The Right to Have Plans of Any Significance


I just finished a book that I never would have read--or perhaps even come across--had not a friend given it to me for my birthday: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. It's long and dense, all about a topic I have never before thought much about: what makes for a vibrant, safe, interesting, pleasant city?

The short answer is that great cities are diverse, and diversity is created, Jacobs maintains, through four primary conditions:

1. The district, and indeed as many of its parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.

2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

3. 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.

4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence. (196-197)

(The book is almost 600 pages long. Jacobs is very anxious to establish and support her argument and analysis, and devotes very thorough chapters to each of those points. I'm not even going to try to paraphrase the supporting material here; if you want to understand it, you'll have to read the book yourself.)

Along the way, Jacobs stresses the needs of children, advocating for instance, sidewalks 35 feet wide, because that provides enough room for them to play safely while still in view of adults who live on the street and know them and can take responsibility for them. She offers cogent, interesting analysis of why neglected parks fail to attract users, including the fact that they don't allow for spontaneity and that most people would rather hang out where they can run into other people--they'll choose to walk up and down a crowded downtown sidewalk, for instance, over sitting on a bench in a deserted park. She also says witty, funny things like "A city of almost eight million can support two aquariums and can afford to show off its fish free" (208).

Jacobs hates sprawl, and points out that Americans romanticize nature in ways few other cultures do, at the same time that we are "probably the world's most voracious and disrespectful destroyers of wild and rural countryside" (580), covering some of the finest farmland on the planet with asphalt and covering some of the most stunning vistas in the world with nasty tract homes.

The book got me thinking about cities I have lived in and enjoyed, and what has made them work. Jacobs stresses that great cities, very large cities, are different organisms than small towns and medium-sized cities. And yet I must admit that many of the things I liked best about Iowa City, for instance, were the ways in which IC met the criteria Jacobs established for what a city should strive for.

For all that, part of what intrigued me most about the book was the larger critique of the human psyche and how we interact with each other and our environment. For instance, discussing Ebenezer Howard, a19th-century idealist, Jacobs writes

His aim was the creation of self-sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged to the planners in charge. (24)

It's a pretty apt statement. I doubt I am the only person to apply that statement to religion: Mormonism, for instance, is a pretty nice religion if you are docile and have no plans or thoughts of your own and don't mind spending your life among others with no plans or thoughts of their own.

Then there was Jacobs' discussion of whether diversity or homogeneity is uglier. Acknowledging that some people dislike diversity because it can appear "messy," she argues that "homogeneity or close similarity among uses, in real life, poses very puzzling esthetic problems":

If the sameness of use is shown candidly for what it is--sameness--it looks monotonous. Superficially, this monotony might be thought of as a sort of order, however dull. But esthetically, it unfortunately also carries with it a deep disorder: the disorder of conveying no direction. in places stamped with the monotony and repetition of sameness you move, but in moving you seem to have gotten nowhere. North is the same as south, or east as west. (291-292)

Jacobs loves diversity, and recommends that cities cultivate it whenever possible. On the issue of esthetic harmony, she notes that

In seeing visual order, cities are able to choose among three broad alternatives, two of which are hopeless and one of which is hopeful. They can aim for areas of homogeneity which look homogeneous, and get results depressing and disorienting. They can aim for areas of homogeneity which try not to look homogeneous, and get results of vulgarity and dishonesty. Or they can aim for areas of great diversity and, because real differences are thereby expressed, can get results which, at worst, are merely interesting, and at best can be delightful. (299)

Which struck me as a fairly apt criticism of the Mormon church, which ALWAYS goes homogeneity, which it only occasionally tries to disguise--and not just in its buildings, for which it devises fairly unremarkable templates, but in its visual art, its music, its discourse--even the intonations and speaking voices of its leaders, who all seem to go to the same vocal coach. Because it eschews diversity and is so anxious to achieve homogeneity, the few areas where it doesn't--its scripture, for instance, which includes tales of death by gang rape (Judges 19) and divine genocide (Noah etc) along with nonsensical professions that "god is love"--become not sites of complexity and diversity, but just chaos and entropy, or the meaningless intermingling of unrecognizable, and therefore worthless, elements.

And that's my assessment for the day: Mormon aesthetics are homogeneous and boring, and Mormon theology is not merely cruel and contradictory; it's chaotic, entropic and worthless. No wonder I chose to give it all up.


That sounds like a fascinating book! I love contemplating what makes cities work, and it sounds like she has some interesting ideas.

I'm a little confused by the suggestion of "sidewalks 35 feet wide" though. Is that a typo? That's as wide as a whole street. Personally, I'm a pretty strong advocate of urban life as a good environment for kids (as you've seen on my blog), but I would never let my kids play on the sidewalk. That's one of the only strict rules in our household -- we don't run and play alongside a road and we especially never play on a train or tramway platform. It's safety first while en route, and then play after we get to where we're going.

Nope, "sidewalks 35 feet wide" is no typo:

"Sidewalks thirty or thirty-five feet wide can accommodate virtually any demand of incidental play put upon them--along with trees to shade the activities, and sufficient space for pedestrian circulation and adult public sidewalk life and loitering. Few sidewalks of this luxurious width can be found. Sidewalk width is invariably sacrificed for vehicular width, partly because city sidewalks are conventionally considered to be purely space for pedestrian travel and access to buildings, and go unrecognized and unrespected as the uniquely vital and irreplaceable organs of city safety, public life and child rearing that they are" (114).

That paragraph occurs at the end of three chapters, comprising 78 pages, detailing "the uses of sidewalks." I'm not up to the task of paraphrasing all her arguments, but I will say that I found them pretty darn interesting and compelling. And I will also say that I really resent sidewalks so skimpy that two people cannot walk comfortably side-by-side on them. Just makes me crazy.

I will also say that I doubt that Jacobs, who raised her family in Greenwich Village, advocated letting children play on train platforms. She wanted children to have access to space for play, and adults to have access to space for socializing, right on their own doorsteps. She thought that relegating public space to parks that had to be traveled to, instead of being arrived at the second one walked out one's door or looked out one's window, was not conducive to healthy city life, or an economical use of space of funds.

And there, I've just gone and paraphrased her, even though I said I wouldn't.

And there, I've just gone and paraphrased her, even though I said I wouldn't.

lol, I should probably just go and read the book directly.

The thing is that -- while I'm in agreement about the importance of sidewalks w.r.t. car space -- I feel like making the streets too wide interferes with keeping the area walkable. Keeping the destinations close together -- and the shade provided by the buildings -- seem like trivialities, but in practice, they're not.

It reminds me of when I was wandering around downtown SLC this past summer. I was having a great time, but there was one point where I so was tired and sun-beaten enough that I couldn't bring myself to cross the (eight-lane) street even to take an amusing picture for my blog. (Not to sound like the brainwashed convert or anything, but) that would never have happened in one of the compact urban centers of Europe.

I feel like making the streets too wide interferes with keeping the area walkable.

She would totally agree with you on this. Except for major arteries, she argues, streets should be narrow, sidewalks wide.

Thanks for the excellent post on Jane Jacobs and her ideas about the city. I recently saw an exhibit (at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art) that brought together Think Tanks and design companies; one of the pairings featured arguments from The Fabian Society about the housing market and urban planning: not enough affordable housing, social housing segregated away, and how these increase inequality. I checked a bit on the Fabian Society's website but I couldn't find more information about this, though they do have some articles on housing inequality. What was striking about their project in this context was how much it seemed to recall Jacobs' arguments about urban design: good urban design is not just a matter of making cities that work and are liveable, it also promotes interaction amongst diverse constituencies. And diversity displaces inequality. But I do wonder what she would have made of places like the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, which actually puts in practice (at the scale of a big building) some of the principles Jacobs advocated. Just a passing thought.

Hi Spike--thanks for the comment. I suspected when I read Jacobs that you would like her work; I'm glad I was right and that you already know it. I'm also glad to know the ideas Jacobs advocates are also advocated by others--though I don't suppose the Fabian Society is really a huge force in British politics these days. But there's always room for hope, until the day failure is total.

I love the idea of “eyes on the street” which provides the neighborhood a free safety and policing function; everyone watching out for everyone else. This helps connect the community together in many ways. Salt Lake could decrease their wide city streets and increase the sidewalks to allow for this. But the main problem is the zoning laws in most cities, where residential is required to be separate from retail, etc. The nice thing about mixed-use neighborhoods is you get all the multi-functional blocks that she talks about, which makes it a more inviting place to live.

I love the scale and feel of Portland. The city blocks are small and walkable. But their sidewalks are not wide enough. The other thing I like in Portland is what is called the urban growth boundary. So while they still have suburbs, at least they make a hard line in the sand beyond which no development can occur. And that helps to maintain the countryside and farmland, while slowly increasing the density of the existing city. Increased density usually means mixed-use and more walkable neighborhoods. It also means more eyes on the street which increase the human-ness and the safety of the city.

If Salt Lake widened their sidewalks and decreased their street widths, you could have lots of trees and artwork and vegetation and park/play space for kids. So it would FEEL more walkable and inviting. Now it just feels like crossing a wasteland, especially with so much surface parking everywhere, so no one wants to do it. This should especially be done on those streets that have multi-story housing along them.

Homogeneity has no soul. The suburbs, as homogeneous entities are not sustainable and represent a people that have very little regard for living with others in a community. Life is diverse and our cities must be modeled after this or we will lose our souls.

Hi GMA--

But the main problem is the zoning laws in most cities, where residential is required to be separate from retail, etc. The nice thing about mixed-use neighborhoods is you get all the multi-functional blocks that she talks about, which makes it a more inviting place to live.

Yes, I always considered zoning laws a good thing until I read Jacobs' book. And yet I love the fact that I have a grocery store in easy walking distance from my apartment, and a couple of coffee shops, and a liquor store, and wish there were actually more small businesses embedded in my neighborhood.

I have never before heard of an "urban growth boundary," but I truly wish Tucson had one of those. It can just go on expanding into the desert indefinitely, except for the fact that there is a national park on either side, and an Indian reservation to the south, and mountains to the north.... but it would be a much nicer city if it were denser, and if the land around it remained wilderness, and uninhabited. It always grieves and hurts me to see how much of the desert has disappeared each time I go home.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 5, 2010 4:41 PM.

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