Welcome to Jane Jacobs week at Houston StrategiesFamous urban thinker Jane Jacobs passed away last week. For those of you who have been with the blog from the beginning a little over a year ago, you may remember that in my kickoff post I promised an "updated Jane Jacobs for the car-based city." Well, this seems like an opportune time to finally get around to that. I'd like to do a multi-post series this week on her ideas and my thoughts on their application today. Some of her ideas on vibrant neighborhoods from the 1950s still make sense today, but I think others need a re-interpretation through the lens of modern car-based cities like Houston.
But first, I think we'll spend a couple days doing a "Jane Jacobs primer" for those who aren't familiar with her work - with a specific focus on cities (she wrote on many other topics). I want to extend my thanks to Adam Block for prompting me to write on this topic, and here's his very concise summary of her major themes:
To me, a big influence of hers is to think about how big plans fall apart, the availability of opportunity and chaos as a creative force, and thinking about the coercion that lies underneath a lot of planning and architecture.Well said! But we're getting ahead of ourselves. From a web page summarizing her work is this excellent section covering the essence of her thinking on cities (highlights mine):
Tomorrow, we'll excerpt the best of several writings and articles about her ideas since her death.
Cities and Diversity
Ever since her time in New York Jacobs has lost her heart to city life. She loves the urban dynamic and is fascinated by the people who live, work and amuse themselves in cities. "The city has something to offer to everyone, since it is created by everyone" is one of her famous sayings. This vision is in sharp contrast to the ideal of many city planners and officials from her New York period, like Le Corbusier and [Robert] Moses. According to Jacobs, urban development cannot be planned from behind a drawing table. For her a city is not something abstract. From the title of her first book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) it is clear that she prefers to use a biological metaphor: the city is like a living being that is born, grows, matures, decays and can revive. The elements of the city, "the people, streets, parks, neighborhoods, the government, the economy," cannot exist without one another and are, like the organs of the human body, connected with each other.
In this evolutionary approach streets play an important role: they are the lifeblood where urban dwellers meet each other and where trade and commercial activities take place. The street is the scene a "sidewalk ballet," according to Jacobs, which determines the security, social cohesion and economic development of cities. From this perspective, even taking out the garbage or having a talk with a passer-by is a deed of dramatic expression. These every day acts make a city into a vital city.
In The Death and Life Jacobs expands on the physical conditions which are the foundation of the street ballet. For a good performance of the urban play, she claims, the scene needs to meet four conditions. Firstly, neighborhoods should have several functions, so that there are people on the streets at all hours of the day. If in a neighborhood there is only activity at night, or in the morning, as in many business or commuter areas, activities like hotel and catering, culture and retail trade hardly get the chance to blossom. In neighborhoods with a mix of functions, however, throughout the day these facilities are needed which in itself starts a process of reinforcement. Secondly, Jacobs believes that a city benefits from short building blocks and an intricate street structure. Pedestrians must have the possibility to go round, take a different route sometimes, and thereby discovering something new. Thirdly, there should be enough variation in the residential area: buildings that differ in age, level of maintenance and function contribute to a varied and colorful city image. Lastly, Jacobs advocates a high degree of concentration of people in one place. She supports compact city neighborhoods where different kinds of households and individuals (families, elderly, entrepreneurs, artists, migrants, students) live together. The fact is that this variety on the small scale results in the critical mass which is necessary to maintain an equally varied supply of local facilities. In such a busy and diverse neighborhood the local supermarket, the kebab shop and the chain store can coexist without problems.
Jacobs emphasizes that the spatial conditions for a street ballet cannot do without one another. Only in combination do they lead to the diversity that is needed for a blossoming city life. In this way, urban diversity ensures that there are people close by at every moment of the day. If there are enough "eyes on the street," she claims, crime is not given a chance and the collective feeling of security increases. The variety in functions, buildings and people also plays an important role in maintaining social cohesion. It is not so much about keeping in touch with the neighbors, but rather about interaction on the street, at the bus stops or in shops. This is how people get the feeling of belonging to a community, or being at home somewhere. In order to indicate these loose neighborhood networks, Jacobs talks about "social capital," a term which is very popular nowadays among city governors.
Not only socially, but also economically, urban diversity is of great importance, according to Jacobs. In an area of the city with different kinds of suppliers and buyers, entrepreneurs can share their facilities, such as office spaces and machines, and profit from a varied supply of knowledge and expertise. The cross-fertilization which results from that diversity works as a magnet for companies that are looking for a new place to establish themselves. Additionally, the mix of old and new buildings in the neighborhood gives every type of entrepreneur a chance. In this way, it is possible that a modern stockbroker’s office and a traditional furniture maker are neighbors. According to Jacobs’ motto, "new ideas often need old buildings" so a city neighborhood can grow into a true breeding ground of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation.