Monday, May 01, 2006

More on Jane Jacobs' ideas

Continuing our series from yesterday, today I have a set of "best of" excerpts from several articles written about her in the last week.

But before we get to them, something I meant to mention yesterday: if you didn't see it on the front of the Sunday Chronicle op-ed section, be sure to read David and Christof's excellent piece on the logic of connecting up Houston's core job centers with light rail, and what that logic means for the Universities line routing. The bottom line: in addition to serving dense apartment dwellers in the core, it enables far more suburban commuters to use HOV express bus, vanpool, or carpool to get to their specific work center, but then they can also use the light rail to get around the core during the day for errands, lunch, and meetings. Being car-less at work doesn't mean being stuck.

Back to our Jacobs excerpts. Let's start with the NY Times:
In her book "Death and Life of Great American Cities," written in 1961, Ms. Jacobs's enormous achievement was to transcend her own withering critique of 20th-century urban planning and propose radically new principles for rebuilding cities. At a time when both common and inspired wisdom called for bulldozing slums and opening up city space, Ms. Jacobs's prescription was ever more diversity, density and dynamism — in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a jumping, joyous urban jumble.

And in at least five distinct fields of inquiry, she thought deeply and innovatively: urban design, urban history, regional economics, the morality of the economy and the nature of economic growth.

Her major books followed a logical progression, each leading naturally to the next. From writing about how people functioned within cities, she analyzed how cities function within nations, how nations function with one another, how everyone functions in a world of conflicting moral principles, and, finally, how economies grow like biological organisms.

"Death and Life" made four recommendations for creating municipal diversity: 1. A street or district must serve several primary functions. 2. Blocks must be short. 3. Buildings must vary in age, condition, use and rentals. 4. Population must be dense.

These seemingly simple notions represented a major rethinking of modern planning. They were coupled with fierce condemnations of the writings of the planners Sir Patrick Geddes and Ebenezer Howard, as well as those of the architect Le Corbusier and Lewis Mumford, who championed their ideal of graceful towers rising over exquisite open spaces.
More on those four points in posts later this week. A critique paragraph from another NY Times article:
"Though I remain a fan, I would say that her vision of the good city was based too much on an idealized Greenwich Village," Professor Krieger wrote. "That particular lifestyle and neighborhood form does not encompass an urbanizing world of remarkable contrasts and contrasting challenges."
I have to agree with this one. Not everyone wants to live in Greenwich Village, aka New Urbanism, but neighborhoods built on that model should be available to those who desire that lifestyle, even in car-centric and pedestrian-hostile-weather Houston.
AP: Her impact transcended borders. Basing her findings on deep, eclectic reading and firsthand observation, Jacobs challenged assumptions she believed damaged modern cities that neighborhoods should be isolated from each other, that an empty street was safer than a crowded one, that the car represented progress over the pedestrian.

Her priorities were for integrated, manageable communities, for diversity of people, transportation, architecture and commerce. She also believed that economies need to be self-sustaining and self-renewing, relying on local initiative instead of centralized bureaucracies.
One of my favorite thinkers, writers, bloggers, and McKinsey alumni, John Hagel:
Jacobs was an extraordinarily insightful writer who anticipated many of the themes that have become foundations for contemporary social analysis – complex adaptive systems, emergence, social capital and social networks, just to name a few.

Her first book explores the dynamics that shape city life and make it so rich, as well as providing a devastating critique of urban planners that seek to impose conceptions of order and, in the process, smother the very elements that make cities so vibrant.

The diversity of populations and activities and the concentration of people combine to generate enormous productive friction. That productive friction can be either amplified or dampened by how we develop our cities. Jacobs is a powerful proponent of spontaneous order in cities and deeply insightful about the interplay between urban design and social interaction.
And, finally, the Toronto Star (where she lived the latter half of her life), an excerpt which ends with a couple of my favorite quotes:
Her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, became a bible for neighbourhood organizers and what she termed the “foot people”. It made the case against the utopian planning culture of the times — residential high-rise development, expressways through city hearts, slum clearances, and desolate downtowns. She believed that residential and commercial activity should be in the same place, that the safest neighbourhoods teem with life, short winding streets are better than long straight ones, low-rise housing is better than impersonal towers, that a neighbourhood is where people talk to one another. She liked the small-scale.

Not everyone agreed. Her arch-critic, Lewis Mumford, called her vision “higgledy-piggledy unplanned casualness.”

Mrs. Jacobs was seen by many of her supporters — mistakenly — as left-wing. Not so. Her views embraced the marketplace, supported privatization of utilities, frowned on subsidies, and detested the intrusions of government, big or small.

Shortly after writing The Nature of Economies, she was quoted as saying: "I think I’m living in a marvelous age when great change is occurring. We now see that there is no straight-line cause and effect; things are connected by webs."
And the city is one of the most complex social cause-and-effect webs ever woven, with all sorts of unpredictable reactions to the best-intentioned plans and programs. This series continues tomorrow with more depth on the four tenets of vibrant neighborhoods and how they might be applied to car-based cities.


At 4:29 AM, May 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder what parts of Houston would best meet her four recommendations. My guess would be the north end of downtown, the area around Quitman and North Main, parts of Third and Fifth Ward, Montrose, Rice Village, and the Heights. Maybe Midtown and the Museum District in time.

At 10:20 AM, May 02, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Good list. Expanding the geography, maybe the Strand/Post Office area of Galveston.

At 2:19 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


I completely disagree re: the Christof/Crossly op-ed. As an opponent of rail, I felt it dodged the core issues in the debate and simply preached to the choir. It didn't address the fact that light rail is extraordinarily cost-ineffective when compared with BRT and standard bus service. We could transport more people, and encourage more new transit riders while keeping the old ones, if we simply lowered fares and improved bus lines. It might not be as sexy as rail and attract quite as many childless yuppies, but the bottom line is that demographic has never been encouraged to use transit in large numbers, because even at its best, transit is difficult and increases travel times.

I know I'm repeating myself, but it galls me that the pro-rail crowd never wants to answer these concerns, when they are the first response out of the gate. Rail does not "make economic sense," and Christof and Crossley didn't make a serious argument that it does, despite their claims to the contrary.

At 10:17 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Addressed here:

and here:

At 8:31 PM, May 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's really a moot point though, since the voters of Houston have decided they want rail.

Also, the talk of how rail is for "childless yuppies" really brings in an "I'm better than you" dimension to the argument which I find rather disgusting.

At 11:51 PM, May 03, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


In those posts you basically argued that light rail was the functional equivalent of a decoration, or some kind of frivalous status symbol. It's completely different from what Christof is arguing, which is that light rail makes economic sense. The arguments don't match up.

Besides, if the argument in favor of rail adds up to, "Sure light rail isn't cost-effective, but neither is crown molding!" -- well, let's just say there's a reason that Crossley and Christof are making conclusory statements that light rail is economical.

At 11:54 PM, May 03, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


Actually, some bus lines could survive on their own. Some apartment complexes even contract out to provide private bus lines (I used to live in one).

But that's neither here nor there -- the issue isn't whether transit can survive on its own; the issue is which transit option is the most cost-effective (the most bang for your buck). Buses are far more cost-effective than rail.

At 8:35 AM, May 04, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree that in a lot of cases, light rail is not cost effective. Metro has acknowledged that and switched most of the network to BRT. But the Universities line could move volumes comparable to the Main St. line, to the point a BRT line would be strained. Throw in the federal funding argument, the property development and taxable value improvements along the line, and the car trips removed (both locally and from an increase in HOV users because they can easily get around the core during the day without a car) - and you have a total cost-benefit package that is at least reasonable compared to other public investments like stadiums, parks, and libraries.

At 4:32 PM, May 04, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


But the Universities line could move volumes comparable to the Main St. line, to the point a BRT line would be strained.

The capacity of a BRT line is highly flexible, because you can always purchase larger buses, or put more buses on the line. Unless presented with contrary data that a BRT line simply cannot achieve the capacity of rail for some key logistical reason, I don't see why this should tilt in favor of rail.

Throw in the federal funding argument...

Local governments have to pay 20%, though (Bush wants to increase it to 50%). The more the federal government pays, the more we pay in turn. Besides, the federal government would give the same split for BRT capital costs, and we could do more with less money, thus securing the funding more easily. Metro has had major problems with federal funding for rail in the past.

...the property development and taxable value improvements along the line...

There's no evidence that BRT can't accomplish the same, nor is there any evidence that rail doesn't simply shift development around rather than leading to development that wouldn't have occurred otherwise. Moreover, rail has the weakness of being inflexible -- what if the neighborhood deteriorates? Those high capital costs become sunk costs, because you can't move a rail line as easily as a BRT line to suit changing circumstances.

...and the car trips removed...

But BRT can move more people at a lower cost, so it's buses that will take more cars off the road. Rail simply consolidates transit along major lines, discouraging people from using the overall system, and thus reducing overall transit usage. Heck, I'm sure you know of the lawsuits in Los Angeles -- the NAACP suing because transit funds were all going towards light rail while bus lines were cut.

...and you have a total cost-benefit package that is at least reasonable compared to other public investments like stadiums, parks, and libraries.

Pretty much all of your arguments are conclusory. I don't think you come close to making a solid, quantifiable case for rail being superior to buses given the results of a basic cost-benefit analysis.

At 5:28 PM, May 04, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I remember reading that BRT can do about as many cars as LRT, but an LRT car can hold a lot more people - maybe twice as many? There's a limit on frequency without creating street gridlock.

As far a quantifiable cost-benefit case, show me one for parks, libraries, or stadiums. There isn't, but we still do them, because that's what citizens want and vote for.

Owen, I sympathize overall with the anti-rail case (esp. commuter rail), which makes many solid arguments, but I've come to terms with this line and this plan, esp. vs. the crazy stuff going on in places like Portland, Dallas, and Denver (and Seattle before they killed their crazy multi-billion dollar monorail).

At 9:11 AM, May 05, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


I think if that you used high-capacity buses, those numbers would narrow significantly. Furthermore, I don't believe that Houston has a high enough population density anywhere inside the loop to overwhelm a BRT line.

I also know it's difficult to do a cost-benefit analysis for libraries, stadiums, and parks, but those things are public amenities with no alternatives. Nobody's saying that there's something that can accomplish virtually all of what a library does at a fraction of the cost. If there were such a thing, I'd be the first to support scrapping public libraries entirely.

But let's say you had two plans for a library. One used trendy architecture, and could potentially accomodate more books, but it would cost nearly four times as much as a normal library. As a result, the city would have to shut down four satellite libraries to get funding. Consequently, the city would ultimately have far fewer books and fewer libraries available for the public. All they'd get in return is trendy architecture, which might not be popular 20 years down the line.

That's the way I see the light rail vs. BRT debate. I know other cities have done worse, but that's mainly because rail opponents have been more vocal and successful in Houston, not because Metro is more sensible than other transit agencies. Remember -- they wanted commuter rail first. The Main Street line was only built because Metro couldn't a referendum approved for a larger line.

At 6:47 PM, May 06, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You want both - the anchor downtown library and the neighborhood branches, the neighborhood parks and the flagship Memorial and Hermann Parks - or world-famous Central Park in NYC. The city loses something sacrificing one for the other. Buses and BRT make sense for most transit, just like branch libraries and small parks are the foundational "basics" to any good library or parks system. But the flagships serve their purpose too, in libraries, parks, or a couple simple crossing LRT lines connecting core job centers and destinations like universities, stadiums, museums and theaters.

At 8:58 AM, May 07, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


I understand that, but suppose that aesthetics were the only thing dramatically increasing the cost of the downtown library, and it was coming at the expense of satellite libraries and the level of service provided by the overall system. Would you really say it passes a cost-benefit anaylsis? I don't see how you could; it's the antithesis of cost-benefit.

I suppose part of this might be that I see government as operating on a different level than individuals. It's ok for an individual to use their money on some frivalous item because they desire it in some way unrelated to its actual usefulness. I don't believe government should do the same, particularly when they're providing essential services on a limited budget.

I think it's the American attitude towards taxation; we don't tend to trust the government as much as other societies. We tend to view taxes as a necessary evil, not as some happy-go-lucky "everyone contributes to the common good" social democratic component. Hence, government should have a good reason for taking our money on threat of violence (i.e. throwing us in prison).

Building national monuments and civic wonders might qualify, even though the benefits are hard to measure. Yet building a tired light rail line just like Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, etc, have done before simply doesn't qualify. I don't think rail is the equivalent of a stadium (highly controversial by itself) or a large park. At the end of the day, transit should be transporting, not giving people a warm fuzzy.

At 10:01 AM, May 07, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

All fair points. As far as cost-benefit and value vs. a stadium, I think one of the keys may be convention business tourism (stadiums are irrelevant in their book - no matter what boosters say). One of the checklist items they look for: can my convention attendees avoid renting a car and still get around to the attractions of the city? And they simply won't look at the bus network when making that consideration - because, realistically, attendees will not work out bus schedules. Saying "yes, we have a couple LRT lines that can get you to museums, restaurants, parks, and the Galleria" - that goes a long way, and those are real dollars coming into the local economy.

So we have this question of "when is it ok for govt to spend extra on a subjective good?". One hurdle might be a vote by elected reps. A higher hurdle might be approval by a general vote, which the rail plan did (even if only barely). I'm sure we all wish the ballot language was less controversial, but we have what we have - and it passed a higher hurdle than some of the stadiums did.


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