“The first thing to understand is that public peace – sidewalk and street peace – is not kept primarily by the police……it is kept primarily by an intricate almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves.” Thus begins Jane Jacob’s beloved masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Written in 1961 it is now in its 50th year of continuous publication and more relevant today than ever.
Death by Planning:
Ms. Jacobs applied her keen observation and analytical skills to understanding the major changes occurring to her beloved Manhattan neighborhoods. What she discovered was a set of “modern” planning theories turned policies and practices that threatened were destroying the organic and vibrant city streets and neighborhoods in New York.
One such theory-turned-policy was the institution of separating housing from commercial uses. This led to the development of segregated land use planning and the policy of “urban renewal”. Planners bought into a utopian idea of remaking city neighborhoods with large parks and open spaces between buildings as opposed to the hectic and “dirty” commercial streets. Segregating land uses is a planning regime which led to the destruction of large areas of New York City’s older mixed-use neighborhoods in favor of large monolithic use housing projects with their accompanying decrease in street level activity, less “eyes on the street” increased crime and disharmony, a pattern she observed occurring on a national scale.
Jane Jacobs both observed and declared that safe and vibrant centers of activity (her term) required that cities must have what she called “urban diversity.” She penned four conditions for urban diversity which should be committed to memory by all of us interested in urban design:
“To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts, four conditions are indispensible:
The district must serve more than one primary function, preferably more than two.
- Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent. (I add here that she advocated for 30 foot wide sidewalks in the urban core!).
- The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close grained. This works to ensure the diversity of businesses because rents are lower in older unimproved buildings. (I add here that this was her attempt to reduce economic gentrification and try to avoid the decrease in diversity that often accompanies an increase in investment in a neighborhood as certain businesses cannot afford the increase in rents that accompany increased investments)
- There must be sufficiently dense concentration of people…..including those who are there because of residence.”
Death by Automobile:
Ms. Jacobs’ masterpiece was written at a time when planning for the automobile was in a period of unstoppable momentum. The state and federally funded freeways were eviscerating historic downtown districts which were simultaneously being assaulted by programs of street widening which reduced the width of sidewalks and demolition of historic buildings to make way for the increased number and the storage of car. In addition planners were starting to require off street parking for new developments, a planning regime that is still strangling the diversity and economic vibrancy of our older historic urban centers.
Much of the highway construction, as she observed, was paid for by state and federal programs and incentivized the use of private cars and suburban flight by making transportation to and from what then was cheap suburban land, unnaturally low. All of this had the effect of diminishing the investment in, and the density of, historic central business districts in cities.
Ms. Jacobs does an amazing job of recognizing the crippling effect that these programs had on our cities then and continue to have today summing it up in this poignant statement:
“Too much dependence on private automobiles and city concentration of use are incompatible. One or the other has to give.”
The solution as she describes it is to end segregated land use policies to allow for the organic and unplanned diversity of use and the attrition of the automobile in urban centers with increased investment in all forms of public transit.
Due to the stubborn resilience of ill-conceived segregated land use planning and the continued domination of the automobile on our urban fabric, The Death And Life of Great American Cities is as relevant and important today as it was when it was written 50 years ago. It remains a reliable guide to help designers and city leaders move away from auto-centric segregated land use planning and toward policies and practices that support Ms. Jacobs’ four conditions of urban diversity as we again turn our attention to revitalizing and rebuilding our historic public-transit oriented American cities.
Photo Credit: 1961 Random House advertisement for the book by pdxcityscape, Flickr Creative Commons