Thirty years into my passion for urbanism, I’m just finishing my first read, I’m embarrassed to admit, of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The book has strongly resonated with me as it has done legions others. I’m amazed at how relevant a book written 55 years ago is about U.S. cities today. Perhaps my lateness in reading this milestone of understanding of how cities work was a missed opportunity or resulted in a knowledge deficit for me. On the other hand, I just browsed through my old copy of William H. Whyte’s, City: Rediscovering the Center (Doubleday 1988) and was surprised to see the large amount of highlighting and margin notes I made. I read City in 1988 and I hardly remember reading it, which is not a comment on the book. Whyte’s concepts worked their way into my understanding of cities, even if I didn’t internally credit him for it. Similarly, all whom I know with a similar passion have long ago read the Jacobs book. So perhaps having only recently read Death and Life will leave me with a fresher memory (despite its age-diminished state) and a clearer understanding of her ideas.
In any case, I decided to write down some of Jacobs’s terminology and concepts to help preserve and clarify them in my mind. I ended up calling it a glossary and a quick google search found no other such glossaries. It’s not finished. I hope to keep on adding to it and refining it, at least for a time. Anyway, its been a slow news week at UrbDeZine and I thought that some readers would enjoy taking a quick look, either to refresh their memory or as an introduction to her concepts. So here it is. Please feel free to add to it or correct it in the comments section. I may use your comment to revise it in the future.
- Attrition of automobiles – the positive effect on urban vitality and economics of projects that favor pedestrians at the expense of streets, parking, and cars. An incremental approach to restoring diversity and reversing the “erosion of cities” by automobiles via parking lots, widens streets, expressways, and lost density.
- Borders – a side of a geographic area or site occupied by a single use. Long borders tend to erode diversity and can lead to “slumming.”
- Cataclysmic – neighborhood killing projects that create vacuous borders and erode diversity. E.g., expressway, poorly functioning parks, housing projects using the tower-in-a-park model with long walls or greenery street frontage, parking lots, and other large single uses. Also, “cataclysmic money,” i.e. large investments in sweeping change, e.g, redevelopment, in contrast to “gradual money,” i.e., small investments by locals in their own neighborhoods.
- Cross-use – generated by density, mixed primary and secondary uses, and short blocks. Symbiotic relationship between different businesses resulting in a robust urban economy and street vitality.
- Diversity (of uses) – mixture of land uses, which result in around-the-clock presence of people in public spaces, and which activate streets.
- Diversity (of buildings) – mixture of old buildings among new buildings are important for providing less expensive rent necessary for businesses that foster cross-use and diversity.
- “Four generators of diversity,” which “create effective economic pools of use” (from Wikipedia):
- Garden City – Sir Ebenezer Howard’s vision of cities in which industrial uses were separated and hidden from residential areas, and which emphasized natural and rural settings in contrast to the dirty industrial city environments of the era.
- Habits of thought (important for planners) – (1) “To think about processes,” e.g., “unslumming, slumming, generation of diversity, self-destruction of diversity.” (2) “To work inductively, reasoning from particulars to the general, rather than the reverse,” e.g., not to rely on generalized notions of what is a slum. (3) “To seek for ‘unaverage’ clues involving very small quantities, which reveal the way larger and more ‘average’ quantities are operating,” i.e., it is important for planners not to rely on statistical analysis, which leads to averages, or too rely too much on quantities, e.g., density. Instead, unaverage clues can tell much about a neighborhood or district, e.g., the hours kept by stores, “an unusual school or out-of-the-ordinary theater” (“cultural” clues), or “public characters” (“social” clues).
- High rises (especially public housing projects) – remove eyes from the street. People in 1 – 4 story buildings can watch the street, monitor their children at play on the sidewalk. Slum clearance projects which eliminate 1 – 4 story buildings result in vacuous areas that are unsafe for children.
- Organized complexity – vs. “problems of simplicity” (analysis of two variables) and “Disorganized complexity” (analysis of several or more independent variables – use statistical analysis). Orgainzed complexity – life sciences – variables are connected – behavior interdependent. Variables include many of the concepts above, e.g., diversity, density, etc.
- Parks – can create borders, undermine diversity of uses and density. Jane preferred activated sidewalks to parks.
- Projects (as in public housing) – counterproductive attempt to unslum via demolishing entire neighborhoods and replacing them with high rise public housing towers in park like settings. They were a primary target of Jacobs criticisms. She attributed them to “Radiant Garden City” planning ideas – high rise projects in garden/park-like settings in actuality create un-diverse, deactivated, and unsafe areas and take eyes off street. Moreover, the park or garden-like bases were often converted into parking lots. Parents could no longer watch monitor their children play on sidewalks from windows 1 – 4 stories. Such public housing projects also eliminated ground floor street frontage businesses, which acted neighborhood guardians. She recommended that these public housing projects be redesigned by adding streets, businesses, market places.
- Radiant Garden City planning – Jacobs’ mashup of Garden City and Radiant City (Le Corbusier), which to Jacobs embodied all that was wrong with urban planning and public housing projects – towers in vacuous parks.
- Robert Moses – Had great influence on the physical form of New York City in the 50’s and 60’s, particularly parks, expressways, and public housing projects. He embodied much of what Jacobs opposed. He held several high level appointed positions in New York from the 40’s through the early 60’s relating to the state’s parks and roads.
- Sentamentalizing nature – A superficial romanticized view of nature and rural living, which is closely related to suburbanization. Jacobs own description: “. . . some insipid, standardized, suburbanized shadow of nature . . . ” In Jacobs’s view, cities are part of nature, just as is wilderness, because people are natural beings and cities are their colonies. Sentimentalization of nature, according to Jacobs, actually constitutes a disrespect for and destruction of real nature through suburbanization of vast quantities of wilderness. It’s also related to the failure of people and planners to see the complex nature of cities (see “organized complexity” above). Jacobs discusses the desirability and tendency of dense cities to have preserved wilderness in close and accessible distances.
- Short blocks – Jacobs felt that the length of blocks was a very important factor creating diversity and vitality. So much so, that it is one of four generators of diversity. Long blocks eroded diversity and short blocks helped.
- Street Grid – Pattern of blocks and streets in cities, emphasizing practical rectangular blocks in U.S. cities. Jacobs emphasized the importance and benefits of short blocks to allow more movement between streets, thus enhancing diversity and cross-use.
- Unaverage – unique uses or elements in neighborhoods or districts.
- Unslumming and slumming – the processes by which neighborhoods gain or lose vitality and safety, usually when residents either decide to stay or leave when they are able to do leave. Results from various factors and their interrelationship embodied in the four generators of diversity.
- Urban renewal – the slum clearing projects initiated by the city intended to revitalize neighborhoods and provide better housing but which actually destroy diversity, halt natural unslumming processes, and create even worse slums.
- Vacuous – long borders, single uses, lack of diversity and vitality.
Photo credit – by author