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.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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