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Jacobs crackers

Jane Jacobs is coming under a new form of attack – from those who claim her philosophy is so all-powerful that it needs to be challenged.

The reality is quite different. The principles she espoused are more important than ever, and arguably at greatest risk.

Many of you will be familiar with Jane Jacobs’ ideas. Her most celebrated work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was an explicit attack on the mid-twentieth century planning orthodoxy which allowed urban communities to be swept aside and replaced with tightly-zoned and overly-engineered ‘neighbourhoods’.

She proposed an alternative approach, one that promoted human interaction and bustle above all else. Nurturing communities, local businesses, and networks of neighbourliness in the nooks and crannies of the city was crucial. The four steps that created this ‘ballet of the sidewalk’ were: mixed uses; short blocks; a mixture of old and new buildings; and density.

Jacobs’ thinking has been influential over the fifty years since Death and Life was first published in 1961. In more recent decades, the rise of the ‘sustainable development’ agenda both drew on Jacobs’ work and gave it a new form of expression. Her commitment to nurturing and re-using existing assets fitted neatly with the notion that we should meet current needs without compromising the life quality and survival chances of future generations.

Take a closer look at the real world, however, and it’s clear that her fundamental message was often ignored by planners and policy-makers who set the overall planning framework.

Over the past fifty years, population and density levels in many cities across the US, UK and the rest of the developing world have fallen. Many places have been zoned into narrow and specific uses, with out-of-town malls and supermarkets leeching the vibrancy out of town and city centres. Levels of car use have generally increased, although there are signs that some cities are getting serious and radical about sustainable transport.

There have been examples of small-scale urban renewal of the kind promoted by Jacobs. But they’ve often been dwarfed in every sense by monstrosities like the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder programme; the kind of interventions her opponent Robert Moses would have recognised.

Yes, Jacobs has been influential, but her views are not universally accepted and very far from being implemented in most cities.

You wouldn’t get this impression from articles like this one for Governing magazine, with the ominous title ‘Is It Time to Retire Jane Jacobs’ Vision of the City? The ‘gospel’ of Jane Jacobs, we’re assured:

‘has become so ingrained in modern planning that it is essentially synonymous with what most people think of as a ‘good’ city. Since the publication of The Death and Life of Great   American Cities in 1961, politicians, urban planners and academics — virtually everyone who cares about cities, really — have seen cities through Jacobs’ eyes.’

The article goes on to be fairly balanced, but the starting point is quite wrong. The manifesto set out in Death and Life is far from being an orthodoxy in need of retirement or even reform: it’s still an insurgency, fighting to be realised in cities across the world. Jane Jacobs is still the agitator in the square.

In another recent piece, Sir Peter Hall recognised Jacobs’ importance as a campaigner and provocateur, but casts doubt on her legacy and even her ultimate intentions:

‘She single-handedly triumphed, stopping the urban bulldozers not only in her own city and country but across the world…the irony in such cities was that the newly-preserved neighbourhoods such as Islington and Lambeth became prime targets for gentrification and yuppification. The very qualities of social mixture, which Jacobs celebrated, were lost. Perhaps, though, that was the point: she was herself a middle-class housewife who found her voice.’

The last line seems to imply that Jacobs was a closet proponent of gentrification all along.

The common flaw in both articles is the assumption that modern cities are run on the principles laid out by Jacobs. So the urban problems of today can be traced back to the original sins of the ‘middle class housewife’. And a case can therefore be made to reform or ‘retire’ what she stood for.

This is to confuse rhetoric with reality. Everyone pays lip service to her ideas, but the decision makers in city after city still modify, or massage, or simply ignore their practical implications.

The question isn’t how to reform Jane Jacobs’ principles: it’s how to realise them.

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Steven Boxall
Steven Boxall
12 years ago

John,

I agree with you. Jacobs’s ideas and thoughts have not been implemented on the whole so how can they have ‘failed’.

I am not convinced that many planners have read her book – but they ought to do so..

Rupert Greenhalgh
Rupert Greenhalgh
12 years ago

An excellent summary John. I could not agree with you more, especially the view that the manifesto set out in Death and Life is far from being an orthodoxy. Wander around any town (and some cities) after 17:30hrs and it is clear that we are nowhere near her ideas for: ‘eyes on the street.’ Perhaps this might be something to do with the pervasive ‘mono-culture’ of cheap urban flats, and large grey retail sheds that have ‘cut-up’ the core – and periphery – of many UK centres?
So what next for the economics resilience of our Town Centres?

Steven Boxall
Steven Boxall
12 years ago

And talking of economies, how many have read her ‘The Economy of Cities’?

John P Houghton
John P Houghton
12 years ago

I have read ‘Economy of Cities’. Very different from Death and Life.

You might want to take a look at this article ‘What Jacobs can teach us about the economy’:

http://www.miller-mccune.com/business-economics/what-jane-jacobs-can-teach-us-about-the-economy-3383/

Jessica Hayes
Jessica Hayes
12 years ago

All anyone has to do is go spend a few hours actually observing how our cities do and do not function and they’d know that not only has Jacobs’ vision not been realized on any sort of statistically significant scale, but that while a lot of cities pay lip service to her theories, their actions run directly opposite. Jacobs did what every city planner and city official should do – she directly observed her city, participated it its neighborhoods, and made the effort to actually develop an understanding of the ways different people used the urban landscape. You can’t do that if you pull all of your data from the Census or the Gallup Polls or what-have-you. And you certainly can’t do that if you approach the issue with all sorts of fixed preconceptions of how cities are supposed to be. No theory is above criticism – nor should it be. But any valuable criticism will be borne of the same kind of commitment to protect and improve our best urban places that Jacobs had – and you can’t have that kind of commitment until you’ve taken the time to actually get to know those places. Thanks for this excellent rebuttal.

Steven Boxall
Steven Boxall
12 years ago

I agree with Jessica’s comments. It does shock me how many planners seem to see their work as a paper based process and don’t get out and about, It also seems that many professionals involved with changing our towns and cities are forgetting about the people – in fact it sometimes seem that many don’t like people.

John P Houghton
John P Houghton
12 years ago

Thanks again for all the comments.

This blog was mentioned on Guardian Society online today:

http://m.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/jul/13/society-daily-email1?cat=society&type=article

Mark
Mark
12 years ago

Disappointing to read yet another glib and ill informed hatchet job on the HMRI programme.

Housing Market Renewal was actually designed to support inner city housing growth and regeneration through increasing the quality and choice of housing in inner city communities ravaged by the processes of de-industrialisation and ill conceived post war rehousing schemes. Many more houses have been refurbished than have been demolished through HMRI and where clearance programmes have been progressed, they were limited and selective, with the objective of land assembly for new, dense, mixed income, mixed tenure communities. Supplemented by funding from other sources to support community development, alleygating, streetscape works and neighbourhood management, HMR was even reasonably holistic; even more so where it was run alongside other more people-focussed programmes.

That the coalition government saw fit to abruptly slam the on brakes and cut all funding barely half way through the programme is nothing short of a scandal and makes the delivery of these well founded aims that much more difficult and drawn out in current market conditions.

While you can question the approach pathfinders have taken in individual cases and individual neighbourhoods, I think the principles of the programme are sound; and as the Audit Commission found, were delivering results. Far from rowing against ‘Jacobism’, Housing Market Renewal in fact had much in common with the ideas and approach espoused by the great urbanist and indeed were she still around I am sure she would have found much to applaud.

Kevin Lloyd
Kevin Lloyd
12 years ago

John – don’t worry I’m not going to comment on every post, its just that they tend to be interesting issues! You’re probably aware that the first major event organised by the new Centre for London was on the ongong relevance of Jane Jacob’s ideas for the future development of this city. Your article looks a very fair assessment to me and in fact it set me off wondering about attitudes to gentrification and its implications. What we are now seeing in some areas has been called ‘super-gentrification’ in which wealthy incomers remain absolutely apart from the rest of the population with considerable implications for the kind of communities that Jane Jacobs might have wished to see

Rupert Greenhalgh
Rupert Greenhalgh
12 years ago

“What we are now seeing in some areas has been called ‘super-gentrification’ in which wealthy incomers remain absolutely apart from the rest of the population with considerable implications for the kind of communities that Jane Jacobs might have wished to see.”

The next thing you know they will be building gates at the end of some streets to keep people out?

RecalI an interesting study on the population turnover, gentrification and change within deprived locations.

Link:
http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/communities/pdf/1152966.pdf

and the Manchester version:
http://www.manchester-review.org.uk/download/?id=602

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