Jane Jacobs' "Opportunity City" vs. "Pleasantville"Bad news and good news, folks. The bad news is that my day completely got away from me, so I didn't have the time to write the content-heavy post I intended for today and mentioned at the end of yesterday's post. The good news is that Leonard Gilroy, Houston-based policy analyst for Reason and, in the interest of disclosure, a friend of mine, has an insightful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today on Jane Jacobs - with some provocative excerpts:
Given urban planners' almost universal reverence for Jacobs, it is ironic that many have largely ignored or misinterpreted the central lesson of "Death and Life"--that cities are vibrant living systems, not the product of grand, utopian schemes concocted by overzealous planners.These excerpts fit well with an idea that just hit me this morning and that I'd like to explore further here and in future posts. Cities sit on a spectrum between two extremes I think of as "City of Opportunity" vs. "Pleasantville" (with apologies to Mayor White for stealing the first term, and a movie for the second). The bold highlights above describe Opportunity Cities, which are messy and relatively uncontrolled, with vibrancy-enablers like cheap commercial and industrial space (including plenty of vacancies), inexpensive labor, including immigrants (which is as big an enabler of eclectic businesses as the cheap space of old buildings Ms. Jacobs touted), and "undesirable" low-income apartments and housing to shelter them. Pleasantville is tightly controlled - with strict attention to aesthetics and "desirable" land uses - and might also be called a "Disneyburg". Our local examples of the two extremes would be Houston vs. The Woodlands. For those familiar with writer Virginia Postrel, it's pretty much a perfect match to her description of the competing philosophies of dynamism vs. stasis (not that Pleasantvilles don't change, but it's a different, slower, much more managed, top-down, and process-driven change instead of organic and bottom-up).
That's because these planning trends run completely counter to Jacobs's vision of cities as dynamic economic engines that thrive on private initiative, trial and error, incremental change, and human and economic diversity. Jacobs believed the most organic and healthy communities are diverse, messy and arise out of spontaneous order, not from a scheme that tries to dictate how people should live and how neighborhoods should look.
She felt it was foolish to focus on how cities look rather than how they function as economic laboratories. "The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop--insofar as public policy and action can do so--cities that are congenial places for [a] great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish," Jacobs wrote.
Sadly, many in the Smart Growth and New Urbanism movements cite Jacobs as the inspiration for their efforts to combat so-called "urban sprawl" and make over suburbia with dense, walkable downtowns, mixed-use development, and varied building styles. While Jacobs identified these as organic elements of successful cities, planners have eagerly tried to impose them on cities in formulaic fashion, regardless of their contextual appropriateness and compatibility with the underlying economic order. In short, they've taken Jacobs's observations of what makes cities work and tried to formalize them into an authoritarian recipe for policy intervention.
Politicians and planners would do well to commemorate Jacobs by revisiting her work. Despite the best efforts of well-intentioned planners, you can't "create" a vibrant city or neighborhood. The best cities and neighborhoods just happen, and the best thing we can do is to step out of the way of innovators and entrepreneurs.
I think most citizens would like to live in a Pleasantville within a larger "Metro of Opportunity", but, of course, every municipality is thinking they want to be the Pleasantville and someone else can be the messy Opportunity City (a variant of the "tragedy of the commons" dilemma). In Houston, we're lucky to have our large Opportunity City in the middle of a sea of relatively well-connected Pleasantville towns and master-planned communities that make for a pretty vibrant metro.
I'm really just beginning to explore this polarity, so additional insights or thoughts are welcome in the comments. We'll try again tomorrow to go into more depth on Jane Jacobs' four tenets of vibrant neighborhoods and how they might be applied to car-based cities.