Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Applying Jane Jacobs' 4 tenets of vibrant neighborhoods to car-based cities

The tenets were mentioned in the first two posts in this series, but here they are again in short form:
  1. Mixed primary uses that create traffic/vibrancy throughout the day
  2. Short blocks to make neighborhoods more walkable
  3. Mixed age and overhead buildings to enable a diversity of businesses
  4. Population density
To put them in context, it's important to understand that Ms. Jacobs formed these tenets while observing her Greenwich Village NYC neighborhood (and similar ones) during the 1950s (the book came out in 1961). It was an urban world in the midst of a major transitional upheaval, as the car moved from a luxury to a standard household item for the middle classes. Cities at the time had been built around walking and mass transit, and accommodating the car was traumatic: too narrow streets, not enough parking, and freeways plowing through neighborhoods. Today, the vast majority of us live in an urban/suburban landscape built around the car - with accommodations for parking and major arterials and freeways - which makes the tenets seem almost quaint and disconnected from our modern world.

The problem as I see it is that these four principles have hardened into dogma in the urban planning community without really understanding the meaning and philosophy behind them. To some extent, I even think Jane Jacobs herself suffered from this too-narrow understanding of her own insight. Let's see if we can get to the true essence of these principles, and then talk about how they might apply to modern car-based cities.

The goal is a very subjective concept called "vibrancy." What is vibrancy? To put it simply, vibrancy means a buzz of people interacting and transacting in win-win exchanges - both economic and social. Vibrancy was very visible in Jane's world: people on the street and sidewalks, jostling and bumping as they went about their daily businesses, often in street-level retail establishments just off the sidewalk. In the car-based world, that vibrancy is more hidden. Sure, you can see the cars (sometimes way, way too many cars in congested traffic), but you don't really see the people or the interactions as they hide inside the cars, strip centers, and office buildings. They're there, but we don't "feel" them as much as we do in a classic Jane Jacobs walkable neighborhood.

Vibrancy starts with a very simple decision: is there some interesting or necessary activity that draws me out of my home? Work? Shopping? Socializing? Whether I'm in a walk-up apartment in New York or a house in the suburbs, the question is the same. More options increases the likelihood of drawing me out. And I have to weigh-up those interesting options against the barriers to going out, particularly mobility: how much time, effort, and money is required to go do this activity? A good, cheap restaurant is an easy choice when it's right down the street, but a harder one in heavy traffic with unpredictable parking or with some long walks and subway rides in possibly unpleasant weather. There's always leftovers in the fridge and something on TV, the mortal enemies of "vibrancy".

The flip-side perspective is that of the business owner: what kind of reasonable customer base will I be able to draw on? The more barriers between me and them, the less likely they are to patronize my business. What is my "draw zone"? The more people - and the more money - in that draw zone, the better my prospects. That means a larger diversity of businesses can be supported.

Looked at through these lenses, Ms. Jacobs' four tenets make instant sense. If you assume walking as the primary mobility mode, distance becomes a major barrier to vibrancy. Taxis are expensive - not to mention a major pain to flag down, even in NYC - and transit is generally a hassle, slow, and loses time in waiting and transfers. Thus we need as many interesting activities and options as possible within as short a distance as possible to get vibrancy. Mixed-use and mixed-cost buildings increase the variety of options within that short distance - and more options increases the likelihood that one or more of them will be attractive enough to draw you out on a given day, evening, or weekend. Short blocks make walking routes more direct, and put more options within the same travel-time range. And density provides the raw fuel of consumers to keep all those interesting street shops economically viable. The more eclectic a business, the larger the draw zone - in size and population - it needs to stay viable: convenience stores and dry cleaners are easy - offbeat bookstores and sushi restaurants are harder to support. The mobility zones are so limited in this world, that the only way a neighborhood reaches critical mass for vibrancy is to stack as many people as possible right on top of the businesses: mixed-use and density.

In the car-based world, distance becomes far less of an impediment. Speed determines the "mobility/draw zone" - fast arterials and freeways with minimal congestion. Short blocks and mixed-use become somewhat irrelevant because the pertinent geography now spreads over miles instead of blocks. Mixed age/cost buildings are still important, but over a much larger area. Harsh zoning and permitting can limit commercial space availability, increasing scarcity and prices and driving out lower value uses, thus limiting commercial diversity (see yesterday's post on Opportunity City vs. Pleasantville). Density still matters somewhat, but far less than before. Generally speaking, in Jane's world, mobility is relatively fixed and slow (walking, transit), but density is variable - therefore the key to vibrancy is to pump up density. In the car-based city, density tends to stay in a reasonably narrow and low range because of the need to accommodate cars and parking - plus consumer preferences for stand-alone homes - but mobility is variable: average trip speed is very dependent on the availability of high-capacity, smoothly-running arterials and freeways. I would go so far as to call the freeway the "short block" of the car-based city because of its similar relative improvement to the size of the mobility/draw zone.

So the four tenets of vibrancy transformed for the car-based city get reduced to two:
  1. Loose zoning/permitting constraints to enable both a wide diversity of businesses as well as population density where there is consumer demand (apartments, condos, townhomes)
  2. Maximized mobility with a well-designed, high-capacity arterial and freeway network
These two principles maximize the population within the largest possible mobility/draw zone, which gives vibrancy its best chance of reaching critical mass and flourishing.

All of this is not to say that car-based cities like Houston don't need mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods - but they're not required for us to be a vibrant city/metro. A "nice-to-have" amenity, if you will. What's going on in downtown, uptown, midtown, and The Village (among others) are good, healthy developments - and I think Jane would approve - but they're not the end-all/be-all of vibrancy.

Tomorrow, we'll go into more depth on density vs. mobility by comparing Manhattan and Houston trip scenarios, and what that means for vibrancy, "suburban monotony", frontage/feeder roads, and Jane Jacobs' "dead zones".

UPDATE 3/28/12: This has been reposted over at Urbanophile.


At 8:50 PM, May 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think what gets lost in the shift between the two paradigms, and the weakness of the car-based city, is that when you go somewhere in your car, your whole trip is focused on getting to that one destination. Whereas a walk to the restaurant in an urban neighborhood is often a pleasant, stimulating experience, with all kinds of unexpected happenings, chance run-ins with people, etc., the drive across town to the restaurant is usually a somewhat forgettable experience, with traffic, solitude, encapsulation from nature, and the byproduct of these three, roadrage.

This is made worse by the various freeways and major arterials you have to build to keep traffic flowing. Ultimately, a city where everyone has to get into a gas-powered machine and drive five miles on paved roadway to accomplish each of their errands (with locations flung out in disparate directions) is going to be less sustainable than a city where everybody can accomplish those same errands on foot, all within a few blocks.

At 8:26 AM, May 04, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree the experience is not as rich, but most people are willing to make that tradeoff to live in their own detached home and have a vastly larger array of shopping/retail choices. For instance, within 5 minutes I can be at Wal-Mart, Target, Lowe's, Home Depot, Best Buy, Circuit City, or OfficeMax - not to mention 10+ huge grocery stores - and that level of convenience, selection and pricing is unheard of in walkable mixed-use neighborhoods. It also vastly increases the level of competition between businesses, because if one has bad service or prices, you'll just drive a few minutes more to a better option. Businesses often end up with semi-monopolies in mixed-use neighborhoods, because they know their nearest real competitor is several blocks away, and that extra distance is a major switching barrier. A friend of mine who lived in Chicago a while called it the "crappy corner diner syndrome."

The walkable experience you describe does appeal to a lot of people, but what's happening in reality is that this is being expressed in new "lifestyle centers"/town centers where the vast majority of shoppers drive there, park, and then walk around - they don't live above the shops in the so-called "neighborhood". They're the new version of the shopping mall, with the roof removed and the the faux aesthetics of village shopping.

At 12:41 PM, May 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your homing in on "vibrant", but I'd have to admit that Jane Jacobs wouldn't entirely agree with you. I don't think her emphasis was on "vibrant" alone, but on a vibrant *neighborhood*. I'd argue that a city like Houston supports plenty of community, but in an entirely different way than 1950s Greenwich Village. People here can construct a highly personalized community - their downtown co-workers, their suburban soccer league, their across-town church they met their spouse at before they bought a house - because of their cars. But neighborhoods in a physical sense, full of people who wouldn't associate purely by choice, wind up as secondary. Some people love that trade-off and some really hate it. I think that difference is at the root of a lot of the other car/transit or sprawl/density arguments.

Oh, and the "crappy corner diner" observation is obviously totally brilliant. You should buy that guy lunch.


At 4:14 PM, May 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wasn't trying to set up walkable communities as being better than car communities, just to point out that there are more differences than simple preference. Walkable communities are much more efficient and require less resources than communities in which every errand must be accomplished by car.

I don't think the new village centers are a substitute for walkable communities. They tend to be very exclusive and very narrow in their offerings - you can't go get your clothes dry-cleaned at a village center, for example. I think there are a lot of people in Houston who want a real walkable community, but each one that seems on the verge of rising gets destroyed by insensitive development.

I don't support forcing people to live in walkable communities, but I do support some minimal guidelines to allow the ones trying to get started to flourish. What happened to the "area plan" ordinance that was in city council a couple years ago?

Also, I've lived in Chicago too. The diners were a lot better and easier to get to than the ones in Houston.

At 6:05 PM, May 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point about diners in Chicago (or wherever, let's call it the Crappy Diner Principle) is not that there exist no great diners in Chicago. It's that "neighborhood" joints don't really compete with other establishments citywide. The one I remember most fondly was a great place in an urban-living, walk there, run into neighbors, get to know the waitress sense; it just had high prices and mediocre food. You wouldn't go out of your way to get there from out of the neighborhood since your own neighborhood has one just like it. "Diners" in Houston are more like diner-themed restaurants that have to compete with anything else in a n-minute driving radius. I do think they have much better food for the money, but again, that gets back to my last comment. There is a trade-off between having lots of choices and having neighborhood communities.

(By the way, I see the CDP in action in Houston in the East End, where there are many mediocre taquerias quite close together.)


At 7:55 PM, May 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I lived in Chicago, I had over twenty restaurants within walking distance of my place. 55th St. was lined with Thai restaurants, 57th St. had great pizza places, sandwich shops, and a diner, and 53rd St. was a motley of just about everything: Mexican, Barbecue, Southern, Chili, breakfast, bagels, two pizza places, etc., etc. Plus they were almost all independent, because neighborhood familiarity keeps independents alive.

I think that, selection-wise, this rivals just about any area in Houston, with or without car. And this was on the South Side - North Side was much better.

At 12:16 PM, May 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Again, I'm not saying you can't eat well in Chicago. I like Chicago. But I'm not the only person who thinks that Houston rates very highly when it comes to eating out. The average person here has many more options (and not just for restaurants) within their "convenience radius", because of the car. The increased competition makes a difference.

Getting back to Jane Jacobs, I think it's that large convenience radius in a car-based city that directly weakens the idea of a neighborhood that was so important to her thinking. Physical neighbors wind up leading very different geographic lives, even for regular stuff like grocery shopping, eating out, or socializing with friends. Any thinking about Jacobs and Houston should take that into account.


At 1:07 PM, May 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course the cost of entry into having the ability to create a similar sense of neighborhood in a city with a dispersed pattern is a car, insurance and upkeep, gas, and the age, ability, and inclination to drive.

At 8:14 AM, July 07, 2006, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I'm not sure you understand how retail businesses work financially. A big part of the difficulty of seeding vibrancy is the decline of independent retail. But also the "chaining up" of retail more generally. One example of the former being the loss of your Kaplan's-Ben Hur. I'd suggest your reading a few of my blog entries:

-- (Why Aren't People) Learning From Jane Jacobs

-- (Why aren't people) Learning from Jane Jacobs revisited

-- Promoting Independent Retail

-- Forcing Displacement by the disconnection of tax assessment models from public policy goals

There's a lot more. In any case, I look forward to poking through your blog more, and I'll add a link to it.

FYI, two of the best updates of JJ's principles are Cities: Back from the Edge by Roberta Gratz, and the absolute best updating, Cities In Full by Steve Belmont.

And anything and everything about the Main Street Commercial District Revitalization Approach.


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