Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"The Death and Life of Great American Cities"

I've been saying for many months that I've been intending to read - then was reading, Jane Jacob's famous 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  I've finally finished it!  While looking up some facts that would be hard to track down in the book, I ran upon a kind of Cliff's Notes for the book here, but I'll give mine, too.  I'm going to try to keep this short (for me) as I don't have much to add and I'd just recommend you read the book.

While the cover quotes the New York Times saying "Perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning...a work of literature," Jacobs herself begins the book, simply enough, "This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding."  For the next 450 pages across 22 chapters in four parts, she does just that.  More importantly, she offers insight into what was - and often still is - wrong with American thought on urbanism, and what can be done about it.  She is remarkably astute at seeing things how they really were, or are, and what the city planners of the day completely failed to see as the real solution.

However, as a "work of literature", we need to mentally transport ourselves back to 1961 to understand why she was so worked up.  Here was a time in city planning that "urban renewal" was in full swing - neighborhood after neighborhood from coast to coast was being demolished for monolithic housing projects, which, even in 1961, were turning failing neighborhoods into perpetual slums.  Interstates were being driven through well-established neighborhoods, doing irreversible damage.  Suburban malls and subdivisions were springing up everywhere, draining cities of their middle class, along with their income, vibrancy, and later, their jobs.

Here in Lowell, which by her definition is far from a Great American City (more on that later), the Connector had just been constructed and plans for its extension were being contemplated.  The Merrimack Manufacturing Company millyard had just been demolished, and the clearing of Little Canada was in full-swing.  Lowell's economy was crumbling, and places like Chelmsford, spurred by the construction of I-495 and the continued movement of US-3 onto a slowly-constructed freeway, were rapidly turning pre-Revolution farmland into middle-class suburbia.  Jacobs stood up and simply said "Stop!  This is all a counterproductive, false solution to a very real problem!"  As a street-level resident of New York City's now much-loved Greenwich Village, she was in a fantastic position to tell us why the greatest of America's Great Cities succeeds where it does, and fails where it does.  Her research on other major American cities confirms what she had largely learnt from walking her own streets.

Her ultimate complaint was that scientific methods unsuited for, as the last chapter of the book is titled, "The kind of problem a city is" had been applied to city planning since the late 19th century.  Throughout movements like the Garden City Movement, the Radiant City concepts, and the City Beautiful Movement, attempts had been made by those who were "trained," and as she puts it having an "Olympian" viewpoint on a city, had converged on a plan she calls Radiant Garden City Beautiful.

Radiant Garden City Beautiful tells us that urban street life is bad.  It's dirty, it's congested, it's full of strangers and traffic.  It keeps people of means near people without, leading to crime.  It would be much better for a City of the Future to be a series of towers in a park, surrounded by wide boulevards for high-speed car traffic.  The towers would sort like people with like people, and they may feature schools and continuing ed centers, carefully planned civic centers, and controlled shopping centers.  The residents would love their spacious, well-lit apartments, they'd love their campus-like setting for living, they'd love knowing their neighbors so well.  Outside the city, connected by massive expressways, we'd have houses on sizable lots, again, set out for like people, where a life not entirely unlike village life before the Industrial Revolution would exist.

However, as I said, even by 1961, this was proving to not be the case.  I had written about Cabrini-Greene in the past:  this poster-child of failed projects dates to the 1940s, being completed in 1962.  Why don't they work?  People don't use the parks around projects because they are uninteresting.  Often people don't use city parks in general because they are uninteresting, underused, and therefore, dangerous.  The lack of decent stores - if any - is boring.  The lack of "eyes on the street" as she discusses makes the halls and elevators of these projects dangerous.  The same lack of eyes on the street makes grey areas, old semi-suburban neighborhoods like we have plenty of in Lowell, dangerous (back to this later a bit as well).  The huge boulevards around the projects makes crossing them unattractive to people inside and outside the projects.  People likewise don't like to cross through the projects, leading to what she calls in a late chapter "border vacuums" which, much like interstates or civic centers, people will not cross without great reason.

Ultimately, while looking for a Utopian way of dealing with city problems, a solution had been settled on that attempted to simplify cities into discrete blocks of "Retail", "Low Income Residential", "Civic Center", etc.  In essence, they worked to destroy city diversity to make it easier to conceptualize and plan.  They try to bring order to chaos, to make art out of the city at a macro level*.  It ultimately doesn't add up.  She repeatedly goes back to the planner that wanted the North End of Boston to meet the fate of the former West End: conversion to dull high-rises (If you lived here, you'd be home by now!)  His argument to destroy the vibrant, stable, but then unwealthy ethnic neighborhood people from all over America come to see?  On paper, it's a slum.  It's too dense, and too poor.  Then, she argues, why do people stay?  She also draws a line between too dense (too many housing units per acre) and too crowded (too many people in one housing unit.  Guess which one is likely really the problem here in Lowell as well?)

*An aside: To fellow SimCity players, this all makes sense.  The best SimCities are those that are meticulously laid out, mathematically, in particular ratios of megablocks.  A chaotic, organic city often breaks the game's cellular automata engine, causing massive waves of change in established neighborhoods, and senseless commuting patterns.  The city never settles into equilibrium because the number of variables on a given building (or cell) never evens out.  The query tools become useless, and the "real" city never works out in the game.  Therefore, the best way to play SimCity is just like a mid-century urban planner - with very well separated out areas for commercial, residential, and industrial uses.  And for this reason, I've gotten tired of the game.

More after the jump

Jacobs argues throughout the middle part of the book that diversity brings robustness, and robustness makes a city thrive.  The lack of diversity, she argues, is ultimately what makes cities - and projects and suburbs - ultimately fail.  They become fragile.

She has four criteria for diversity that she discusses at great length, and all are required for a truly virbant neighborhood:  First, districts must have more than one primary use.  Secondly, blocks must be short with a lot of cross streets.  Third, buildings must be of mixed age, so that different types of uses may be found (some require new construction, some need the low rents of old construction).  Finally, populations must meet a certain density, and much of that must be residential.  We see these arguments here in Lowell today.  After decades of decreasing the numbers of streets in Lowell, building massive projects all at once, decreasing density, and separating out residential uses from others, we are beginning to see things as Jacobs saw them.  Probably largely because as other, far "greater" cities have found out, Radiant Garden City ideas don't work.

However, when we think of Lowell as a "city," she would see it largely as semi-suburban, and therefore, bound to have problems.  She's right, I think. Much of truly "urban" Lowell had been lost to renewal projects around the time she was writing.  She would classify much of Lowell as a "grey area."  The first part of the book discusses why a good city neighborhood works, and why grey areas ultimately fail.

Now, I know that not everybody wants to live in a dense city, and I know all about the studies of people getting murdered in New York and plenty of people hearing it and nobody doing anything, and about "tight-knit" streets in Lowell where everyone knows everyone else and nothing bad ever happens, but what she says makes sense at a level as well.  I'm not advocating turning the entire city of Lowell into a repeat of the densities downtown, I'm saying some of our collective conventional wisdom is off.  Her argument goes as such:

Grey areas are lower density residential neighborhoods built for a middle class that, over time, become enveloped inside the growing city.  However, as the mobile and wealthy middle class moves further out, they leave behind them housing that is not equipped to handle the population that moves in, at times, turning over very quickly, destabilizing the neighborhood.  The housing units become overcrowded and unpleasant, which as I said above, is different from being too dense.  A dense city with active street life and a steady cast of invested characters  (residents young and old, shopkeepers, landlords) provides eyes on the street, which includes built-in education and civic direction for children, and safety in general.  It's inherently an interesting place, with varied street life during much of the day and night.  People watch out for each other, even if they don't know them, because there is no real expectation of commitment with assisting strangers in small ways.  A less dense semi-suburb of largely one income class with no street life and a few people who move in and out at will provides no protection in the public realm, because the public realm becomes a desert.  What's scarier? A junkie on Central Street at noon on a Tuesday, surrounded by cars, businessmen, students, etc or a man standing outside an out-of-place old van on a dark suburban street in Tyngsboro at 10 PM?  This is why we've invented gated communities.

I promised I'd keep this short so I can't properly summarize - or parrot - and certainly not coherently edit a review of - 450 pages, so I'm going to cut myself off here.  The book is really good.  She talks about how cars are not what's really ruining cities, how interstates should be for trucks only instead of our current cars-only parkways.  She discusses how money coming into an area too quickly can be catastrophic, how public housing is a huge mistake and subsidized housing is the right way to go.  She suggests letting people stay in their previously subsidized housing at market-rate rent after they can afford more to keep people in the neighborhood.

As another aside towards the end of the book, she says the following.  I think it really captures a lot of how I feel about what we've done to cities and the environment in this country:

It is neither love for nature nor respect for nature that leads to this [viewpoint that cities are not natural, a la, she cites, Thomas Jefferson's hatred of cities and love for farming (done by slaves in his case!)].  Instead it is a sentimental desire to toy, rather patronizingly, with some insipid, standardized, suburbanized shadow of nature—apparently in sheer disbelief that we and our cities, just by virtue of being, are a legitimate part of nature too, and involved with it in much deeper and more inescapable ways than grass trimming, sunbathing, and contemplative uplift. And so, each day, several thousand more acres of our countryside are eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have killed the thing they thought they came to find. Our irreplaceable heritage of Grade I agricultural land (a rare treasure of nature on this earth) is sacrificed for highways or supermarket parking lots as ruthlessly and unthinkingly as the trees in the woodlands are uprooted, the streams and rivers polluted and the air itself filled with the gasoline exhausts (products of eons of nature’s manufacturing) required in this great national effort to cozy up with a fictionalized nature and flee the “unnaturalness” of the city.



  1. I haven't read The Death and Life of Great American Cities in years, you've inspired me to revisit it. I really admire and agree with Jane Jacobs on a lot of things - I read Dark Age Ahead when it first came out (not too long ago, maybe five or so years...) and it's scary how perceptive it is. I often am reminded of it when hearing people talk about the current recession.

  2. Thanks for the pointer on that book, seems interesting! She has since died (2006) at the age of 90...

  3. She has a follow-on book "The Economy of Cities" that is a shorter read, but makes some good points that could be applied to Lowell.

  4. Thanks Joe, I put that one on my wishlist too.