The weekend street market in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires draws residents from all over the city.
There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”
— Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Jane Jacobs began her first and most influential book with these words: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) was indeed a frontal assault on then-current urban orthodoxy, and by all accounts an effective one. But the book was also a passionate defense, of human life and of the human processes that were going on in the urban places she observed. Many of these places were under grave threat in the era of “urban renewal,” when the older, messier parts of cities were supposed to be replaced with fresh new “modern” environments. That benign-sounding name, “urban renewal,” obscured the fact that there was very little renewal, and much more wholesale destruction of the life of large parts of cities, to be replaced by something else: an abstract idea about life, perhaps.
For that reason, it mattered a great deal whether the agents of urban renewal had sensible ideas about these parts of cities: how well they understood what was good about these neighborhoods, and how well, under their stewardship, the new projects were able to regenerate those qualities. On the evidence, it seemed that they understood these qualities very poorly indeed. As a consequence, the new projects were, in many ways, dismal failures (as extensive research literature demonstrates).
In a deeper sense, the book was an incisive critique of that era’s (and perhaps still this era’s too) dominant way of thinking about cities. “Functional segregation” was supposed to be the way to cure the ills of cities: sort out the tangle of problems by segregating potential conflicts from one another, with housing in one place, workplaces in another, and civic uses in still another. Create a “rationally ordered” structure, not unlike an early industrial machine. The fuel goes in here, the ignition happens there, the motion happens over there, and so on. The result is smooth, orderly, predictable.
It was not a coincidence that the personal automobile, the apotheosis of the 20th Century machine age, came to dominance in this same period — or that the sleek futuristic architecture that everyone so admired in the most popular exhibit in the 1939 World’s Fair was built by General Motors, the world’s largest car company. Futurama held out a utopian vision of a highly ordered and powerful civilization, a kind of gigantic machine packaged in sleek minimalist design. Everyone would be whisked almost effortlessly to whatever destination they chose in their own personal car. The city itself would become a kind of machine for serving up whatever we needed or wanted. This was the well-ordered consumer paradise that awaited, like a promise, beyond the suffering and the irrational chaos of the war years.
By the mid-1950s, General Motors and other US companies were working with the government to deliver on the promise. In 1956, the year that the Federal-Aid Highway Act was passed creating the US Interstate Highway System, General Motors also ran a revealing featurette on American television called Design for Dreaming. It showed a couple flying along on an uncrowded freeway, over a silent nighttime city, full of fantastic lights and forms, like children’s toys:
Tomorrow, tomorrow, our dreams will come true!
Together, together, we’ll make the world new!
Strange shapes will rise out of the night,
but our love will not change, dear —
It will be like a star burning bright,
lighting our way, when tomorrow meets today!
By today’s standards, that earnest featurette is laughably absurd: the jet-like tail fins on the cars, the empty freeways, the sheer naïveté of starry-eyed utopianism. A mere decade later, the real nature of the modern post-war city had begun to reveal itself: ugly monotonous development, chaotic traffic jams, relentless suburban sprawl, and the accelerated decline of once-vibrant urban cores, into cities of poverty, unrest and protest.
This was where urban renewal was supposed to do some good. Visionaries like Robert Moses, New York’s powerful Parks Commissioner — later notorious for his freeway-building proposals through Greenwich Village, New Orleans’ French Quarter and other treasured neighborhoods — saw the cores of cities as “slums” to be cleared and replaced with the beneficially “strange shapes” of the architects, making the world new. Everyone would have a clean and sanitary dwelling, with light and air and all the other benefits of modernity.
It didn’t work, of course, and in just a few decades, once-utopian projects like Pruitt Igoe and Cabrini Green had fallen into dystopian ruin, plagued by vandalism, crime and despair. Worse, the urban fabric that had once existed, and provided an under-appreciated network of social connections, was now gone — and with it, any ideas about what could make a good place to live.
This is where Jacobs was more than a critic, and where she offered a solid idea of what made a city work for people. In place of machine-like functional segregation, she advocated diversity and mixing. In place of “loose sprawls” and “project land oozings” around towering modernist art-objects, she argued for coherent public space systems shaped by well-formed streetscapes, squares and parks. In place of super-block “projects” isolated by “border vacuums” she advocated a continuous fabric of interconnected urbanism.
The city was thus a place where contacts and connections were possible, where human presence made people safer, and where interactions between diverse people of diverse capabilities could create new opportunities. It was a kind of living tissue of urbanism, a network of people and spaces, from the most public to the most private.
Most important, this kind of city maintained a continuous level of connectivity right across its fabric, from the largest regional scales right down to the scales of sidewalks and building entries. Where an urban use interrupted this continuous fabric, it was critical to find ways to weave it back together, at a minimum spacing. That was true for rivers, railroad tracks and freeways, but it was no less true for parks, campuses and even neighborhoods.
When we allowed the city to be fragmented, the result was a phenomenon she called a “border vacuum” — a dead zone, not unlike the dead zone around a hole eaten by a caterpillar through a leaf. As the capillaries get cut off and the nutrients no longer flow, the tissue around the hole also dies. So it was for urban neighborhoods at these border vacuums: as the flow of people and goods gets interrupted — the so-called “movement economy” — the activities at the edges also decline. Businesses close, shopfronts get boarded up, and neighborhoods enter a death spiral.
This is precisely what Jacobs observed at the edges of Robert Moses’ freeway projects, but also at the edges of many other kinds of single urban uses. It happened when Le Corbusier’s gigantic monocultural housing projects were inserted into the urban fabric (like the aforementioned Cabrini Green and Pruitt Igoe). It also happened when the City Beautiful advocates created monocultural “civic campuses” composed of government buildings, libraries, museums and the like. And it also happened when the Garden City advocates created suburban “new towns” with segregated “wards” of housing here, commercial there, workplaces over there.
In all these cases, functional segregation — and the disruptive effect it had on mixing across scales, down to the finer grains — had the effect of fragmenting the parts of the city, creating discontinuities and border vacuums. In all the cases, the answer was to restore the continuous urban fabric, and the diversity of mixing that it allowed and supported.
For Jacobs, diversity was the crucial ingredient of all great cities: diversity of people, of activities, of building ages and types, of kinds of contact and interaction. The structure of the city needed to support this diversity, by supporting physical connectivity and access at all scales, at a minimum threshold of compactness, with a minimum scale of connectivity across relatively small blocks.
At the same time, many people had responsibility, at different scales, to shape the growth of the city — from mayors to local shop owners. Their actions had to support and encourage urban diversity, as a process as well as a product. This overlapping system of stewardship would later be called “polycentric governance” by the economist Elinor Ostrom. Formal government, in this view, needs to be supplanted with many other forms of governance, formal and informal, across many scales. They might include overlapping government jurisdictions, but also NGOs, neighborhood associations, business districts, business owners, and residents, all acting at a variety of scales to support the health of their neighborhoods and cities.
This process is hardly harmonious, of course. Cities are full of conflicts, as Jacobs pointed out, just as humanity is full of conflicts. Our actions in meeting our own needs frequently come into conflict with others’ actions. Cities are especially prone to these conflicts because of their concentration of diversity. We disturb one another with noise; we crowd one another out; we block one another’s access to light, air, view, free movement.
These things have to be sorted out, so that there is a reasonably equitable and just mediation between these conflicting freedoms of access, manifested in the built form of the city. In that sense, the structure of the city itself manifests a just (or as just as possible) mediation between conflicting freedoms (as my friend Paul Murrain has put it). This is, in fact, the political system of the city, the polis.
We go to the considerable trouble of making this arrangement because cities offer us something extremely important. It is commonly supposed that cities attract people because “that’s where the jobs are.” But that begs the question, why the jobs are in cities. Why is all employment not scattered across the countryside, as, say, agricultural employment typically is? This question consumed a large portion of Jane Jacobs’ later work on cities, and she concluded that the city was far more than a cluster of convenience. Her answer was, in essence, that cities extend to the people within them a very special capacity for creative interaction and human development. This capacity has to do primarily with the kinds of networks of interaction that people can establish, rooted in the spatial networks of the city, and especially, its public spaces.
It is the opportunity that such spatial networks afford us that looms especially large in Jacobs’ later work on economics.