by Gary Esolen –

In 2009 Planetizen (a website focused on urbanism the name of which suggests being a citizen of the planet) asked its users to identify the urban thinkers who had influenced them most. The overwhelming top choice was Jane Jacobs. (Second choice was Andres Duany, and the somewhat surprising third choice was Christopher Alexander.)

Jane Jacobs as chairperson of a Greenwich Village civic group at a 1961 press conference.
Jane Jacobs as chairperson of a Greenwich Village civic group at a 1961 press conference.

Jacobs was the urbanist who divided the world into two camps: the drivers and the walkers. She articulated the contemporary urban ideal of the pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, amenity-rich, dense, lively neighborhood. Her name is being spoken a lot right now, because we recently marked the 100th anniversary of her birth in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

A lot of tributes to Jane Jacobs have been published for the occasion, but the memorial essay I’m interested in today is hardly one of them. Written by Peter Moskowitz for Metropolis Magazine, it says it’s time to stop glorifying Jacobs’ theories. The essence of his critique is that her formula for urban success has produced gentrified, upper middle-class, white neighborhoods rather than duplicating the diversity of her original model, old Greenwich Village. He blames urban planners dazzled by Jacobs’ analysis and blind to the problems of homogenization and inequality.

But it is much more reasonable to blame planners for the horrors of the era of urban renewal, interstate highways through neighborhoods and along waterfronts, and superblocks that destroyed the street grid. Policy-makers of the same era can take the credit for subsidizing suburban sprawl and making it difficult to produce a healthy urban infrastructure.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Jane Jacobs author of the seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The culprit in modern urban development is less urban planning than economic forces: finance capitalism, with fewer and fewer constraints, is producing a dramatically divided culture, along the lines of income. One result is that highly attractive places become real-estate hyper-markets, pockets of escalating prices that are economic islands. Manhattan and San Francisco are hypermarkets. Seattle is almost there. Brooklyn even more so. And New Orleans is under extreme pressure. At the edges where hyper-markets interface with ordinary markets, the pains of inequality are especially severe. That’s what is happening in New Orleans right now.

By the way, the New Orleans neighborhood where gentrification is running wild, the Bywater, was not created by urban planning. Its distinctive spirit evolved fairly naturally in the city of celebration and excess, and its high crime rate is one effect of gentrification (of an already middle-class and mostly white neighborhood) juxtaposed with extreme poverty a block or two away. Bicycles, coffee shops, and innovative restaurants cannot fix those ills.

Which is to say that the principles of urban design Jacobs favored, which evolved into the New Urbanist movement led by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and others, are not by themselves sufficient to produce healthy urbanity. Even if there were less income inequality, it is still probable that those principles would fail to reproduce the Greenwich Village of small, locally-owned shops and restaurants.

A Book for Everyone's must read and library.

In fact, urbanist principles have been to some extent followed in creating lifestyle-centers, which are the most successful evolution of shopping centers. The problem is that the economic power of corporate culture, fortified by the homogenizing demands of finance capitalism, dictates what will be built where.
Quite a few people have responded to the Moskowitz article, and most of them defend Jacobs as having herself been very concerned about rising inequality, and having warned of the unhealthy changes that were happening in cities. And that is fair.

But more important is that the struggle for diversity and equality or at least increased fairness is different from (though intertwined with) the struggle against dehumanizing design. They meet because our financial masters do not care much about humanity or nature: they will put the planet at risk or channel a river into a concrete sluiceway or build townhouses that will not last as long as their first mortgages. And yes, they get away with it by influencing public policy, and they hide behind planning principles if they can. But righting those wrongs cannot happen by just attending to questions of urban design. This is a political and an economic battle of a kind Jane Jacobs was not afraid to fight.

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Urban Design Alone is not Enough

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