parks unique, and make them succeed or fail, are the things all around them. So when we’re looking at the possibility of new parks, the first thing we should look at is the neighborhood surrounding the park. That will tell us how much open space, if any, is appropriate for the area.

Torre Metafórico

Atlas Obscura has a fascinating look at the Torre de David in Caracas. This is a 45-story skyscraper that was originally intended to be finance industry office space, but construction was abandoned in 1994. Squatters moved in and today it’s the world’s tallest slum. Here’s the documentary:

Rest assured, a copy of that book is now making its way from Switzerland to the Southland. Shipping is free, so it only cost 45 euros (whatever the hell that is). If the current going price for City of Darkness on Amazon is any indication, maybe you should pick up a couple extra copies as an investment.

I bring up City of Darkness because the Kowloon Walled City came to mind as an obvious comparison, as another “vertical slum”. If you read City of Darkness, you’ll notice a striking similarity in the way that residents describe their community and the way that the establishment (governments, architects, urban planners) does.

To hear the authorities tell the tale, these places are overrun with crime and unsafe, the residents helpless victims. In the documentary, the establishment role is played by Guillermo Barrios, a professor of architecture and urbanism, who says that Torre de David is violent, not a good reuse of the structure, an example of “anti-housing” on which the government has turned its back. The Kowloon Walled City, due to arcane details of international relations, was similarly lightly-governed – a tiny island of People’s Republic of China territory surrounded by British Hong Kong.

Ask the people who live there to tell you their stories, and a much more detailed picture emerges. There is crime, like anywhere, but many residents say they feel safe and that nothing has happened to them. The young couple moving into and renovating an apartment are optimistic about getting a home for such a low price, and knowing where they’re going to spend the night. Another resident says the conversion of the tower is just the “nature of life” – people who had nowhere to go when it rains made a place to live. Read City of Darkness and you will hear many similar stories – people who, despite hardship, had escaped worse conditions in the PRC, built homes and businesses, and created a community.

Places that don’t follow the normal rules of development, like Torre de David and the Kowloon Walled City, live in a precarious position. The Kowloon Walled City initially received beneficial intervention from the outside, in the form of sewer lines, safe drinking water spigots, and legitimate power lines that weren’t a serious fire hazard. (Side note: score one for the engineers.) But eventually, its illegal slum apartments and businesses were deemed to be an embarrassment to the British and the Chinese, who both wanted to come out looking good from the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese control, and it was demolished in 1994. This despite the persistence of legal, but just as crappy, cage apartments in the rest of Hong Kong.

The establishment’s position on Torre de David is the same. It is revealing, though perhaps unintentional, that Barrios calls Torre de David a “symbol” of the failure of Venezuela’s cities. Symbolic failures can be solved with symbolic successes. Thus, demolishing a low-rise slum to build Pruitt-Igoe is a success, and demolishing Pruitt-Igoe when it becomes a symbol of urban failure is also a success. Barrios concludes that the people in the tower need to be relocated to “adequate residences, adequately planned around a vision of habitat, of housing with integrated public services”.

Realistically, the physical form of Torre de David has little to do with any social problems, just like physical form had little to do with the problems of pre-WW2 US slums demolished during urban renewal. Social problems are us, and you can’t build new housing to escape yourself. Crime, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, unsafe water, electrical, and sewer service – all of these problems are just as solvable in Torre de David as they would be in some theoretically-planned housing project, if not more, because in Torre de David you can capitalize on existing social networks. But solving symbolic problems is much easier than solving real problems.

Now, this post might seem awfully libertarian to you (I’m surprising myself a little), and you might think I don’t care about people in poor living conditions (not true at all). But that last quote should have sent a chill down your back, because it’s the exact same logic that planners used when they wiped swaths of American cities off the map back in the urban renewal era. My critique isn’t based on Murray Rothbard, it’s straight out of Jane Jacobs.

The stories you hear from residents of Torre de David today were being told by residents of the Kowloon Walled City in 1989, and they could have been told by residents of Boston’s West End in 1955. In every case, residents are saying, look, we want to work with the government to make our community better. And the response of policy thinkers makes it clear they have little interest in that – in actually understanding how the neighborhood works, which Jacobs flagged as one of the biggest problems in urban planning. It makes me really wonder just how much we’ve learned about cities in the last 60 years.