Sunday, June 1, 2008

Book Review: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

I normally put my book reviews on GoodReads, but this one wouldn't fit:

My friend Todd’s finishing up his PhD in Urban Planning at Louisville this year, and he’s been telling me since he started the program that I should read this book, especially since I live in New York City.

I bought the book awhile ago, but never got around to reading it; it just didn’t seem to be my kind of thing. “It’s more your thing than mine,” Todd said. I didn’t know what he meant until I decided to incorporate it into a freshman orientation class I teach on the history and mystery of New York City. After reading it, I’d say that anyone living in New York City (or any other major metropolitan area, “Great American City” in Jacobs’ words) should not just read but ingest it.

The introduction states her thesis, which is essentially that traditional urban planners (as of 1961, the original date of publication, but most of her points about NYC planners remain valid today), instead of addressing cities on their own terms with their own distinctly, well, “city” relationships and problems, try to make them fit into smaller-town prototypes. This, she argues, is by nature destined for failure.

She divides the book into four sections. The first section, The Peculiar Nature of Cities, lays out what makes cities function, specifically:
  • Interrelated primary functions – In other words, the reasons people are commingling on the streets, and how those functions work off of each other. She uses a beautiful passage on pp50-54 to describe the “ballet of Hudson Street,” where through the course of every day the strete remains alive with people putting out the trash, kids going to school, local vendors setting up shop, mothers walking their babies, kids acting crazy on the streets after school, night workers stopping by the bodegas to pick up their lunch, the local taverns picking up the night crowds, lots between and after.
  • Limited privacy – Her argument is essentially that people don’t want to have long, drawn-out interractions with strangers, but they want to feel safe that if they need help they’ll receive it.
  • Uses of sidewalks – She devotes three chapters to the way that sidewalks socialize (or don’t socialize) people, and how decreased sidewalk usage is directly related to reduced street safety.
  • Uses of parks – She’s not big on them, at least in and of themselves, as she sees many city planners following the “Garden City” plan of simply producing open green spaces on the assumption that people naturally flock to them to get away from the streets. They often achieve the opposite of their intention, she argues, as the primary group to flock to them are criminals and the indigent if the parks are simply put in and left alone.
  • Uses of neighborhoods – I thought this was the best chapter of the section. She dismisses forthright the notion of neighborhoods as self-sufficient within a city, and sets out the hierarchy of neighborhood-district-city that, if connected, keeps neighborhoods functional and not simply warring “turfs.”
The second section, and in her words the most important, The Conditions for City Diversity, points out specific necessities to maintain diversity. I must state here that by diversity, she doesn’t necessarily mean cultural diversity (although that contributes to the diversity she speaks of) but rather a more universal diversity, including functional, economic, educational, cultural, and other forms. These conditions include:
  • Mixed primary uses – By “primary” she means the reasons a street, block, building, or other landmark is a destination rather than simply a place to pass through; these include work, residence, education, entertainment, and recreation. The needs for there to be a variety of primary uses goes back to her earlier statement on the need for interrelated activity to keep a street/block/neighborhood alive.
  • Small blocks – This is a relatively short and succinct point, essentially that the longer a block is, the less spontaneous traffic it will have, and thus the less interactivity of uses.
  • Aged buildings – This to me was one of the most elucidating chapters of the entire book. My first thought while reading was that she would address the historic and aesthetic value of older buildings; instead, she spends the majority of this chapter dealing with their role in generating economic diversity. The argument is simple, actually – older buildings are the only lodging that smaller, riskier, and/or newer enterprises can afford, so essentially they are the incubators of small business, which in turn stimulates economic diversity. She is positively prophetic in her use of Brooklyn as a prime example on pp196-198; she writes – in 1961, mind you – of Brooklyn’s potential as an incubator of small industry with its surfeit of huge industrial buildings. Living and running my business out of a factory loft in Bushwick with a vibrant, hipster-enterprise-filled community all around me, I can vouch for the wisdom of this assessment.
  • Concentration of population – Here is her argument, which has become a pretty standard one in liberal urban planning circles, against suburban sprawl. One thing she makes clear early – by concentration (and density) she doesn’t mean overcrowding. In fact, she argues, overcrowding usually occurs when the conditions for diversity aren’t met, and additionally the most dangerous areas of most cities are the ones with densities low enough that there is little community surveillance.

In the third section, Forces of Decline and Regeneration, Jacobs focuses her energy on the forces that encourage, sustain, defer, and/or destroy diversity and vitality in a city:
  • The first force for decline in a city or a neighborhood is the most ironic – a neighborhood made successful by its diversity and dynamism self-destructs by allowing one or two industries or purposes dominate it. She mentions banks, insurance companies, and high-end office buildings as prominent diversity destroyers, as they are economically conservative, investing usually only in established successes, and that they have the financial resources to supplant any other industries in the near vicinity. Once again I’ll use my beloved Brooklyn as an example: Williamsburg, over the last 5-7 years, has found itself an apex of hipster, artistic, and industrial uses; the city, in response to the increased desirability of the area for residential yuppie traffic and the attendant increase in financial resources, has rezoned both Williamsburg and the riverfront-area Greenpoint to encourage high-rise and condominium construction. Already, every inch of Greenpoint’s riverfront has been bought and sold, never to be used by anyone but the proprietors and renters. The waterfront is boarded up invisible from land, and with the housing market the way it is I haven’t seen many lights on in the buildings that have been put up.
  • Another negative force is what Jacobs terms “border vacuums,” areas in cities and neighborhoods where a buffer zone forms between different uses and/or demographic groups. These areas, she states, tend to form “gray zones” where few people from either side go, and end up the most dangerous places in the area. She includes railroad tracks, waterfronts, campus edges, expressways, parking lots, and large parks as obvious physical barriers, but emphasizes that these areas can form anywhere there is little overlap in activity between the groups of people who occupy and/or work there. Her solution is to turn borders into what she dubs seams, “a line of exchange along which two areas are sewn together.” To offset the negative Williamsburg-Greenpoint example I used in the last point, I’ll bring up a successful “seam” area on the Brooklyn waterfront, the pier off Owl’s Head Park. When I lived in Sunset Park I would run down there frequently, and I found there the closest approximation of the Old New York I imagined before moving here – skaters ramping, fishermen fishing, teenagers flirting, runners running, parents strolling, and all of this with freighters meandering by on the water and the Verrazano Bridge in the distance; a complete diversity of uses, with each peacefully sharing a relatively small space.
  • Her next point addresses perhaps the most cliché problem in city planning, slums and projects. I think this section in retrospect (remembering that Jacobs wrote it in 1961) was perhaps the most influential in changing the perception of slums from an unavoidable leftover area for economic charity cases to addressing gradually eliminating the economic influences that necessitate them. Her solution to the problem is not in decimating or moving slums, but making them nice enough that people want to live in the areas they are. The clue that this is working though, she says, can be misleading because if the strategy is successful there should be not a rise in population but a drop; this would be due to the drop in overcrowded dwellings and a return to normal population density for the amount of residential units. One last important thing to note about her proposed solutions for unslumming is that although she states unequivocally that city funds must be a sustained part of the process, the process will only begin at the behest of the businesses already set up in the slums, as they are the ones economically invested enough to stay and they are also the ones to benefit most economically from the upgrade.
  • Next, she engages the issue of money and its use, both to good and bad effect. In doing so, she basically divides funding into 2 categories: gradual funding, and cataclysmic funding. Of the two, she says only gradual, sustained budgetary allowances can truly sustain a neighborhood in a city, and even states that large amounts of money given to any one project at once can have disastrous effects. In light of her theories on what makes a successful neighborhood, it’s easy to see her reasoning – if any one project or division gets a large amount of budget, then naturally the outlaying areas will be negatively affected, which leads to a loss of diversity when the well-funded project becomes the neighborhood’s only attraction. Another key point she expounds on is the power a city authority has to destroy a neighborhood by withholding credit; this, she argues, happens quite frequently when a city’s central authority decides an area or community is economically dead then effectively “blacklists” it, discouraging lenders from funding enterprise there and fulfilling their own proclamation.
The last part of the book is sort of a mishmash of topics that are probably here because they couldn’t fit into the precepts of the other sections. It’s probably the weakest section of the book, perhaps for the unsettling reason that Jacobs is better at pointing out problems than forging viable solutions. Her views on automobiles in cities, for example, are hopelessly dated; she essentially explains how to restrict private automobile usage as if it would go away if you made it hard enough for individual car owners to get around, which sounds like it was written, well, around 1961 (or before). Her ideas for subsidizing dwellings in response to the problems of unslumming she addressed in the last part – subsidizing housing costs for working renters according to their income and adjusting the rent up or down as their income fluctuates – pose similar problems as the more generalized federal welfare system, as it essentially provides negative reinforcement for making a more liveable working wage. And her proposals for salvaging housing projects, while mostly viable, are essentially rehashes of suggestions she’s made in previous chapters, like tying in borders, cutting up blocks, guaranteed-rent dwellings, incorporating street-level vendors, and eliminating turf-like xenophobia, and she accompanies all these suggestions with the final ominous line of the chapter pertaining to the salvaging projects themselves – “Think better of it.”

The last 2 chapters of the section, though, are perhaps the most instructive and incisive of the book. “Governing and Planning Districts” lays the groundwork for building successful districts by building on her neighborhood-district-city hierarchy from the book’s first section. Unlike many of the solutions she proposes in this last section, Jacobs reveals here some obvious and hard-won experience with district jurisdiction and administration, and the structures she describes had already been working well in her district of NYC, Greenwich Village. The last chapter, “The Kind of Problem a City Is,” contains Jacobs’ plea for looking at cities not as chaotic mass needing a shape to be imposed on them, but systems of “organized complexity,” with interconnected systems that reveal themselves through inductive reasoning, i.e., looking at specific examples to figure out the systems they work within, rather than by imposing systems formulated by planners upon them that mostly work against the natural complexity that already exists. And speaking of nature, she closes out the book by making a compelling argument for cities as products of the natural world rather than forces imposing on the surrounding natural world that leaves any lull from the few chapters preceding it a distant memory.


Leimomi said...

Keep up the good work.

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