Jane Jacobs Revisited

On finally reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities

I have a confession. Despite the fact that I consider myself a hard-core urbanist steeped in the gospel of Jane Jacobs, until recently I had never actually read her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Sure, I owned a copy for decades (and dutifully replaced it every time it was permanently borrowed). I’d referenced it on occasion, reading passages that seemed relevant to whatever I was working on at the time, but never sat down and read it cover to cover.

I decided to read it—really read it—about a year ago, after New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff pinned opposition to developer Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards megaproject in Brooklyn on “acolytes of urbanist Jane Jacobs.” Something about that turn of phrase seemed wrongheaded, as if Jacobs devotees (she and I are not related) were too quaint and insular to appreciate the grand gift that Ratner and his chosen architect, Frank Gehry, wanted to bestow on them. Predictably I didn’t sit down with the book until after Jacobs died in April.

Like many people, I’d made plenty of assumptions based on second- or thirdhand readings. For instance, because Jacobs is repeatedly cited in Suburban Nation, the New Urbanist tract by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, I assumed that she would have been a willing accomplice to that movement. It seems logical that Jacobs—with her reputation for advocating “close-grained” detail and mixed use—would support the calibrated street life meted out by Duany and his ilk. But as I read Jacobs it became clear that she never intended her ideas to be applied to smaller suburban settlements. She was writing only about big cities, with all their native grit and mess. Moreover, she consistently ridiculed the Garden City movement of the nineteenth century, the clearest precursor to New Urbanism, attributing to it the notion of “harmony and order imposed and frozen by authoritarian planning.”

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The Jacobs I thought I knew—an advocate for small-scale thinking and an opponent of large-scale projects—is not the one I discovered when I actually began to read her text. Her main argument was quite different: she used the example of her own Greenwich Village neighborhood to make the case that all planning and development should “generate city diversity”; but she did so to contrast the rich detail of urban life with the bold strokes then typical of planners. “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 this great range of unofficial plans, ideas, and opportunities to flourish, along with the flourishing of the public enterprises,” Jacobs wrote.

Like many absorbers (as opposed to readers) of Jacobs, I had long thought that she wanted cities to look and behave like her beloved little block on Hudson Street. And I’d always assumed the knee-jerk opposition to anything new that inevitably surfaces at community board meetings—along with the plague of “contextual” faux historical architecture—could somehow be traced to her town-house door. Now I don’t think so.

Yes, Jacobs was articulate about her contempt for Le Corbusier and his vision of the Radiant City, which, she wrote, “had a dazzling clarity, simplicity, and harmony. It was so orderly, so visible, so easy to understand. It said everything in a flash, like a good advertisement.” Her target, however, was not his architectural style per se but rather the idea that vast stretches of green space were automatically beneficial to urban life, that Corbu’s brand of reductive thinking could produce a genuinely urbane place. I was delighted to find that Jacobs didn’t have a problem with new construction or contemporary architecture as long as it was well integrated into the urban fabric. She praised the new office towers of Park Avenue, such as Lever House and the Seagram Building, calling them “masterpieces of modern design.”

Ouroussoff’s dismissal of the critics of Atlantic Yards is a misreading. I don’t know whether Jacobs, circa 1959, would approve or disapprove of Ratner, circa 2006, but her take on the project would likely be a bit more nuanced than the simple declaration “too big.” In certain ways the Ratner plan, with its arena, density, and mixture of residential and office uses is influenced—albeit indirectly—by her thinking. The project’s substantial number of “affordable” housing units adds to its overall heterogeneity. On the other hand, a huge project by one developer and one architect cannot be diverse, and it’s possible that Jacobs would have reacted to Gehry’s irregular forms much as she reacted to Googie-style coffee shops: “virtual sameness trying, by dint of exhibitionism, to appear unique and different.”

The biggest drawback to Atlantic Yards, according to my reading of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is that it will be constructed atop a rail yard that currently separates the neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. The new development is unlikely to knit together those two neighborhoods; instead, lacking the cross-streets that Jacobs thought were key to urban vitality, it will exacerbate the division, generating more of what she termed “border vacuums.”

In a more recent bad-boy postmortem headlined “Outgrowing Jane Jacobs,“ Ouroussoff continued to lump her in with the progenitors of faux historicism, classifying her as an advocate of the twee and charming instead of what she actually was, a champion of big cities and the opportunities they represent. Her ideas may be nearly 50 years old, penned as American cities began a long decline, but they didn’t come into vogue among planners, architects, and developers until nearly 30 years after the book was published. The urban renaissance we’re currently experiencing is young—10 years, maybe 20, in the making—and was built on groundwork laid by Jacobs. (Although she wrote with great prescience about the tendency of the most vibrant neighborhoods to be undermined by their own success, I don’t think she could have anticipated how a process she characterized as “unslumming” would eventually play out as a raging real estate boom.)

Admittedly I could be the one misreading Jacobs—cherry-picking her book for the ideas that support my own penchant for density, diversity, and complexity—but it’s clear from the book’s final chapter, “The Kind of Problem a City Is,” that she was arguing above all against reductive thinking. Jacobs concludes by declaring that scientific methodology was finally sophisticated enough to take on the city, that we’ve at long last achieved “the ability to deal with problems of organized complexity.” She explains that the city-planning strategies she opposed—the urban-renewal projects of the postwar years and onward—were based on the notion that cities and their residents represented “disorganized complexity,” and that their movements and actions could be plotted statistically, as if they were electrons or billiard balls. She predicted that new ways of thinking and seeing would allow future planners to better analyze the complex web of interactions that cause urban neighborhoods to succeed or fail. She was writing in 1959 and 1960 as if she’d seen a preview of today’s computer-modeling capabilities.

The mistake made by Jacobs’s detractors and acolytes alike is to regard her as a champion of stasis—to believe she was advocating the world’s cities be built as simulacra of the West Village circa 1960. Admirers and opponents have routinely taken her arguments for complexity and turned them into formulas. But the book I just read was an inspiration to move forward without losing sight that cities are powerful, dynamic, ever-changing entities made up of myriad gestures big and small. The real notion is to build in a way that honors and nurtures complexity. And that’s an idea impossible to outgrow. °

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