Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Saint Jane

The Pelican edition of Death and Life, with cover by Germano Facetti.

A spectre is haunting urbanism - the spectre of Jane Jacobs. The American-Canadian writer and activist died in 2006, but she continues to exert influence over the urban debate, primarily via that dreary federacy of messianic dovecote enthusiasts, the "New Urbanists", who have taken her up as a kind of guiding prophet. Outside the ranks of the Kunstlers and Kriers, there is a great swath of architects, thinkers and writers on the city who have read Jacobs and hold her in high regard. With a touch of embarrassment, I should include myself in this latter category. Not being an architect, I was an auto-didact in urban theory. When I came across a Pelican edition of Jacobs' best-known book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in a second-hand bookshop almost a decade ago, I had never heard of her. But I loved the Germano Facetti cover design, the back sounded interesting enough, and the price was right, so I took it home.

At that point, my reading on urban theory had been scattershot, based entirely in what I found in 2nd-hand bookshops: Corbu, Lewis Mumford, Thomas Sharp, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, an odd band who had given me all sorts of interesting ideas and imagery, but nothing very coherent. What they had in common, more or less, was that I didn't really enjoy reading them all that much, and had mostly got through to the end in a spirit of patient self-improvement. I picked up Jacobs, expecting more of the same, and instead ploughed through it in a matter of days. If nothing else, she taught me that book-length urban theory could be hugely entertaining, and since then I have sought out books about the city with enthusiasm, as opposed to a worthy sense of I-really-should-know-more-about-this. (I haven't read The Economy of Cities which I understand unwisely broadens some of Jacobs' microcosmic conclusions, which is probably why its profile has declined in recent years while that of Death and Life has done little but improve.)

At the time, I lived in a basement flat in Pimlico. I worked from home. From the desk where I read and worked, I could see feet passing on the pavement outside. I could stroll out during the day and visit the market on Tachbrook street, which had a book stall. I knew the names of local shopkeepers. It was, when I had money, all very comfortable. Westminster council was on its never-ending crusade to fuck up everything with vast shiny office buildings. Jacobs had an obvious appeal in this context. Since then, I've learned a lot more, but much of what she says about the folly of monolithic single-use zoning and the importance of mixed activity on the street, still seems to me to be self-evident.

She has remained on my mind since, popping up from time to time in both expected and unexpected places. I recently read Joe Flood's account of New York's 1970s organisational meltdown, The Fires (review scheduled in Icon 088). Flood has a criticism of some form for nearly everyone in 1970s New York - except Jacobs, who floats, omniscient and benign, above the crumbling city. This kind of veneration obviously grates with some people. In an essay in The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz complains that the writers Sharon Zukin and Michael Sorkin are hopelessly in thrall to Jacobs in their recent accounts of NYC, and that Jacobs' description of the city was a mirage - if it ever existed, it was only for a split-second in the city's life.

Jacobs, Schwarz complains, presented a "transitional and unsustainable, if golden, moment" in the life of a certain neighbourhood as an ideal, and in doing so distorted our whole idea of the urban good life. This critique was picked up by Kosmograd: ever since Death and Life, urbanists have been attempting to conjure a steady-state Jacobs Moment in neighbourhoods globally, and always end up with a runaway reaction on their hands: gentrification. Working-class communities and affordable housing are swept away, and the district ends up as a "bo-ho theme park". Jacobs' "sentimental ... matronising" opinions have precious little to offer a world that is throwing up such terrifying urban environments as the FoxConn complex in Shenzhen.

When I first read Schwarz and Kosmograd's essays, my first instinct was to spring to Jacobs' defence. She was a lone voice raised in defence of a certain kind of community. That community was worth defending - the contemporary notion of what constituted a slum was a nonsense, a nonsense that was being used as a tool for massive and wholly un-progressive urban clearance and social engineering. This clearance was not the comprehensive redevelopment and state planning that took place in the UK - Moses-manner planning was an unlikely and grotesque, wholly corrupt, public-private aberration, one that sadly proved repeatable within the USA; imagine PFI joint ventures crossed with the LDDC and given untrammelled power, and you get a rough idea. At the time Jacobs wrote, gentrification and yuppification were inconceivable: New York would continue to experience the flight of the middle classes for 20 years after the publication of Death and Life. Industrial New York might not have been pleasant, but its destruction was a man-made disaster: the city deliberately dismantled its blue-collar manufacturing base in pursuit of white-collar employers, and almost killed itself in the process. (Flood details this insane policy in The Fires.) So Jacobs has nothing to offer the inhabitants of FoxConnopolis - she didn't have much to say about the Gaza Strip or Dubai, either, because she was writing about local issues in the 1960s. Jacobs could not be held responsible for what has been committed in her name by the New Urbanists and their insipid watercolour view of the city. Also, wasn't a lot of the disdain for Jane a distaste for her (American, rather twee) literary style? And the book has this great Germano Facetti cover. Don't you see?

In other words, Leave Britney Alone.

That was my first instinct, but thought better of it. For a start, I didn't particularly want to write an ode to Jacobs and place myself in the company of the Nurbanists. Secondly, it wasn't long after the ArcelorMittal Space Tangle controversy, and I didn't want to get into an argument with Kosmograd again, given that he's one of the most interesting and perceptive architecture bloggers in the UK, and I'm generally behind him 100%.

Anyway, the cult of Saint Jane is developing into a menace. It's worth mentioning that Death and Life is not really (or not wholly) an attack on modernism. Besides the Moses approach to planning, Jacobs is primarily arguing against decentralisation, "decentrists" such as Mumford, suburbanisation, Howard's "Garden City", monolithic zoning, and residential monoculture. Although the organic, dense, city seemed chaotic, Jacobs argued, it could be understood; it had hugely complex systems, and the systems worked. In suggesting this, she was making the case that the technocratic city-as-diagram planners in the Moses mold were not replacing a chaotic lack of system with a working system - they were replacing a working system with a dysfunctional system. Many of Jacobs' ideas (particularly to do with mixed uses) can and should be safely integrated into modernist planning. Indeed, they have been - compare the mixed housing and culture of the Barbican with the Lincoln Center, a Moses project that Jacobs complains about.

However, in deposing the Moses planning priesthood, Jacobs cut the vestments for a new priesthood. "You have misunderstood the city," she says, "and I understand it" - as Kosmograd says, this equation meant that by bearing the relics of Saint Jane, the Nurbanists can set themselves up as the only people who understand the city, and swaddle their agenda in authenticity and legitimacy. They claim to be the people who understand the city, who tend the guttering pilot light of "vibrancy" that keeps it alive.

They are wrong. I am not going to presume to have a deeper understanding of Jane Jacobs than the Nurbanists, and attempt to snatch the relics back - they are, frankly, welcome to them. We are never going to move forward if we get bogged down into a recondite dispute about "what she really meant". But Jacobs appealed to me because it chimed with what I saw in cities and what I liked about them - and the Nurbanists have no idea what this quality is. Their agenda for "neighbourhoods", "contextuality", "walkability", is fundamentally anti-urban. These qualities aren't necessarily bad in themselves - but combined in pursuit of the singular Nurbanist vision, they mean the vivisection of the city into un-urban cells. Taken to its conclusion, "walk-to-work" ideology means cottages clustered around the mill. While a short commute is desirable, in a neoliberal world this would severely limit social mobility and the overall broadening of horizons that is the best the city has to offer. If people wish to live within walking distance of their workplace, they of course should be able to. But basing a housing system on proximity to workplace is not progressive - or at least it is not as progressive as cheap, plentiful public transport and cheap, plentiful rented accommodation. The FoxxConn workers live in and around their workplace.

The Nurbanist vision of carving up the city in this way is as diagrammatic and retrograde as Moses' planning - and, similarly, it's an assault on the complexity of the city, the city's ability to generate its own fabulously complicated internal patterns that defy cursory inspection. The emphasis on little neighbourhoods, the stoop, local shops and walking distances, the "human scale" only tells part of the story of the city - after all, these things can be found in villages and small towns. All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole. Elevated highways, crowds, tall buildings, interconnection and confusion - these things can be to some people dismaying and unpleasant, but the awe they strike is the overture of accepting the condition of living in a city. The Tube roundel is vaguely holy to Londoners - intensely reassuring - because it is a sign of connection with a system of vast complexity and importance. (The religious meaning of the Tube is a subject I keep meaning to write about at some point.) Nurbanism stems from a fear and hatred of the modern city as it is - a hatred that is ideological, that cannot and will not be shown that there are reasons to like the neon snarl of the cities we have, and their inner flows and surges. This is a terrible frame of mind for a group concerned with urban planning. Jacobs, at least, liked the city, and liked it for factors that cannot be found in small towns.

Death and Life is parochial and highly idiosyncratic, a product of particular times and specific circumstances; as its critics say, a poor basis for general policy. Jacobs herself, though, can't really be blamed for making broad recommendations on the basis of her own experiences and beliefs. The trouble is that there are not more Jane Jacobs, more voices in the urban debate, giving different views of city planning from their own experience. It is mysterious to me that Jonathan Raban's Soft City - a book written out of love for and interest in the city, hugely perceptive about how cities work, without policy recommendations, simply a plea for what is valuable about the city as a huge civilising machine - is not venerated in this country. Anna Minton's Ground Control is the only really outstanding contribution to the urban genre in recent years, although of course I have high hopes for Owen Hatherley's New Ruins when it comes out. The mutations of cities around us, from Shenzhen to London, certainly do need new narratives.


Kosmograd said...

I feel honoured to have inspired, in part, such a well written and considered article.

I first read Death and Life... while researching the psychology of high-density living, a journey that lead me to people like Jacobs as offering a defence of sorts against the moronics of Alice Coleman and Oscar Newman, and eventually settling on Erskine's Byker as a happy medium.

But even then I hated its whimsical, overly personal style. At the risk of being sexist, it was the kind of book only a woman could get away with writing.

However, I feel that I may have done JJ a disservice - there are glimpses in The Economy of Cities that are relevant to the growth of Shenzhen.

I would not describe FoxConn city as terrifying, there is something fascinating and thrilling about it. But it cannot be understood on the terms of reference that Jacobs used and that the New Urbanists have established as benchmarks for urban design.

For better or for worse, I see more of the blueprint for 21st Century urbanism in Shenzhen than I do in 1960's Greenwich village.

hylaride said...

Jane Jacob herself railed against "new urbanists". She, like so many other popular thinkers, had to deal with the acolytes she created who mis-read her book and used her examples as something we should specifically create.

I live in Toronto and know several older people that knew her personally. About half of them abuse her ideas, the other half are more open.

Anonymous said...

I almost spit out my peanut-butter-bacon cookie when I got to "leave Britney alone." Jacobs never claimed in Death and Life to "know the city" for sure and incontrovertibly. She took pains to say this was how she saw it and that we should all keep our eyes open about what makes cities tick. I agree the New Urbanists can almost be apologists for gentrification by taking Jacobs as gospel, but I think that's based on a misreading of her message. She wasn't trying to say her ideas were endpoints.

I disagree that a city needs a "holy terror" element around which for residents to circle and somehow feel big city-like. I think you can't have a big city without such an element, but if we can take anything away from Jacobs, it's that such elements should be as humanely implemented as possible. (For example, it isn't as if she would suggest London shouldn't have the Tube, but I'm sure she'd support plans to ease pedestrian access to stations.)

Every great treatise to a certain extent is "parochial and idiosyncratic," but that doesn't mean the message is wrong. SO often I think in urban affairs and planning we get off-base thinking that the latest or most cherished thinking about cities is an endpoint. (Example--Robert Fishman's 1980s idea that suburban cities would continue inexorably to expand outwards and decentralize in the U.S., almost the antithesis of Jacobs--now 20+ years later, Los Angeles is the most dense metropolitan area in the country.)

Your post makes a great point, though I'm not sure you know you're making it. Taking Jacobs at her literal word worked no better than doing so with Le Corbusier. Doing so with the latter gave us failed high-rise public housing. Doing so with Jacobs gave us $2,000 rents on one-room apartments in Greenwich Village. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from them, adapt their messages, without labeling them as failed or too "parochial" for the contemporary urban world.

I'd love to see you follow-up and talk about what we can bring forward from Jacobs, and how to adapt New Urbanist perspective to "cure" supporting rampant gentrification. (Rent controls, maybe?)

owen hatherley said...

Chicagocarless - I know what you mean, but at the same time a city without the sublime is just a town, or a village - which of course is exactly the typology New 'urbanism' recreates.

there are glimpses in The Economy of Cities that are relevant to the growth of Shenzhen.

Funny you say that. When I was reading Economy of Cities the bit that I thought most interestingly wrong was her comparison between Birmingham and Manchester - I was going to write something about it, but decided to wait until I'd read Death & Life. Her idea that the cottage industries and small businesses of Brum were 'the future' and the massive, mass production, centralised, proletarianised conurbation of Mancunia was a soon-to-be-stagnant cul-de-sac is surely proven wrong by the Pearl River Delta more than anywhere else. She also doesn't even follow her examples through to the 20th century, and hence misses how much Birmingham imports ideas and methods from Manchester and Detroit (both of which she abhors) in the 20th century. This is linked to what I found most wrong-headed about that book, her apotheosis of the small business, which to put it in Hegelese becomes her Subject-Object of History - so that the big corporation is some mere aberration in the history of capitalism. Like most of her ilk, she'd clearly never read Marx, which would have helped (mind you, Michael Sorkin obviously has, and he's not much better). Anyway, am taking this way, way off topic...

Unknown said...

Kosmograd: If I may continue the mutual backslapping, your writing on the subject obviously merited a serious response; this whole debate has been enormously thought-provoking.

Terrifying was my word, probably coming from imagining myself a worker within it rather than considering it as a bit of urbanism. It's certainly fascinating. I don't know if it's an unviable mutant thrown up by the distortions and delusions of late capitalism or the shape of things to come, though.

Hylaride, thanks for the link to that Reason interview, it's very interesting. The trouble appears to be that the misreading has become the dominant reading.

Chicagocarless, fair point about Jacobs never claiming perfect knowledge of the city. But she does claim relative superior understanding of the city, if only by saying that others have misunderstood it. Which is exactly what I've done here.

My point about sublimity wasn't really a call for such a thing to be implemented as policy but pointing to it as an organic property of cities that the New Urbanists have sought to squash rather than appreciate. So I'm not saying that the city should deliberately be made difficult or dismaying, but that those qualities are emergent in the city, and seeking to eradicate them will eradicate much of what makes a city a city. So by all means improve access to stations. But the New Urbanist approach to improving access to, say, Victoria station at peak hours would be to decentralise employment, so that Victoria is less crowded in the mornings. That's very dangerous.

I hope I don't leave many readers with the idea that I think Jane Jacobs' ideas are blanket wrong - many of them, as I say, are spot on. I agree with what you say about endpoints - the moment a part of a city cannot change, it dies (in some ways that makes gentrification worse than slummification). Corbu might have given us high-rise housing, but a lot of other factors were responsible for its failure.

I'd like to do a post like the one you suggest - I'd have to re-read the book first. The trouble is that here in the UK serious change is near impossible - so much wealth (or the illusion of wealth) is tied up in the Ponzi scheme of the housing market that structural changes to even the way the rental market works risk a new crash, and politicians won't go near them. Housing in this country is really screwed, the vast crisis no one talks about. But yes, rent control would be a good start.

owen hatherley said...

My point about sublimity wasn't really a call for such a thing to be implemented as policy

I, for one, welcome the prospect of a Sublimity Commission.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the U.S. suburbs in the 80s/90s. When I read Jane Jacobs in college, I felt profoundly cheated. Like my childhood had been stolen by a corrupt brand of city planning and federal paternalism that stranded me in car-topia.

Today I identify myself as a New Urbanist and I'm trying to fix those lost places that I grew up in. I live in a mid-sized southern U.S. city. I’ve lived in both New York and Boston. In my opinion, Boston has all of the awe but little of the terror. I love both, but Boston opened my eyes about what a city could be. Big cities are wonderful and many New Urbanists I know work in them, but they don't need me, or at least not as badly as the expanse of suburban sunbelt sprawl and hollowed out towns and small cities.

I'm bewildered that you seem to think New Urbanists are against public transport. Perhaps it is because we don't work exclusively on transit oriented development; which would leave out much of the U.S. for the foreseeable future. I took a 4 hr bus ride to the state capitol to speak for our metro’s first proposed rail last year. I don't need to be able to walk to work; I just want to be able to walk to somewhere, anywhere useful, not just the neighbors' lawns.

Aren't towns and villages needed too? "Small town America" is much celebrated here, but most small towns are struggling mightily and no new towns have been founded in a half a century except those planted by New Urbanists.

Maybe New Urbanism is different in the UK where there is a strong planning culture and less expanse of unbroken suburbia; where there are no post-1950s cities that never had a functioning downtown, so downtown must be built from scratch.

In my experience New Urbanism is a world of "and", but people continually try to push us into a world of "or". We are for cities AND towns, for walking AND biking AND transit and even cars. New development AND redevelopment. Even cul de sacs aren't universally bad; what is bad is when they are universal. Some of us love tall buildings and some of us hate them. Some of us like whitewashed concrete as long as it is organized to create walkable places; some hate it unabashedly. We are not for everything because there really wouldn't be much point in getting together but neither are we so narrow as some would have you believe.

I don’t think we understand the city or the town or the village. But we are breaking our backs trying to (typically the cities where we are, not the pan-continental "city" as an abstract singularity). And in the meantime we have to build something, to make a living doing what we love and to make some contribution to civil society while the flood of suburbia continues to spit up “car-topia” that is a terror for drivers and prison for children.

Anonymous said...

So let me get this straight: the sprawl lobby hates New Urbanism because it (allegedly) wants to herd everyone into big-city downtowns, and Spillway hates New Urbanism because it is AGAINST big-city downtowns.

They can't both be right.

In fact, they are both wrong.

New Urbanism simply isn't particularly relevant to the best central city areas, because it is primarily an attempt to remedy lousy places- turning dying central city neighborhoods into better ones, and making suburbs less car-oriented and inhumane.

Van Manwich said...
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Van Manwich said...
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Van Manwich said...

Congratulations on having the courage to acknowledge the impression that Jane Jacobs made on you and to defend (for the most part) a conviction that her vision actually has some relevance today. But thank gawd that you spared yourself at the same time the embarrassment of any association with others who appreciate Jacobs, particularly those (us!) New Urbanists. (Since I started typing up these comments, it's been heartening to see the tide begin to go both ways in these comments, so I apologize for repeating at length points others have made eloquently.)

Perceptively, Will, you show the value of Jacobs’ contributions are revealed most clearly in light of the serious threats that spawned them. As she wrote, strong forces including still-influential decentralization theories and the drive to suburbanize the population and modernize the city with audacious urban renewal schemes were conspiring to systematically strip the city of the human-scale characteristics and sap it of its vitality.

At the same time, you sever what you call Nurbanism from the related but even more widespread problems it arose to address (and the vacuum it came to fill). It arose at a time in the U.S. (an era we haven’t completely escaped) when the default policy and professional settings yielded communities in which residents’ daily needs — shelter, school, work, food and other shopping — simply couldn't be met without an automobile to handle each trip, leaving no logical role for human-scaled places outside the halls of shopping malls. Promising strategies for reversing blight and decline in existing cities were also in dangerously short supply.

Léon Krier is prominent among a subset in the movement that holds urbanism functions best at Parisian heights of about 8 stories or less (or maybe as high as 12 stories as in Washington D.C.), but it’s a rather callow position to equate New Urbanism with an impulse to impose the form of a village on bigger cities. The idea of the rural-to-urban Transect provides a framework for understanding (and coding) how urbanism changes in form and intensity as it moves toward the urban core. And equally prominent new urbanists such as Peter Calthorpe, Doug Kelbaugh or Ellen Dunham-Jones are on-the-record and then some defending Vancouver’s example of high-rise towers, slender enough to allow sunlight to penetrate to the sidewalk level where shops, townhouses and an inviting pedestrian realm engage people at a human scale. Vancouver’s top planners have been welcome participants at CNU events for years and show all signs of appreciating their interaction there. The Vancouver Olympic Village at False Creek is a platinum-rated green neighborhood, certified through the LEED for Neighborhood Development program created through a partnership of the US Green Building Council, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the Natural Resources Defense Council. As Dunham-Jones is fond of saying, CNU is “a forum, not a formula.”

My introduction to New Urbanism came in Milwaukee, a city of 600,000 residents, where rust belt conditions compounded the predictable impact of urban renewal misadventures, overscaled freeway schemes and urban flight. In and around a downtown with a dearth of functioning urbanism (but plenty of urban fabric to repair and connect), where else is there to start but small? A mixed-use street of some character? A set of revived streets that begin to form a workable neighborhood where you can get a meal, some fresh produce, open an office, meet a friend and hang out? Or how about connecting those neighborhoods with a public riverwalk that can replace chain link fences and weedy parking lots and begin firing up the imaginations of thousands, residents and developers alike, about the appeal of waterfront living.


Van Manwich said...


Instead of lacking opportunities to experience “holy terror” in the presence of urban elements that flout human-scaled connections, people in the U.S. and wide swaths of many other countries have trouble escaping them. They’re here in Oakbrook, IL. Or Milwaukee. The examples are relentless.

New Urbanism is now helping to humanize environments that tilt too far toward the disorienting and car-scaled. In Milwaukee, it offered former Mayor John Norquist (now CNU’s CEO) and city planner Peter Park (now the top planning official in Denver) a formerly non-existent language for stimulating a renewal of city neighborhoods according to truly urban principles. The Downtown Plan articulated a vision for living and working in walkable sub-neighborhoods, but it’s rather inconceivable that any major percentage would be expected to live and work in a single “walkshed.” As is typical among new urbanist plans, Milwaukee’s is ardently pro-transit, in contrast to the odd false choice assumed in your critique. As a transit hub with spokes extending in multiple directions (albeit a transit hub struggling to find the necessary operating dollars), downtown is gaining strength again as a regional employment center. (It was actually the one U.S. downtown found in a recent Brookings “Jobs Sprawl” study to have outpaced surrounding suburban office parks in adding jobs.)

In terms of desired architecture, the plan embraced a broad palette of big-city models and precedents, from buildings inspired by the brawny turn-of-the-last century commercial buildings in the Third Ward to modern high-rises near the lakefront to townhouses in the Victorian district. When the city’s leadership team succeeded in realizing a major element of the plan — replacing a .8 mile elevated freeway with an urban boulevard and lift bridge with extensive redevelopment to ensue — the design and development guidelines helped set the stage for substantial mixed-use buildings near downtown transitioning to fine-grained fabric near Yankee Hill. The plan envisioned a landmark tower at a key bend in Water Street, downtown's major north-south route. When the vision of the plan helped stimulate a substantial market for new housing, there’s very little about the environment that resulted that strike me or others as “watercolor.”

Having found remedies to help heal cities, New Urbanism hasn’t solved the problem of what happens — gentrification — when the patient gets exceedingly healthy. The Milwaukee example shows developers finding numerous opportunities to work within the framework set by the plan to bring income-qualified subsidized housing to the market at projects such as the Majestic, Fifth Ward Lofts, Commerce Bluff. In addition to playing a major role in guiding the transformation of isolated and often semi-abandoned public housing into well-integrated mixed-income neighborhoods, new urbanists welcome the use of tools to promote diversity, as at signature projects such as Columbia Heights, constructed on an array of empty and underused lots next to a Metro station in Washington, D.C.

All these things said, there’s nothing about New Urbanism that asks to be deployed to the exclusion of other worthy, pro-urban approaches. In cases such as the gated (?) housing development designed by Lord Rogers for Chelsea Barracks, our cities deserve a rich debate about what exactly constitutes those pro-urban strategies. Like CNU and its events, this space may be a productive spot for such discussions.
--Steve Filmanowicz

L1 said...

I think that what is happening with the Nurbanists is the problem. Not Jane Jacobs.
I have massive respect for Jane Jacobs, but I think she is not really a visionary she just describes what she sees and what she knows works, that does not preclude what might work and obviously cannot really deal with what was not a part of the world she was writing about when she was writing. Having said that Dark Age Ahead was visionary in the sense that it may have accurately predicted some things.
For those writing without real familiarity with America's problems at the moment, I think you need to try to get to grips with the depth and enormity of the crisis. Nurbanism now is a reaction to that situation. I believe it is a conservative, maybe, back to fundamentals, or maybe particularly American reaction in the face of well.., disaster.
Jane Jacobs also lends herself well to (American) Sainthood, her books are very well-written actually, so accessible and popular, and humane. They give me a warm feeling I have to say!
One of the things I have noticed that does not work universally is the exhortation to just "let things grow". There are some situations where all you get then is more of the same dysfunction and something major is needed to effect change, small and incremental just won't work.

Logan said...

This is a very thoughtful post, and sparks a conversation certainly worth having about the seeming deification of Jacobs in the planning world. See, for instance, Planetizen's self-consciously religious re-issue of Death and Life that they advertise on their website from time to time:

That being said, I have to agree with many of the other commenters that New Urbanism is not some misguided apotheosis of her beliefs. As Steve Filmonowicz has pointed out, the movement is a big umbrella that has accomplished many prominent and impressive feats. Unfortunately, both of these aspects make it a rather easy target for critics of all stripes.

Not twenty minutes before reading your post, I put down Jonathan Raban's Soft City and also wondered why it never achieved the fame and influence of a work like Life and Death. Perhaps it is, as you say, because it's not at all prescriptive. The book is more of a passionate meditation than a call to arms. In that sense, it's probably just as "English" as Death and Life is "American."(Of course, in retrospect, the domestication of London was a much more nebulous and powerful menace than even America's renewal machine)

But I think Raban's city certainly embodies the qualities you find lacking in Jacobs and New Urbanism: sublimity and holy terror. For him, that sense of smallness felt among the buzzing crowds of St. Pancras or under the expanse of Archway Bridge epitomizes the danger and opportunity that are both essential to being in London or any other great city.

Considering this, I can understand a degree of apprehension when many New Urbanists talk about the "human scale." But, as Steve points out, the fact is that so many American cities now offer very little except smallness, and usually not in the thrillingly erotic sense that Raban paints for us. There is little sublime about having to walk along the unpaved edge of a 5-lane arterial, and certainly nothing holy about the mortal terror still experienced in many of the neighborhoods wrecked by American urban policy. Under these circumstances, a hefty injection of the "human scale" is probably just what the doctor ordered.

supposedly new school socialist said...

Nurbanist discourse ALWAYS sounds like elevator speech. That just can't be right.

The thing with Jane Jacobs is that she's sort of near-sighted. It's not about mixed use. It's about dissonance. Cities are an infrastructure for movement, change and fleeting (ie. situational) connections. Cities are about time. Cities are about the clash between rigid structures (old districts, parks, etc.) and flexible structures (square blocks where the courtyard can contain any number of things, etc.) They are about the clash of the big and the small. They are also networks - they are paths that connect different things, and out of this difference, unsuspected things spring along the paths themselves.

You'll never find the Nurbanists or Jane Jacobs herself talk about any of this. They're looking at the wrong place.

supposedly new school socialist said...

Owen Hatherley: what do you think about Japan? It's hard to decide whether industrial Japan is about the big businesses or the tens of thousands of small workshops and local factories. Well, it's about both, but it's hard to see what potential and implications do either have.

You bring up a very interesting discussion.

Francis Morrone said...

Excellent post, thank you. But one minor thing. When you suggest that JJ's writings on economics have faded from view, you are wrong. Her three books on economics in fact have been growing steadily in popularity and influence and there are now courses on her economic theories in university economics departments, at least in the US. It is also very much worth noting that in her books on economics she often extols the virtues of places very, very different from what she celebrates in "Death and Life." Her entire body of work, up to and including "Dark Age Ahead," provides, I think, a much more balanced vision of city life than does "Death and Life" on its own.

Maximus said...

I have always been puzzled by the hostility toward Jacobs in certain quarters. Frankly, it mostly looks like nothing more than a kind of snobbery: the snobbery of academics toward an outsider, and the snobbery of self-conscious defenders of the modernist tradition against a non-systematic, heterodox thinker who dared question the Corbusieran approach.

Even those who don't necessarily position themselves in those camps seem to have learned to hold Jacobs in faint contempt. As a layperson with no particular allegiance to any camp, I'm mystified.

I also have to say that I completely understand where NEWURBANISTGENERATION is coming from. If you grew up in the kind of horrible, vacuous American suburb that I did, you may well feel an almost visceral need to bring any kind of urbanism, however flawed, to the built environment.

I live in Brooklyn now, so this isn't an immediate concern. I'm free to disapprove of the twee and annoying aspects of New Urbanism. But it serves a purpose. I think, on balance, that it is making many American communities better than they otherwise would be.

Anonymous said...

"But even then I hated its whimsical, overly personal style. At the risk of being sexist, it was the kind of book only a woman could get away with writing."

Truly a museum-quality specimen of Jacobs-phobia.