Sunday, April 30, 2006

Welcome to Jane Jacobs week at Houston Strategies

Famous 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):

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.

Tomorrow, we'll excerpt the best of several writings and articles about her ideas since her death.

6 Comments:

At 11:05 PM, April 30, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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. "

I skimmed her book a couple years ago while at the coffee shop, so i might not remeber correctly. I thought the main reason she wanted variations in the buildings, was not image, but for diversity of the tenants/owners. Expensive for the already well off, and cheaper for the up and coming/golden years. So that your young teachers and seniors can live in the same area as the bankers. Giving everybody chances to meet and befriend people of all kinds of backgrounds. Which is always something I thought I would like about living in a city. It is also something that I think Houston's redevelopement (midtown) is missing. I wanted to get away from the suburbs to get away from the cookie cutter shit, and now the developers are bringing the clones to me.

 
At 8:07 AM, May 01, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You are correct - their summation is a little off for that point. Building variation is for diversity of both residents and businesses - to allow for interesting businesses that require cheap real estate.

The Midtown problem you describe is classic. Even Manhattan is having this problem. Standard cycle: uncool area -> artists-etc. move in -> becomes cool -> money moves in, displacing what made it cool originally.

I think Montrose/Neartown/Lower Westheimer has the more eclectic orignality you're looking for, at least for now. And maybe parts of the Heights.

 
At 12:45 PM, May 01, 2006, Anonymous Christof Spieler said...

Actually, I think Midtown poses this kind of problem for a different reason: there was hardly any existing residential, so all the residential is new and high-end.
What Jane Jacobs said is very true for Houston: nobody builds new cheap apartments or retail spaces or offices. Lower-rent businesses and lower-rent people tend to use older building stock.
In fact, Midtown has a great example of the opportunities that older, depreciated buildings bring: Vietnamtown. The Vietnamese community moved in because that area had declined as a retail area and the buildings were cheap. Once that community grew and thrived, they were able to build new buildings. But old strip malls, like old apartments, provide opportunity.

 
At 12:11 AM, May 02, 2006, Anonymous clarence yung said...

Bravo, Tory. Jane Jacobs's thinking needs to be brought to our car-based city; I'm really, really tired of so-called Jane Jacobs acolytes that bash Houston (and, by corollary, Los Angeles) for its supposed anti-urban form -- I'm looking at certain New Urbanists here.

I'm looking forward to some interesting posts that'll bring insight into our city and how it functions.

 
At 1:20 PM, May 02, 2006, Anonymous RJ said...

I'm really, really tired of so-called Jane Jacobs acolytes that bash Houston

But let's remember and consider that Jacobs had plenty negative to say about Houston and similar cities. So it's not necessarily a matter of Jacobs fans hijacking her position, though that does happen frequently enough.

You will find an interesting exchange about Houston in an interview that Jacobs did with Reason magazine back in 2001. It's a combination of negative and positive.

I had the opportunity to spend time with her in 1996, and when we discussed Houston, she tended to dwell more on the negative than what she did in the Reason article. Perhaps there was something in that following 5 years before she did the Reason interview that caught her attention in a good way about Houston?

 
At 11:48 AM, May 03, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Here's the link and excerpt from the Reason interview. I think she made great observations about vibrancy for that type of neighborhood, but was never able to generalize her principles to car-based, more suburban cities.

http://www.reason.com/0106/fe.bs.city.shtml

Reason: When the change comes, if it is an incremental, slowly evolving, uncontrolled sort of natural change, it's easy for society to accommodate that, isn't it?

Jacobs: Yes it is. But if all that zoning is kept, that can't happen.

Reason: This is why I'm one of the few people you've met who likes Houston, because it has no zoning.

Jacobs: It has no zoning. But all the same, it looks like all the places that do have zoning. Because the same developers and bankers who deal with places that do have zoning carry their same ideas when they finance or build something in Houston.

Reason: There are not enough Houstons to change the way things are built or developed?

Jacobs: Right. In fact, places where change does happen are where people face it and really start to overhaul and rethink these things. That's what holds back change -- when people don't overhaul and rethink. People are awfully scared of changes in zoning, because they think the neighborhood will go to the dogs and it will ruin their property values.

I mentioned before about this anatomy of the streets, and how if you have the streets that are good pedestrian thoroughfares as part of the anatomy of the heart, those are the logical places to convert from residences, say, to businesses. If the place is really an economic success, that's going to happen. That's not a bad thing to happen, the expansion of the commerce and the working places.

 

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