Jane Jacobs remembered

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An edited version of this piece was published in the June 7, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The edited, published version of the piece is online in the Internet Archive. Posted on the web September 17, 2013.

Remembering Jane Jacobs
By Michael D. Bates

"This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women's magazines.... It is an attack... on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding."

She was labeled a naysayer and an obstructionist, anti-growth and anti-progress. She had no training in city planning or architecture, but she challenged the professionals and the experts. In the mid-'50s, when her neighborhood was threatened with demolition by New York's orgy of expressway construction, she and her neighbors fought back and won. Their victory opened the door for the economic resurgence of the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan.

She transcended political boundaries. In the late '60s, she and her family left the United States for Toronto to keep her son out of the Vietnam War draft, and yet two of her books were listed among the hundred best non-fiction works of the 20th century by the conservative fortnightly National Review.

What Jane Jacobs had was a keen eye for detail, a gift for description, and a stubborn determination to see streets, neighborhoods, and cities as they really are, not distorted through the lens of academic theory. It is that quality that makes her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, still fresh and relevant nearly half a century after its publication.

Her death on April 25, at the age of 89, brought to an end Jane Jacobs' long and productive life. She deserves to be remembered, and so do her observations about what makes a city a safe and pleasant place to live and work and, just as important, an incubator for new businesses and new ideas.

Here are just three of the lessons she taught, lessons that many of Tulsa's leaders have yet to learn:

1. Believe your eyes, not your theories:

Jacobs' ideas about cities ran counter to the accepted wisdom of city planning, which she considered a dangerous kind of quackery, as apt to kill the patient as heal it: "As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense."

Planners clung to their dogma, regardless of its real-world effects: "The pseudoscience of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success."

Jacobs wrote of a friend who was a city planner in Boston, who told her that the North End, the old Italian district with its chaotic tangle of narrow streets and untidy mixture of homes and businesses, was a dreadful, crowded, unhealthy slum that needed to be cleared. And although he concurred with her observation that the neighborhood was a lively, pleasant, and safe place, an observation backed up by low crime and mortality rates, he chose to believe the negative view of the neighborhood dictated by accepted planning theory.

Here in Tulsa there seems to be a reluctance to catalog and acknowledge the planning failures of the last fifty years. Perhaps it is because many of the responsible decision makers of the '60s, '70s, and '80s are still living and still influential. But until we are willing to admit that following the fads of the past - urban renewal, superblocks, pedestrian malls, urban expressway loops - caused more damage than good, we will remain susceptible to ignoring reality and uncritically embracing the next fashionable concept.

2. The safety of a city is a function of its design:

Jacobs saw, in the traditional urban neighborhoods that had escaped dismemberment by urban renewal and expressway construction, a complex organic system that planners tamper with at their peril.

The mixture of residences, jobs, and shopping gives people a reason to be on the sidewalks, coming into or through the neighborhood from early in the morning until late at night. That, combined with buildings that overlook those sidewalks, creates a kind of natural surveillance - a phenomenon she called "eyes on the street." She wrote, "No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down."

Contrast that with a typical 1970s Tulsa subdivision. The neighborhood has sidewalks, but they don't lead anywhere you would need to go. The houses turn a blind eye to the street; living rooms look out on the back yard, with no windows facing the street. It doesn't matter how many street lights you put up; if no one needs to be walking down the street, and no one can easily look out to observe the street, you have only managed to create a well-lit workplace for vandals and car thieves.

3. Old buildings matter:

"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings... but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings."

Think about the most lively and interesting places in Tulsa, the kind of places you'd take a visitor for a night on the town: Brookside, the Blue Dome District, Brady Village, Cherry Street, 18th and Boston. Each of those districts had an abundance of old buildings, buildings that are for the most part unremarkable. But those buildings provided an inexpensive place for someone with a dream to start a new business.

You might have seen the same kind of vitality develop in the south part of downtown, with business springing up to serve the tens of thousands who attend classes at TCC's Metro Campus or participate in activities at the downtown churches, but so many of the buildings have been taken for parking by the churches and by TCC that a prospective business owner would be hard-pressed to find a location.

"As for really new ideas of any kind - no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be - there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

Time and space allow us only to scratch the surface of Jacobs' wisdom here. You will have to read The Death and Life of Great American Cities for yourselves to see what she had to say about why some parks are lively and safe and others are dull and dangerous, why certain areas become magnets for used car lots and other unattractive uses, how to accommodate cars without killing an urban neighborhood, and how to keep a successful district from self-destructing.

The principles Jacobs drew from her observations are timeless because they are grounded in unchanging human nature, although the application of those principles will vary from one place to another. Would that every City Councilor and every planning commissioner would read and ponder Jacobs' works.

As Tulsa revisits its Comprehensive Plan for the first time in 30 years, as we consider moving from use-based to form-based planning, we have the opportunity to align our practices with those timeless principles, so that once again our urban core can become a lively and dynamic engine for the culture and prosperity of our city and our region.
Jane Jacobs showed us the way. Perhaps, a half-century later, Tulsa is ready to follow her path.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 7, 2006 8:45 PM.

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