Jane Jacobs: Urban Ideas - Jane Jacobs: Urban Ideas

“What would Jane Jacobs do?”

Jane Jacobs was committed to defending urban neighbourhoods. This was especially true during the controversial 1960s period of so-called urban renewal, when the solution to almost any perceived city problem was to tear it down.

Throughout her life in New York and Toronto, Jane Jacobs was often presented with specific urban problems and asked, “What do you think?” She typically smiled and responded, “What do you think?”

Her point was simple: If she could make observations and act on them, so could you.

Please Look Closely

A woman takes out her trash. Shopkeepers unlock doors and pull carts onto the sidewalk. A man hails a taxi as students pass on their way to the subway. Observing such simple actions over time, Jane Jacobs saw a “ballet of the sidewalks,” an unrehearsed choreography of urban dwellers going about their business that, in her view, created the vitality of city life.

With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, Jacobs described this ballet in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that had an immediate impact on how cities are designed and used. Though raised in a small town and lacking the credentials of a trained planner, Jacobs quickly became one of the century’s most influential writers on urban planning.

Jacobs observed four key qualities of healthy, vibrant cities. She warned that disregarding the interactions of these attributes – mixed uses, frequent streets, varied buildings, and concentration – consigns cities to failure. As Jacobs well knew, these assertions put her in opposition to prevailing modernist tenets about improving cities through urban renewal, which often involved large-scale demolition and forced relocaiton.

Jacob’s observations – and her willingness to act on them – remain critical to New York today, as it is being reshaped by a private-development boom, and soon enough, by the goals outlined in the city’s current plan for the future, PlaNYC 2030. It is within each of us, she exhorted to affect the future of cities. That poewr begins with observation. “Please look closely at real cities,” she wrote. “While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.” Today, what is more important than Jacobs’s observations are your observations – and your actions.

“What do you observe?”

Jane Jacobs arrived at her four principles for healthy cities by making observations of neighbourhoods in use.

In some places, she saw what she called a veritable “ballet” of activities on the sidewalks. In others, she saw stagnation. Many cases fell somewhere in between.

She discovered that the most economically successful areas, as well as those that were the safest and most pleasant to be in, had these for characteristics:

  1. There were various types and ages of buildings.
  2. There was a high concentration and density of uses.
  3. The uses were mixed, not just all one kind of thing.
  4. There were frequent streets and very few long blocks.

1. Varied Buildings

The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones.

Jacobs took issue with the modernist preference for replacing the old with the new. Where advocates of urban renewal saw decaying structures that had outlived their usefulness, Jacobs saw affordable spaces that could foster diversity. She articulated her observation as a simple aphorism: “New ideas often need old buildings.”

Her argument was not simply rooted in an appreciation for outstanding historic architecture; rather, she maintained, a proportion of unremarkable older buildings – perhaps even a bit run down – made it possible for neighbourhoods to support a variety of uses. A mix of old and new spaces allowed small businesses to coexist with larger ones and populated a neighbourhood with people of different incomes. A neighbourhood comprised entirely of fancy new buildings would be accessible only to those who could afford to bear the costs of new construction, thus limiting the diversity of people who could live there.

Think about the neighbourhoods that you know best – how are the ones with diverse buildings different than the ones that are more homogeneous? Who live there, and how are the buildings used?

Towers in the park

When discussing the need for varied buildings, Jacobs looked to Stuyvesant Town and its immediate vicinity. Built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, in coordination with the city over the 1940s, the unprecedented project razed eighteen blocks of tenements and storefronts, replacing them with middle-income housing for white veterans. Jacobs believed that the storefronts of project development were limited by their lack of age diversity. Looking at the commercial space of Stuyvesant Town in 1959, she observed that “of the thirt-two storefronts… seven were either empty or were being used uneconomically (for storage, window advertising only, and the like).” At present, some of those same storefronts still advertise vacancies, while the others are occupied exclusively by what Jacobs described as “well established, high-turnover, standardized” tenants like banks and chain stores.

By stark contrast, Jacobs noted the economic vitality of the blocks surrounding Stuyvesant Town: “The good business side of the street is the age-mingled side, even though a great share of its customers are Stuyvesant Town people, and even though they must cross wide and dangerous traffic arteries to reach it.” Today, those blocks continue to support a wide range of businesses, many of them small proprietors.

Homogeneity or diversity?

Modernist architects, who regarded a variety of building types on a single block as a visual hodgepodge, embraced the aesthetic unity that comes from uniform facades. And yet residents of a neighbourhood may be better served by a mix of building types. Compare Broadway between Steinway and Forty-first Street in Astoria, Queens, to Houston Street between the Bowery and Chrystie streets in Manhattan. Both have a mix of uses (residential and commercial), but the Houston block has only new construction. Which one is livelier? Which offers more opportunities for the neighbourhood?

The  block of Broadway is home to a variety of businesses, including a diner,a  law office, a nail salon, and a Chinese restaurant. Higher-end retailers will likely move into the storefronts of the new buildings under construction, but the older buildings directly adjacent offer less expensive niches for smaller-scale entrepreneurs.

The new Houston Street complex incorporates apartments (a proportion of which are designated low-income), a YMCA and retail. Yet the large storefront is necessarily occupied by a sole commercial tenant able to afford the high rent – namely, Whole Foods Market, a national chain that targets affluent consumers.

2. Concentration

The district must have a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they may be there.

Mid-century urban planners held that many social ills were the result of dense concentrations of people, and they cleared large swaths of the city to create more open space. Jacobs would have none of that. She argued that people made neighbourhoods safer and supported a greater range of services and uses. “The presence of great numbers of people gathered together in cities should not only be frankly accepted as a physical fact. It follows that they hould also be enjoyed as an asset and their presence celebrated.”

Jacobs saw a correlation between density and diversity. “Obviously, if the object is vital city life,” she noted, “the dwelling densities should go as high as they need to go to stimulate the maximum potential diversity in a city.” The challenge, as she saw it, was to maintain population densities while avoiding overcrowding within residences.

Consider the concentration of residences in your neighbourhood. How do the numbers of people affect the proximity of such conveniences as bus stops, restaurants, and markets? How is the population’s diversity (or lack thereof) reflected in the local services provided?

Critical mass

Jacobs dismissed “ideal” population densities as abstractions, observing that successful concentrations can be judged by how well they perform in promoting diversity. “Densities are too low, or too high, when they frustrate city diversity instead of abetting it,” she wrote. Jacobs identified several New York neighbourhoods with variations in density and attendant diversity, including Greenwich Village (high) and Red Hook (low). Revisiting these neighbourhoods today, we can see that while populations may have changed, the population density permitted by such factors as the built environment and public transportation continue to affect the development of the neighbourhood.

3. Mixed Uses

On successful city streets, people must appear at different times.

Healthy cities develop in ways that Jacobs described as “organic, spontaneous, and untidy.” Where an outside may see disorder in a block’s jumble of laundromats, bodegas, schools, or apartment buildings, a local resident finds the texture and fullness of everyday urban existence.

For a street to thrive, Jacobs argued, there must be a mix of uses. “Intricate minglings of different uses in cities are not a form of chaos,” she wrote. “On the contrary, they represent a complex and highly developed form of order.” When offices exist alongside residences, shops, and public parks, a neighbourhood is active throughout the day and night. This ongoing activity creates safer streets, offers opportunities for businesses to take hold, and provides residents with necessary services.

To put Jacobs’s criteria to the test, look at the use of a neighbourhood over a span of time. When is it at its most active? Are there times when the sidewalks and streets are overwhelmed? Are there times when they are utterly abandoned? How well do its different functions coexist?

Cultural chessmen

Late 1950s urban renewal advocates looked at the neighbourhoods in Manhattan’s West Sixties and saw blighted slums. Their solution was to replace sixteen acres of it with Lincoln Centre, a cultural hub that would house the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the nascent New York City Ballet. Local residents would be relocated to new large-scale housing projects. Jacobs made no complaints about the architecture of Lincoln Centre, Rather, she condemned the decision to segregate all of these cultural institutions in one single-use location.

Comparing Cultural attractions to chessmen, Jacobs argued that cities are better served when the pieces are placed at intervals across the board. For example, in Jacobs’s view, Carnegie Hall, on the corner of Fifty-seventh Street and Seventh Avenue, contributes greatly to the diversity of its surroundings. Nearby office buildings keep the sidewalks active by day, and the concert hall takes over in the evening. Its presence provides customers for restaurants, studios, and specialty stores, further enlivening the street. Jacobs wrote, “Carnegie Hall is a vital chessman, working in concert with other chessmen.”

What keeps a street active?

To judge the effect of mixed uses on a neighbourhood, consider Ninth Avenue between Fifty-fifth and Fifty-sixth streets alongside Third Street between mercer Street and LaGuardia Place. Ninth Avenue is generally populated, where Third Street is typically barren.

Why is the Greenwich Village street so empty when it is situated next to Washington Square Park and in the midst of New York University? The large institutional buildings turn their backs on Third Street. The street lacks a diversity of uses and is therefore used only as a corridor for passersby.

By contrast, the new home of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre embraces the street and acts as an anchor for a block with a variety of uses day and night. In addition to the deli and shoe store shown, the block contains a sidewalk cafe and other uses that attract residents and visitors throughout the day.

4. Frequent Streets

Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

“The advantages of short blocks are simple,” Jacobs noted. Someone walking a street with short blocks frequently encounters corners, each offering an opportunity to turn and follow an alternate path. These options create more places for commerce and for encountering neighbours. Thus, short blocks contribute to the social and economic life of a neighbourhood.

By contrast, someone walking a street with long blocks is forced in a prescribed direction that may not be the most desirable path to a destination. Pedestrians in such a neighbourhood would typically follow “a monotonous, always-the-same path to a given point.” There are fewer opportunities to meet different people or shop at various stores. Long blocks are isolating, Jacobs argued, and so lead to stagnation and boredom.

Think about the streets you know best. No doubt you have already determined the most direct paths for most of your daily excursions. When faced with alternatives – say, you are running an unfamiliar errand – is it possible to take a new route, or are you locked into a rut by your surroundings? Does this affect how you feel about the neighbourhood?

Short and long blocks

Walking the area just beyond Rockefeller Centre, Jacobs discovered that the long blocks to the north and south seemed devoted primarily to specializations like wholesaling, which offered little to passersby. By contrast, the short blocks created by Rockefeller Plaza were exhilarating. There, pedestrians could more easily interact with one another and a range of businesses. Small blocks helped to give the area its diversity.

Jacobs contrasted this activity to the isolation of a long block on the Upper West Side. Her complaint was not that the area offered nothing to its inhabitants – then as now, residents liked their streets well enough – but rather that the long blocks kept people from one another. Someone living on West Eighty-eighth Street, she argued, “Would have everyjustification for disbelieving that Eighty-seventh and Eighty-ninth Streets or its people have anything to do with him.” An interlocking sense of community could therefore not flourish as it might in other neighbourhoods.

Into the Public Realm

For neighbourhood parks, the finest centres are stage setting for people.”

For Jane Jacobs, observing cities was not a passive act. Examining the streets of Greenwich Village, where she lived with her family beginning in 1947, not only helped her to develop her four principles but also made the streets safer. She claimed that areas where more people had their “eyes on the street” were more secure. She extended this argument to parks, squares, and other public places, suggesting that these spaces also hosted social ballets worthy of attention.

At the same time that Jacobs was demonstrating the principles of urban life revealed by looking closely at various public spaces, she also became increasingly aware of the need to take action to protect them. In the late 1950s, Jacobs participated in several skirmishes when parks and sidewalks in her neighbourhood faced encroachment by roads. Jacobs and her allies tried to change the scope of the debate by insisting that public space had to be accorded greater value than it had been.

Current plans for the creation of a park atop the old High Line also stem from local residents paying close attention to what was happening in their neighbourhood. Upon learning of city plans to demolish the disused elevated-rail line, members of the Chelsea community took steps to preserve and readapt it. Gaining support for their efforts, they upped the ante by proposing an unprecedented park atop the old structure.

Taking to the offensive

As Jacobs was working on Death and Life of Great American Cities, she was also emerging as the kind of “public character” that she celebrated in its pages. In 1958, she joined a group of Greenwich Village residents opposing a plan for an arterial road to bisect Washington Square Park. “Instead of staying on the defensive,” she recalled, “Majority opinion in the community took to the offensive.” The group not only defeated the proposal but also won a further victory banning cars from the park completely. Then in 1960, Jacobs’s son Jimmy noticed men measuring the West Village sidewalks where he played. Upon uncovering a road-widening scheme, Jacobs again fought to prevent the erosion of the public spaces so important to the civic ballet.

When Jane Butzner met architect Robert Hyde Jacobs Jr.,  She was a writer for a magazine published by the State Department, and she lived at 82 Washington Place. They wed in May 1944 and three years later bought a home at 555 Hudson Street, The family, which grew to include three children, lived at this address for more than two decades. Over that time, Jacobs, an inveterate conversationalist, made it a point to know the people on her street.

The Jacobs family often made the short walk from their home to Washington Square Park. Since horse-and-buggy days, the park had been bisected by a roadway that passed under the Washington Arch and divided before connecting to two streets below the park. As city parks commissioner, Robert Moses had unsuccessfully sought to close this road, planning to accommodate the diverted traffic by widening streets at the park’s east and west sides, at the expense of parkland. By the mid-1960s, Moses had changed tactics by proposing to widen the roadway itself as a depressed highway.

When Villagers suggested closing the roadway altogether without altering streets to the easy and west, Moses and the City Planning Commission predicted dire consequences. They warned that traffic would clog side streets. Jacobs thought otherwise and joined with the opposition, led by residents Shirley hayes and Edith Lyons. They won the support of the borough president, and the roadway was closed.

The closing of Washington Square to traffic was celebrated by a ceremonial ribbon-tying featuring Jacobs’s daughter, Mary. To mark the occasion, a car was burned on the site.

Building for the future

I think that a lot of community-based organizations often get their tarts trying to stop something from happening. There was a degree of that when we started – we were trying to stop it from being torn down – but it’s not just about stopping something from happening but about building something great for the future of New York City.

– Joshua David, cofounder, Friends of the High Line

Among the cornerstones of PlaNYC 2030 is the premise that all New Yorkers should “live within a ten-minute walk of a park.” Achieving this ambitious goal would require the reclamation and landscaping of formerly industrial sites. The most inventive effort to date involves the High Line a 6.7-acre promenade that was built as an elevated train track.

In 1999, Joshua David and Robert Hammond learned of the city’s intention to demolish the High Line. Believing that someone should stop this, David and Hammond formed the Friends of the High Line. Within two years, they had successfully blocked Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s effort to have the High Line destroyed.

Now, with the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the High Line is being redeveloped as a landscaped promenade.

Jacobs and the establishment

I don’t know who this celebrity called Jane Jacobs is. It’s not me. You either do your work or you’re a celebrity; I’d rather do my work.

While Jane Jacobs was never formally trained as an urban planner – in fact she never received any college degree – she was not the complete outsider/amateur that some imagine. But having been exposed to the prevailing wisdom about cities among architects, planners, and policymakers in the 1950s, she did not shrink from taking this powerful and credentialed establishment head-on.

Jacobs picked up an in-depth understanding of how cities work first and foremost from the decades that she lived in New York, beginning in 1934, working as a writer and editor. After she married Columbia-trained architect Robert H. Jacobs Jr., he provided the background she needed to join the staff of a leading journal in that field, Architectural Forum. For ten years beginning in 1952, Jacobs professionally wrote about or visited projects by many of the most influential design figures including the likes of Louis Kahn, I.M. Pei, and Edmund Bacon. At that time, a primary goal of the reigning urbanist establishment was segregating the functions that intermingled in traditional cities, such as transportation, residence, commerce, and recreation. Through a host of urban-renewal programs and appropriations, policymakers provided the funds and the authority for planners and local officials to undertake extensive redevelopment projects. Finally, subsidies and general cultural assumptions gave preference to suburban bedroom communities over denser, mixed-use neighbourhoods.

Increasingly, Jacobs found that her own observations of many celebrated developments were closer to the criticisms leveled by those outside the design establishment – people such as East Harlem social worker William Kirk, who pointed out that the social impoverishment in the new high-rise housing projects was as profound as the economic poverty they meant to alleviate. Jacobs first expressed these misgivings to a Harvard urban design conference in 1956 and was then invited by editor William H. Whyte to publish them in Fortune magazine. This exposure led Chadbourne Gilpatric of the Rockefeller Foundation to offer Jacobs a grant to develop her critique into the manuscript that was ultimately published by Random House in 1961. In its first line, The Death and Life of Great American Cities unambiguously announced: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” Eve earlier supporters like Lewis Mumford and G. Holmes Perkins felt stung by its ferocity. Some planners protested that Jacobs blamed them for too much; others worried that her criticisms would undermine support for urban renewal programs and for professional city planning generally – with good reason, as it turned out. Over the next decades, not only did Jacobs’s book serve as a bible for the nascent grassroots movement to preserve and rehabilitate traditional urban neighbourhoods, but evenrtually many of her observations (like the four principles) became the new prevailing wisdom among the planning establishment, too.

Taking Action

The publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities put Jane Jacobs at centre stage in contemporary debates about urban planning. At a moment when city planners were redesigning cities according to modernist principles of homogeneity and preordained use, Jacobs argued in favour of seeing cities from the prespective of the people who lived in them – a position that often put her at odds with developers and City Hall.

For the duration of her years in New York, Jacobs did not finish another book. Her time was consumed by activism, as she put her ideas into action. her efforts are often characterized as David-and-Goliath battles, with Jacobs depicted as an underdog battling overwhelming forces. Upon closer inspection, her experiences demonstrate a variety of activist postures – including reacting to others’ proposals, proactive planning, and coalition building.

Today, her example inspires new generations of activists. Among these are community-based organizations such as United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park (UPROSE), which emphasizes social justice and environmental concerns; Nos Quedamos (“We Stay”), originally formed to protect low-income residents and businesses in the South Bronx; and Neighbours Allied for Good Growth (NAG), dedicated to protecting the waterfronts, public spaces, and mixed uses of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Such organizations work on goals specific to local communities and in coalitions that expand their respective influences, using a variety of tools in the fight for social and political transformation.


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