Thursday, May 04, 2006

Another NYT critique of Jane Jacobs + future preview

Yet another change of plan. The NYC vs. Houston mobility/draw-zone comparison scheduled for today will be shifted to next week. Instead, we'll close out Jane Jacobs week here at Houston Strategies with a critique by the architecture critic at the NY Times titled "Outgrowing Jane Jacobs and Her New York." I recommend the audio slide show too if you have the time.
It is a loss for those who value urban life. But her death may also give us permission to move on, to let go of the obsessive belief that Ms. Jacobs held the answer to every evil that faces the contemporary city.
But the problems of the 20th-century city were vast and complicated. Ms. Jacobs had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation's dependence on cars, which remains critical to the development of American cities. She could not see that the same freeway that isolated her beloved, working-class North End from downtown Boston also protected it from gentrification. And she never understood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its freeways and its strange interweaving of man-made and natural environments.
Perhaps her legacy has been most damaged by those who continue to treat "Death and Life" as sacred text rather than as what it was: a heroic cri de coeur. Of those, the New Urbanists are the most guilty; in many cases, they reduced her vision of corner shops and busy streets to a superficial town formula that creates the illusion of urban diversity, but masks a stifling uniformity at its core.

This is true in large-scale projects as diverse as Battery Park City or Celebration, Fla., where narrow streets and parks were supposed to create an immediate sense of community. As it turns out, what the New Urbanists could not reproduce was the most critical aspect of Ms. Jacobs's vision, the intimate neighborhood that is built — brick by brick, family by family — over a century.

For those who could not see it, the hollowness of this urban planning strategy was finally exposed in New Orleans, where planners were tarting up historic districts for tourists, even as deeper social problems were being ignored and its infrastructure was crumbling.

The answer to such superficiality is not to resurrect the spirit of Robert Moses. But in retrospect his vision, however flawed, represented an America that still believed a healthy government would provide the infrastructure — roads, parks, bridges — that binds us into a nation. Ms. Jacobs, at her best, was fighting to preserve the more delicate bonds that tie us to a community. A city, to survive and flourish, needs both perspectives.

The lesson we should take from Ms. Jacobs was her ability to look at the city with her eyes wide open, without rigid prejudices. Maybe we should see where that lesson leads next.

Hear, hear!

In future posts starting next week, I'd like to explore the following topics building on the last two days' posts - Opportunity Cities vs. Pleasantvilles and mobility/draw-zones for vibrancy:
  • Rename "mobility/draw-zones" to "opportunity zones", since they represent the opportunity region for a consumer, explorer, job seeker, or business owner - and the larger it is and the more people it has, the larger the opportunity and the resulting vibrancy.
  • How Manhattan and Houston have very similar opportunity zones despite dramatic differences in urban form, and have the potential for similar levels of vibrancy in some respects.
  • How adding discretionary income to the concept of opportunity zones creates a better metric for the potential vibrancy of an area. Money left over after the cost-of-living basics like groceries, utilities, transportation, health care, and (especially) housing is money that is available for spending locally to increase vibrancy.
  • How that "vibrancy metric" of opportunity zones plus discretionary income can be thought of as "opportunity dollars" for enhancing social mobility for the poor and middle class. Those dollars fund small business creation and growth/hiring, higher education, charitable giving, and support for restaurants, arts and entertainment amenities.
  • Positive feedback loops that increase those opportunity dollars and social mobility: increased transportation mobility improves person-job fit which increases productivity which increases incomes; and increased spending on local amenities increases their number and scale, which improves city attractiveness, which attracts higher paying jobs which feed back into that spending.
  • How these concepts can be in alignment with the smart growth goal of increasing density, as increased population density increases the opportunity dollar density within the mobility/opportunity zone, increasing vibrancy and social mobility.
  • What cities can influence to increase opportunity dollars, vibrancy, and social mobility: increase transportation mobility, jobs, population, density, education, salaries, or affordability; decrease housing, grocery, transportation, utilities, health care, taxes, and other basic costs of living by, for example, increasing mobility to affordable housing, increasing the housing supply, and loosening commerical space restrictions/regulations to increase competition.
I've personally only scratched the surface exploring these topics, so I'm hoping for a lot of insightful thoughts and discussion from many of you in the comments.

I hope you enjoyed Jane Jacobs week here at Houston Strategies. She was a pioneering thinker of vibrant opportunity urbanism and someone we can definitely learn a lot from as well as build on as we try to develop better cities ("embrace and transcend", to use a favorite phrase of mine). Have a great weekend, and I'll see you next week.


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