Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (among other good books) and the subject of several posts here at KP, passed away last week at age 89. Online tributes include Pete Boettke at Austrian Economists and Russ Roberts at Café Hayek (note also that Russ categorized his post under “Complexity and Emergence”, which says something about Jacobs’ view of cities).
A different appraisal of Jane Jacobs came from Nicolai Ouroussof in the New York Times on Sunday. The title, “Outgrowing Jane Jacobs”, foretells the direction Ouroussof will take. From the first paragraph:
But her death may also give us permission to move on, to let go of the obsessive belief that Ms. Jacobs held the answer to every evil that faces the contemporary city.
Huh? This is so obviously a snide little trope that it cheapens his argument right from the outset. He signals here that he will not engage the substance of her ideas, but will instead belittle them. Let’s see if that elitist, condescending attitude continues throughout the piece … after he summarizes the Jacobs/Moses face-off over Greenwich Village in the 1960s:
An urban flâneur of the first order, she reminded us that cities could only be fully understood with our eyes, feet and ears — not from the distant abstraction of architectural drawings.
But the problems of the 20th-century city were vast and complicated. Ms. Jacobs had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation’s dependence on cars, which remains critical to the development of American cities. She could not see that the same freeway that isolated her beloved, working-class North End from downtown Boston also protected it from gentrification. And she never understood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its freeways and its strange interweaving of man-made and natural environments.
Again I say, huh? Ouroussof fundamentally (and perhaps deliberately) misunderstands the key insight that Jacobs brought to urban planning: dynamic, thriving cities rely on economic interaction, experimentation and trial-and-error, and openness to (not mandatory) diversity. Dynamic urban areas are organic, and the interaction of diverse agents following their private plans produces emergent order. This emergent order is going to be more robust and resilient than top-down imposed order via urban planning.
He goes on to argue that Jacobs’ urban vision is obsolete, that neighborhoods like Soho are now devoid of soul because they are full of “lemming-like” shoppers instead of manufacturing and galleries; indeed, he says that in Soho, “Nothing is produced there any more. It is a corner of the city that is nearly as soulless, in its way, as the superblocks that Ms. Jacobs so reviled.” Having recently spent an entire, delicious day wandering around Soho and the Meatpacking District, I disagree; with this claim Ouroussof reveals more about his elitist condescension than he does about any insights about how the economics and architecture of dynamic neighborhoods interact over time. One reason Soho continues to thrive is its architecture. The nature of the economic activity has changed, so that what is produced there is experience, not manufactured goods. Ourossof needs to open his mind to the concept that experiencing the neighborhood is productive.
He ends his article better than he begins it, with an accurate characterization of “New Urbanism”:
Perhaps her legacy has been most damaged by those who continue to treat “Death and Life” as sacred text rather than as what it was: a heroic cri de coeur. Of those, the New Urbanists are the most guilty; in many cases, they reduced her vision of corner shops and busy streets to a superficial town formula that creates the illusion of urban diversity, but masks a stifling uniformity at its core.
This is true in large-scale projects as diverse as Battery Park City or Celebration, Fla., where narrow streets and parks were supposed to create an immediate sense of community. As it turns out, what the New Urbanists could not reproduce was the most critical aspect of Ms. Jacobs’s vision, the intimate neighborhood that is built — brick by brick, family by family — over a century.
This is the closest he comes to grasping the distributed, emergent order concept underlying “Death and Life …”, although he (and New Urbanists) are too backward-looking in pigeon-holing Jacobs’ ideas with too slavish and literal an attachment to historical urban areas.
As an antidote to Ouroussof’s narrow understanding of Jacobs’ work and his call to engage in more top-down ordered planning, I encourage you to read Reason’s Leonard Gilroy in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription usually required, but they’re having an open house this week, so try it out!). Len focuses precisely on the fundamental concepts that Ouroussof misses; when writing about New Urbanist efforts such as in Portland, Oregon:
…[T]hese planning trends run completely counter to Jacobs’s vision of cities as dynamic economic engines that thrive on private initiative, trial-and-error, incremental change, and human and economic diversity. Jacobs believed the most organic and healthy communities are diverse, messy and arise out of spontaneous order, not from a scheme that tries to dictate how people should live and how neighborhoods should look.
She felt it was foolish to focus on how cities look rather than how they function as economic laboratories. “The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop — insofar as public policy and action can do so — cities that are congenial places for [a] great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish,” Jacobs wrote.
Sadly, many in the Smart Growth and New Urbanism movements cite Jacobs as the inspiration for their efforts to combat so-called “urban sprawl” and make over suburbia with dense, walkable downtowns, mixed-use development, and varied building styles. While Jacobs identified these as organic elements of successful cities, planners have eagerly tried to impose them on cities in formulaic fashion, regardless of their contextual appropriateness and compatibility with the underlying economic order. In short, they’ve taken Jacobs’s observations of what makes cities work and tried to formalize them into an authoritarian recipe for policy intervention.
That’s the interesting irony; New Urbanist applications of Jacobs’ ideas use precisely the types of authoritarian, top-down planning models that Ouroussof wants more of, yet he criticizes them.
Len closes by drawing this lesson from Jacobs:
Politicians and planners would do well to commemorate Jacobs by revisiting her work. Despite the best efforts of well-intentioned planners, you can’t “create” a vibrant city or neighborhood. The best cities and neighborhoods just happen, and the best thing we can do is to step out of the way of innovators and entrepreneurs.