Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Saint Jane by Will Wiles

The Pelican edition of Death and Life, with cover by Germano Facetti.

A spectre is haunting urbanism – the spectre of Jane Jacobs. The American-Canadian writer and activist died in 2006, but she continues to exert influence over the urban debate, primarily via that dreary federacy of messianic dovecote enthusiasts, the “New Urbanists”, who have taken her up as a kind of guiding prophet. Outside the ranks of the Kunstlers and Kriers, there is a great swath of architects, thinkers and writers on the city who have read Jacobs and hold her in high regard. With a touch of embarrassment, I should include myself in this latter category. Not being an architect, I was an auto-didact in urban theory. When I came across a Pelican edition of Jacobs’ best-known book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in a second-hand bookshop almost a decade ago, I had never heard of her. But I loved the Germano Facetti cover design, the back sounded interesting enough, and the price was right, so I took it home.

At that point, my reading on urban theory had been scattershot, based entirely in what I found in 2nd-hand bookshops: Corbu, Lewis Mumford, Thomas Sharp, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, an odd band who had given me all sorts of interesting ideas and imagery, but nothing very coherent. What they had in common, more or less, was that I didn’t really enjoy reading them all that much, and had mostly got through to the end in a spirit of patient self-improvement. I picked up Jacobs, expecting more of the same, and instead ploughed through it in a matter of days. If nothing else, she taught me that book-length urban theory could be hugely entertaining, and since then I have sought out books about the city with enthusiasm, as opposed to a worthy sense of I-really-should-know-more-about-this. (I haven’t read The Economy of Cities which I understand unwisely broadens some of Jacobs’ microcosmic conclusions, which is probably why its profile has declined in recent years while that of Death and Life has done little but improve.)

At the time, I lived in a basement flat in Pimlico. I worked from home. From the desk where I read and worked, I could see feet passing on the pavement outside. I could stroll out during the day and visit the market on Tachbrook street, which had a book stall. I knew the names of local shopkeepers. It was, when I had money, all very comfortable. Westminster council was on its never-ending crusade to fuck up everything with vast shiny office buildings. Jacobs had an obvious appeal in this context. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more, but much of what she says about the folly of monolithic single-use zoning and the importance of mixed activity on the street, still seems to me to be self-evident.

She has remained on my mind since, popping up from time to time in both expected and unexpected places. I recently read Joe Flood’s account of New York’s 1970s organisational meltdown, The Fires (review scheduled in Icon 088). Flood has a criticism of some form for nearly everyone in 1970s New York – except Jacobs, who floats, omniscient and benign, above the crumbling city. This kind of veneration obviously grates with some people. In an essay in The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz complains that the writers Sharon Zukin and Michael Sorkin are hopelessly in thrall to Jacobs in their recent accounts of NYC, and that Jacobs’ description of the city was a mirage – if it ever existed, it was only for a split-second in the city’s life.

Jacobs, Schwarz complains, presented a “transitional and unsustainable, if golden, moment” in the life of a certain neighbourhood as an ideal, and in doing so distorted our whole idea of the urban good life. This critique was picked up by Kosmograd: ever since Death and Life, urbanists have been attempting to conjure a steady-state Jacobs Moment in neighbourhoods globally, and always end up with a runaway reaction on their hands: gentrification. Working-class communities and affordable housing are swept away, and the district ends up as a “bo-ho theme park”. Jacobs’ “sentimental … matronising” opinions have precious little to offer a world that is throwing up such terrifying urban environments as the FoxConn complex in Shenzhen.

When I first read Schwarz and Kosmograd’s essays, my first instinct was to spring to Jacobs’ defence. She was a lone voice raised in defence of a certain kind of community. That community was worth defending – the contemporary notion of what constituted a slum was a nonsense, a nonsense that was being used as a tool for massive and wholly un-progressive urban clearance and social engineering. This clearance was not the comprehensive redevelopment and state planning that took place in the UK – Moses-manner planning was an unlikely and grotesque, wholly corrupt, public-private aberration, one that sadly proved repeatable within the USA; imagine PFI joint ventures crossed with the LDDC and given untrammelled power, and you get a rough idea. At the time Jacobs wrote, gentrification and yuppification were inconceivable: New York would continue to experience the flight of the middle classes for 20 years after the publication of Death and Life. Industrial New York might not have been pleasant, but its destruction was a man-made disaster: the city deliberately dismantled its blue-collar manufacturing base in pursuit of white-collar employers, and almost killed itself in the process. (Flood details this insane policy in The Fires.) So Jacobs has nothing to offer the inhabitants of FoxConnopolis – she didn’t have much to say about the Gaza Strip or Dubai, either, because she was writing about local issues in the 1960s. Jacobs could not be held responsible for what has been committed in her name by the New Urbanists and their insipid watercolour view of the city. Also, wasn’t a lot of the disdain for Jane a distaste for her (American, rather twee) literary style? And the book has this great Germano Facetti cover. Don’t you see?

In other words, Leave Britney Alone.

That was my first instinct, but thought better of it. For a start, I didn’t particularly want to write an ode to Jacobs and place myself in the company of the Nurbanists. Secondly, it wasn’t long after the ArcelorMittal Space Tangle controversy, and I didn’t want to get into an argument with Kosmograd again, given that he’s one of the most interesting and perceptive architecture bloggers in the UK, and I’m generally behind him 100%.

Anyway, the cult of Saint Jane is developing into a menace. It’s worth mentioning that Death and Life is not really (or not wholly) an attack on modernism. Besides the Moses approach to planning, Jacobs is primarily arguing against decentralisation, “decentrists” such as Mumford, suburbanisation, Howard’s “Garden City”, monolithic zoning, and residential monoculture. Although the organic, dense, city seemed chaotic, Jacobs argued, it could be understood; it had hugely complex systems, and the systems worked. In suggesting this, she was making the case that the technocratic city-as-diagram planners in the Moses mold were not replacing a chaotic lack of system with a working system – they were replacing a working system with a dysfunctional system. Many of Jacobs’ ideas (particularly to do with mixed uses) can and should be safely integrated into modernist planning. Indeed, they have been – compare the mixed housing and culture of the Barbican with the Lincoln Center, a Moses project that Jacobs complains about.

However, in deposing the Moses planning priesthood, Jacobs cut the vestments for a new priesthood. “You have misunderstood the city,” she says, “and I understand it” – as Kosmograd says, this equation meant that by bearing the relics of Saint Jane, the Nurbanists can set themselves up as the only people who understand the city, and swaddle their agenda in authenticity and legitimacy. They claim to be the people who understand the city, who tend the guttering pilot light of “vibrancy” that keeps it alive.

They are wrong. I am not going to presume to have a deeper understanding of Jane Jacobs than the Nurbanists, and attempt to snatch the relics back – they are, frankly, welcome to them. We are never going to move forward if we get bogged down into a recondite dispute about “what she really meant”. But Jacobs appealed to me because it chimed with what I saw in cities and what I liked about them – and the Nurbanists have no idea what this quality is. Their agenda for “neighbourhoods”, “contextuality”, “walkability”, is fundamentally anti-urban. These qualities aren’t necessarily bad in themselves – but combined in pursuit of the singular Nurbanist vision, they mean the vivisection of the city into un-urban cells. Taken to its conclusion, “walk-to-work” ideology means cottages clustered around the mill. While a short commute is desirable, in a neoliberal world this would severely limit social mobility and the overall broadening of horizons that is the best the city has to offer. If people wish to live within walking distance of their workplace, they of course should be able to. But basing a housing system on proximity to workplace is not progressive – or at least it is not as progressive as cheap, plentiful public transport and cheap, plentiful rented accommodation. The FoxxConn workers live in and around their workplace.

The Nurbanist vision of carving up the city in this way is as diagrammatic and retrograde as Moses’ planning – and, similarly, it’s an assault on the complexity of the city, the city’s ability to generate its own fabulously complicated internal patterns that defy cursory inspection. The emphasis on little neighbourhoods, the stoop, local shops and walking distances, the “human scale” only tells part of the story of the city – after all, these things can be found in villages and small towns. All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole. Elevated highways, crowds, tall buildings, interconnection and confusion – these things can be to some people dismaying and unpleasant, but the awe they strike is the overture of accepting the condition of living in a city. The Tube roundel is vaguely holy to Londoners – intensely reassuring – because it is a sign of connection with a system of vast complexity and importance. (The religious meaning of the Tube is a subject I keep meaning to write about at some point.) Nurbanism stems from a fear and hatred of the modern city as it is – a hatred that is ideological, that cannot and will not be shown that there are reasons to like the neon snarl of the cities we have, and their inner flows and surges. This is a terrible frame of mind for a group concerned with urban planning. Jacobs, at least, liked the city, and liked it for factors that cannot be found in small towns.

Death and Life is parochial and highly idiosyncratic, a product of particular times and specific circumstances; as its critics say, a poor basis for general policy. Jacobs herself, though, can’t really be blamed for making broad recommendations on the basis of her own experiences and beliefs. The trouble is that there are not more Jane Jacobs, more voices in the urban debate, giving different views of city planning from their own experience. It is mysterious to me that Jonathan Raban’s Soft City – a book written out of love for and interest in the city, hugely perceptive about how cities work, without policy recommendations, simply a plea for what is valuable about the city as a huge civilising machine – is not venerated in this country. Anna Minton’s Ground Control is the only really outstanding contribution to the urban genre in recent years, although of course I have high hopes for Owen Hatherley’s New Ruins when it comes out. The mutations of cities around us, from Shenzhen to London, certainly do need new narratives.

Will Wiles is a writer and Deputy Editor of Icon, a monthly architecture and design magazine.

This article originally appeared in Spillway. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture

17 Responses to “Saint Jane by Will Wiles”

  1. Bill Smith says:

    There’s a problem here, Jane Jacobs herself was critical of how New Urbanism panned out:

    In other words, her alleged acolytes are attempting to create the end result without understanding exactly what makes that end result.

  2. John Morris says:

    The folks at Reason obviously see a kindred spirit in that Jane’s work calls all conventional planning into question.

    Jane is the Hippocrates of cities. If planners held to the concept of- first do no harm-and were personally held responsible for their schemes, most of us would be better off.

  3. The village analogy is apt. What some “nurbanists” seem to want isn’t so much as a city, but a collection of villages in close proximity. But some things–airports, factories, first-class cultural institutions, fine restaurants, require a large population and capital base to support. In other words, they require a city, and there’s a reason that small towns, whatever their virtues, invariably lack these amenities.

    A more damning critique, apt in some cases, is that some urbanists want to keep a city’s first rate amenities for themselves. Such urbanists have a tendency to be skeptical of mass transit, preferring more “intimate” infrastructure, under the justification that if you want to patronize such amenities you should live close to them, while glossing over completely the inequity that invariably results from such an arrangement. They’re NIMBYs without a backyard.

    Mobility infastructure, particularly mass transit (but to a lesser extent, roads as well), is liberating. Freeway expansion is obviously detrimental due to scalability and environmental issues with cramming lots of cars into a small space, but many arguments against building robust transport infrastructure (of all modes) seem to ultimately spring from a desire to keep the riffraff out of the neighborhood. Not altogether different from Moses’ designing freeway overpasses too short for busses to pass underneath.

  4. Wad says:

    Bill, you got what Jane Jacobs spent her later career trying to avoid.

    She gained a fan base, yet Jacobs herself had a disdain for all planning — even those who sought to create the very communities she extolled.

    What Jacobs understood, and planners omit or deliberately obscure, was that the “Death and Life” neighborhoods came into being organically and by coincidence. I tend to describe it as “splendid chaos.”

    Jacobs’ “Death and Life” itself was taking Mumford’s examination of cities throughout history and holding it under a microscope. She looked at neighborhoods of these great cities and explained their dynamics.

    Jacobsean neighborhoods don’t set out for greatness. They grow into it. The residents, the businesses and the civic amenities start out just meeting local needs. This process then takes a life of its own as outsiders become attracted to the neighborhood. This could be because of a great restaurant, unique services or even just the P.T. Barnum rule (“Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.”)

    Planners want the answers without showing their work. New Urbanists will take the look of a traditional neighborhood and plop it down in an area where none existed. What then happens is you get a traditional neighborhood where residents cocoon themselves up like suburbanites. Or, they’ll create urban-format retail but stock the stores with high-value goods and services or recruit chain stores that sign long-term leases.

    They miss the point that place-making small businesses are high-risk and often low-value, and need low rents to stay in business. These businesses will often be run by first-time entrepreneurs, who will work in the store as well as keep the books, or be run by ethnic merchants.

  5. John Morris says:

    “What Jacobs understood, and planners omit or deliberately obscure, was that the “Death and Life” neighborhoods came into being organically and by coincidence. I tend to describe it as “splendid chaos.””

    I think the last chapters in Death and Life talk about this. The neighborhoods she describes are not at all the result of “chaos”, but self organized social orders the planners haven’t observed closely or don’t like.

  6. adam. says:

    tried posting this yesterday but didn’t take for some reason. some points perhaps repeated by now…

    seaside fl-esque style new urbanism is nearly the anti-thesis of what Jacobs writes about. And while I don’t have my copy in front of me, I’m fairly certain Jacobs begins Death and Life by saying it is a specific book about specific types of cities, and that it’s lessons and her conclusions should not be blindly applied and most likely won’t work in any other context. The overwhelming lesson of the entire book is that rote application of academic principals without grounding them in observation is a recipe for disaster. That anybody who reads that book comes away without that lesson signifies they weren’t paying much attention or were reading it with an agenda.

    Good guest post, btw. Thanks.

  7. To expand on the great comments above, what Jacobs was extolling wasn’t so much “chaotic” growth of a neighborhood, but perhaps “organic” growth is a better term. They grew as they did within a very loose framework. There was a road, a lot, and maybe some utilities, that’s it. Until recently there wasn’t the “cataclysmic” money available to agglomerate a whole block of parcels or even a whole series of blocks. Thus the unit of development was the individual lot, and that lead to a lot of diversity in use, architecture, age, and income. These are things new urbanists try to replicate, and while it’s better than ignoring them, it simply can’t be done.

    The problem with many new urbanist developments isn’t that they’re urbanist in some way, but that they’re new and they’re developments. Both of those are death-blows to Jacobs’ lessons. Being large singular developments, they can never achieve the level of complexity and harmony of a “real” neighborhood because, as Bill said, they’re trying to create the end result without having or understanding the forces that got it there. Jacobs also said repeatedly that neighborhoods are systems of organized complexity, which are virtually incomprehensible due to the multitude of interrelationships that cause feedback loops. No single designer, or design firm, can hope to comprehend, let alone prescribe these things.

    The other problem with new urbanist developments is that they’re new, all built at the same time. Thus, they’re subject to the same stages of growth, decline, decay, and ultimate failure of any large development of a similar age. In that case, everything becomes unfashionable at the same time, it gets run down at the same time, and it causes income segregation. It’s very difficult to get mixed incomes in new construction because by definition new construction is some of the most desirable and expensive. As it ages and wears out, the rents go down, and the demographics go with it. When there’s a mixture of ages and types of building stock, the rents and demographics are all mixed so you don’t have huge areas of yuppieville or ghettos. The neighborhood is more resilient because the self-interests of the poor, working class, middle class, or rich aren’t the majority and they have to work together.

    I suspect Jacobs would look more positively on new urbanist developments if they were merely subdivisions with a few covenants. When I say merely subdivisions, I mean how they were done before about the 1920s, with roads and sidewalks, utilities, and parcels platted out. The purchaser of a lot was on their own to get a builder and build a house. In this day and age we’d need a few form-based codes to keep garages out of the front or to restrict parking lots. The more difficult part would be to prevent the combining of lots or the purchase of a whole swath by one developer. Still, things like tax incentives could be used to encourage better development rather than prescribing them with codes. Say if someone wants to build a little house set back from the sidewalk, they can do that but the person who builds a bigger building up to the sidewalk with ground floor retail pays the same taxes even though it’s a larger and more valuable building. This is drifting off topic, but the point is that it separates the stakeholders in a project so it grows a bit more organically, and that’s something Jacobs would likely have approved.

  8. John Morris says:

    I strongly agree with Jeffrey. A lot of the problems and generic monoculture we see in new urbanist developments comes from the fact they are built all at once.

    One of the favorite quotes from Death and Life, is the about the need for old buildings. However, the simple economic reason for their great value-as cheap locations for newer and more marginally profitable businesses is forgoten.

    In fact, mostly through regulation we now have a huge problem with older buildings. In many or most cases, compliance with these rules has made them too expensive for the experimentation and diversity of uses, Jane advocated.
    Cheap, organic reuse is not really legal most of the time.

  9. Matt says:

    I agree with the problem of large singular developments, but then I wonder how do we better approach new development. There will be new buildings and neighborhoods constructed as cities and populations grow, be they urban infill, suburban redevelopments or greenfield. Particularly regarding the suburbs, how do we encourage/allow for more organic development when the model is large land owners and mega-projects? Jeffrey gets at this in his last paragraph, but I’d be interested to hear further thoughts on other alternatives to the current model.

  10. To answer Matt, a few ideas come to mind:

    1) Developers of subdivisions ought not to be in the business of drafting overly restrictive covenants, particularly those regulating the use of private lots. If neighbors want to create covenants on their own, fine–but most covenants are imposed by developers. (HOAs and related covenants relevant to managing common areas are another matter; though society has long had an excellent way of managing commons prior to the modern HOA arising; its called “municipal government”).

    2) As Jeff notes, perhaps the original landowner ought to be in the lot business moreso than the building business? OTOH, there are economies of scale for the builder in erecting entire developments at once, which is one reason that “cookie cutter” development is popular.

    3) Looking at a broader question–many design codes (whether it be fire regulations, other elements of the building code, design standards for highways) are often developed in isolation, and apart from the surrounding context. One of the reason that modern freeways are so terrible to surrounding urban fabric, even more so than the freeways erected in Moses’ time, are the engineering standards necessary to allow 18-wheelers to safely merge into 55MPH highway traffic. And while some standards ought not be waived, many standards and codes strike me as things that ought to be recommendations, rather than laws. (Why, for instance, is a modern home–or a remodel on an older one–required to have power outlets every 6′ or so along the kitchen countertops? There’s a minor safety issue involved, but the primary benefit is functional–and the safety issues can be addressed with less intrusive means such as GFCI, the installation of which doesn’t require ripping out the wall).

  11. Alon Levy says:

    The two most grating aspects of those lines of criticism of Jacobs are,

    1. Such critics think that Jacobs approved of new urbanism, whereas in fact she attacked it every step of the way. Ditto gentrification – the last piece she published before she died was a criticism of Bloomberg’s Greenpoint rezoning. She was also a critic of walk-to-work, though not as vociferously as of gentrification and new urbanism.

    2. Each of these critics thinks that they, or the first article they read on the subject, are the first to have thought about the new urbanism and gentrification lines. As a result, they’ll never quote other critics who’ve said exactly the same thing, often better.

    Sharon Zukin herself is a Jacobs critic – the thesis of The Naked City is that the urban vitality Jacobs promotes is a consequence of working-class demographics, rather than organic urban design. But unlike Schwarz, Zukin actually knows what she’s talking about as well as what Jacobs believed, as a result of which her criticism is intelligent and gets right many things that Jacobs swept under the rug.

  12. John Morris says:

    Wouldn’t a good start to take the advice Jane gave in Reason and take away the powers that have so promoted monoculture and damaged cities?

    “Well, they have their way with the powers of eminent domain, government powers that were intended for things like schools and roads and public things, and are used instead for the benefit of private organizations and individuals.

    That’s one of the worst things about urban renewal. It introduced that idea that you could use those government powers to benefit private organizations. The courts never have given the kind of overview to this that they should. The time it went to the Supreme Court, back in the 1950s, the decision was that to make a place beautiful or more orderly or helpful, government could do what it pleased with eminent domain. That just left the door open. As one New York state official said at the time, “If Macy’s wants to condemn Gimbel’s, it can do it if Moses gives the word.”

    A huge factor here in both new development and reuse is the unlimited rights we have given to tamper with normal rules of law and property rights.

    We have a public choice problem. There’s a whole massive political and economic class of people who feed on these powers.

  13. Jon says:


    As far as I can see, nothing will stop the Big Money, ‘Big Shovel’ developers except strong-willed public regulation that puts humanistic values way ahead of the endless, unsustainable pursuit of ever more economic ‘growth’.

    I’m developing a thesis of urban spatial and economic regulation centered around core values of SCALE and PROPORTION.

    Taking precedence from any number of historic regulatory practices which considered size and scale–early American interest in preventing and breaking-up monopolies; progressive tax rates; Amsterdam’s tax based on building width-to recoup the public cost of foundation piles; London’s tax based on # of street-facing windows; laws requiring local ownership; municipal codes which severely restrict or ban chain retail establishments, etc.–we can extend and expand this mindset to particular urban districts or whole cities, offering these finer-grained environments as an positive alternative to the literally and spiritually empty spaces of big-box cartoonization.

    The above, which requires establishing some more-or-less stable values, will therefore be incompatible with the modern and post-modern view of the world, and borrow, partly, from voices as expressed in Prince Charles’s ‘Harmony’, Christopher Alexander’s ‘A Pattern Language’, and E.F. Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’, to start.

  14. Brian Kelcey says:

    I offer no comment aside from simple, unconditional applause.

  15. Chris Hawley says:

    Urbanists are not targeting the fabulously chaotic modern city, so I’m not sure where this author is coming from. Is he confusing modern urbanists with City Beautiful and New Town advocates who feared and hated the growing metropolis of the early 20th century? The entire “new” urbanist dialog is a reaction to separated use zoning, automobile dependency, and suburban sprawl, so this critique is a little weird.

    Living in a city (Buffalo) whose value and livability and vitality and (indeed) messiness was substantially destroyed by elevated highways, urban renewal projects, redevelopment schemes with horrifying new structures, and anti-urban zoning, I’m utterly confused by how neighborhoods, contextuality, and walkability could be viewed as forces working against the city. Buffalo and damn near any Great Lakes or Rust Belt city has too little of all of those qualities and at one time had them in abundance.

    Even the idea of cottages clustered around the mill is something people across our city value – particularly among the car-less and the transit-dependent. Access to employment, whether by bus or on foot, is indeed a high priority among the jobless, among people who are tired of being stuck in traffic, or folks who like walking to, say, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and then to the coffee house on the way back home to one of downtown’s new loft apartment. It’s a lifestyle preference we are trying hard to accommodate. New Urbanists established this new dialog about the value of living and working in a real city, and I can’t value them enough for their contribution.

  16. Thad says:

    I always thought that the New Urbanist take was targeted at suburban development not urban development. At least that is how I would apply it. Instead of low density sprawl, it would be better to have a collection of compact villages with smaller town centers, closer spaced houses, and much more walkable. I’ve never heard of anyone wanting to split up a city into multiple little villages especially considering many older cities have definitive neighborhoods already that act the same way like NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, even LA.

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