Monday, May 18, 2009

Building an Interesting City

I have recently started reading a book called "Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs. This book was written in the 1950's, and yet is probably at least as relevant today as it was then. The advice offered by the book was largely ignored, so we can see the outcome of failing to follow it today.

In the first sections, I have already found tons of information that is benefitting my understanding and even backing up my ideas on social relations in a modern society. Urban planning in the 1950s and beyond was based on the idea of a Garden City where things would be spaced, homogenous (i.e. commercial in some places, residential in others, ect), and clean. Instead of helping, these processes led to greater inequalities, greater crime, degredation of some areas, and generally failed to accomplish their stated goals. The reasons behind this are actually extremely simple.

First, by removing the mixture of housing and businesses from neighborhoods, the areas not only became less interesting to live in, but also less safe since traffic on the streets reduced drastically. The old so-called "slums" were actually remarkably safe and cohesive. By moving in, eliminating the businesses, clearing the streets, and building larger project housing, what actually occurred was a breaking up of the community and inter-community relations, a removal of street traffic leading to more danger thanks to their being fewer "eyes" to stop crime. A neighborhood culture is based on a complex web of interactions, and these interactions are not so much between close friends as they are witha myriad of acquaintences. These people provided the society that kept people safe and happy in their space. As people had fewer reasons to spend time outside with neighbors or shopping with people, talking with people, and all in all sharing in each other's lives, people started leaving the streets. As danger increased, people drove more, also leaving the streets empty. In place of the poor, but vibrant, streets was basically a grey, increasingly crime-ridden neighborhood with few people taking pride in it, just as you would not take pride in any boring place you have to live because there is no where else.

The worst affected were the poor areas which were moved into projects, breaking up social relations. I keep going back to the social relations issues because we are seeing another attempt to destroy the few contacts we actually have with people beyond our social group. We engineered through our planning practices that segregated the place you sleep from the place you live, a fragmented, segregated society. If we succeed in further reducing contact with those who are responsibile for calling the police when we are in trouble, for helping us with our car when it is broken, for watching our kids while we are gone, etc, we will damage further the social interconnections on which society is based and on which cohesiveness and interest in the greater processes of urban planning and development needed for democratic development are based.

We made our places of living less interesting and less diverse. We worked to ruin the neighborhood while trying to make it nicer. The focus on reorganization and beautification came at the expense of actual lifestyle. I argue that we should make neighborhoods places that we want to live, with commercial and public transportation near by, with no deserted streets (at least in the middle of the city) even if they are quiet. Rebuild the community businesses that were destroyed as we introduced big-box stores, these stores are imperitive for the social mixing to create a cohesive and safe community. Everything depends on people being invested form schools to roads to safety. We have to create places to live our LIVES not merely sleep, to meet people, not avoid them, and to promote the types of places, businesses, etc, that we would like to know.


  1. Ah, it's been eons since I read Jane Jacobs. She certainly had and still has it right. Hopefully, widespread adoption of broadband will enable us to de-emphasize commuting travel. How we are going to tranform 50 years of urban planning which used automotive transport as its core paradigm into something less toxic and more energy efficient isn't clear at all, sadly.

    In my area, the Monterey Peninsula, we have one little zone, Sand City, which seems to have the right idea. Thirty years ago it was a bit of wasteland with a few straggling homes on it. It developed into a city and shopping zone because it was ready to give building permits to big box stores, something the rest of the over gentrified peninsula wouldn't allow in their hallowed grounds. Mind, they shopped in Sand City weekends all the same.

    More recently, however, Sand City has been transforming it's largely small business building inventory into mixed use designations. Artists and artisans have been moving into Sand City and setting up studios, something that is near impossible elsewhere in the peninsula. Oddly enough, while property rents are amongst the lowest in the area, the per capita income of the artists and artisans is well on the highest in the area. As well, there is developing there a very vibrant restaurant scene. The business win no architectural prizes, but Sand City is easily the most exciting place to be in a hundred miles.

  2. That info is good to hear. My eyes have been opened by that book in many ways, and I have greatly improved my ability to analyze urban space. I hope to use the lessons I learn from it to help me later in planning.