Tuesday, May 02, 2006

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.
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.
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).

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.


At 1:52 AM, May 03, 2006, Blogger John Whiteside said...

Gilroy is right about Jacobs' belief in the importance of economic activity and markets in cities, but I think he misrepresents what planners have attempted to do through oversimplification (OK, this is standard practice for WSJ editorials...)

Policies suggested by planners don't replace an absense of policy, they are attempts to replace bad policies, and some are good and some are not. Look at Midtown Houston, where there's the potential for a good vibrant urban neighborhood that's being foiled by bad policy - the requirements for setbacks and streetside parking in new development, unless a developer goes to a lot of effort to get variances. Where something more vibrant should naturally appear, it's foiled by current policy. Smart growth as some good ideas, but often tries to overregulate - stripped back a bit, it would be good policy.

He seems to be arguing for no policies, just free markets, but that exists virtually nowhere (including Houston) so it's hard to say what the result would be. It's also emphatically not what Jacobs recommended; while it's been a while since I've read Death and Life I recall her advocating zoning policies that allowed for diverse uses of streets, and mechanisms to allow residents of a neighborhood to prevent "overgrowth" on one use that could drive others out (something we saw happening in DC regularly).

Thanks for the focus on Jacobs this week, it's making for great reading.

At 10:38 AM, May 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, this kind of overly simplistic thinking is not helpful. Why can't you have quality of life/development in a city of opportunity? Qol is not dependent on the kind of planning intense, top down functions you bemoan; in our area it's mostly private sector, not public at all. There needs to be both a balance and a careful selection of tools to achieve quality of life.

At 11:28 AM, May 03, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I noted that they represent a spectrum, and very few if any cities are at the far extremes. Balance is a fair goal, as is quality of life, but the tradeoffs must be recognized. I think Houston has actually done pretty well recently with small changes that substantially increase QoL w/o major negative impacts on our freedom/opportunity.

At 5:27 PM, May 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In so long as we can remove the implicit subsidies from our land allocations, I am perfectly fine with the "Opportunity City" model. The problem is that the Houston area has a tremendous set of imbalances in how it spends money.

For example, the County and City have approximately equal tax rates, yet it seems to me that most of the county property tax money collected in the city are spent in the unincorporated areas (this is a gut feel - even the county does not yet have the data to tell us this answer!!). The same goes for other taxes as well (e.g., something like one cent in 20 of the gas taxes collected inside the loop are spent inside the loop). If we can eliminate the "growth subsidy", I would expect that we would move a lot closer to the "smart growth" ideal a lot faster without having to create regulations.

At 6:14 PM, May 03, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The way I would see "growth subsidies" is this: tax money is collected from existing areas to help build out new infrastructure in growing areas (roads, sewers, water, flood control, etc.). Eventually, the older areas of town will need very expensive upgrades/replacements for their infrastructure, and at that time taxpayers in newer areas (that were getting the growth subsidy before) will be supporting them. It all comes around and evens out over time.

The inside-the-loop gas tax stat is a great thing, IMHO: it means people from all over the city and county are coming into the core for work and other activities and filling up their cars here. The alternative - a dead core - is not very attractive.

At 3:58 PM, May 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What Jane Jacobs Truly Saw

To employ as a rhetorical platform the death of Jane Jacobs (“What Jane Jacobs Really Saw,” Leonard Gilroy, May 2) to assault all of modern day urban planning, and the planning here in Portland Oregon in particular, is both disingenuous and erroneous. How do I know this? As a student of architecture and urban design, through 15 years as an urban planner in Portland, and through specific conversations with Jane when she visited Portland less than two years before her departure.

The history of planning here in Portland is not that of “Modern planners, imposing their static, end-state vision of the City”. Nor does what’s occurred here run counter to Jacobs’ vision. In a recent interview, she stated that “Portland’s a place that gives me great hope.”

What Portland may have taken most directly from Jacobs’ legacy is an unfailing commitment to community-based planning. This has been true at the street, neighborhood, city, and regional scales. Our remarkable form of excessive democracy has generated a genuine partnership between neighborhoods, the development community, and government. The result has been an active, rich, economically vibrant urban environment. This is hardly the result of the “authoritarian recipe for policy intervention” Mr. Gilroy imagines. He’s correct in emphasizing Jane’s statement that “no other expertise can substitute locality knowledge in Planning.” Embracing this premise has much to do with Portland’s success, prompting Jane’s observation that Portland “obviously has a very strong sense of values that is immediately recognizable.”

Jane Jacobs visited Portland more than once. In her most recent visit, she was asked repeatedly what she thought we might do differently or better. As sharp-tongued and stunningly articulate as ever, she consistently refused to take the bait. She found Portland’s planning results to be successful and replicable.

It’s precisely the power and success of this Portland model that concerns those such as Mr. Gilroy, who maintain that the government and community should have no role in establishing visions and plans for our cities and towns, that we should just “step out of the way of innovators and entrepreneurs” (i.e. - builders and developers). I would propose that it’s not who does the planning, but why and how the planning’s accomplished, that’s critical to generating fitting and lasting environments. The intentions and results here are community driven, sensible, and appropriate, prompting Jane to note on her visit that “In Portland, a lot of good things are being done….People in Portland love Portland, that’s the most important thing. They really like to see it improved, and not with a lot of gimmicks, but with good intelligent reasons.”

Finally, for Mr. Gilroy, who believes the results of planning in Portland are “dismal and dramatic”, a few parting words from another recent interview with Jane. “Never underestimate the power of a city to regenerate. And things are not as bad as you are picturing it. For example, Portland – lots of constructive things are happening there.”

Jeff Joslin
Portland Oregon

Jeff Joslin, an architect, urban designer and planner, has been managing urban design and planning functions for the City of Portland for over a decade. He’s currently Land Use Manager, administering urban design, design review, and historic landmarks programs for the City.

At 12:52 PM, May 02, 2007, Blogger Unknown said...

How does one go about getting a sidewalk installed in Houston?? I live along Fairbanks-N.Houston and I can't believe the amount of people that risk their lives everyday, because of no other transporation, to ride a bike down FN-Houston, where dump trucks, busses and cars go 60+ mph! How can we get a sidewalk built for these riders?
I personally would use it also, as I live AND work on Fairbanks!
Linda Unger

At 1:49 PM, May 02, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

My best guess would be to put in a request to the city's 311 help line.

Or you can submit it online here:

At 11:10 PM, September 11, 2017, Blogger hcat said...

@Shelbeesmom sidewalks are not for bicycles. Bike lanes are for bicycles. And when there aren't bike lanes, other vehicles need to learn to share the road.

At 9:55 AM, June 24, 2018, Blogger hcat said...

If it’s for bicycles, it isn’t a sidewalk.

At 9:59 AM, June 24, 2018, Blogger hcat said...

I loved the bit about Opportunity City vs Pleasantville. Where you have lots of boroughs, they all say, “I’ll be the Pleasantville, you’ll be the Opportunity City.” Irvine Ca has actually sort of tried to be both. Do you ever write at length about Houston’s Irvine, The Woodlands?


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