I have just finished re-reading one of the final chapters in Jane Jacobs’ seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities. As everybody even vaguely interested in the dynamics of our cities knows it is probably the single most influential work in the field of urbanism.It marks a before and after in the conceptualisation of how cities work and the benefits of city life.
I think that probably the least talked about chapters and lessons contained in this book hold the strongest promise of understanding the underlying economic and social processes of cities beyond the mere visual analysis.
It is clear that certain concepts and associated terms she coined have spawned whole streams of knowledge. How would we be able to express the interactivity and liveness of parts if the city with her the street ballet or how could Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design even exist without her observations on the importance of eyes on the street …
But if her later work was any indication her true passion was the economic generator that cities are. Despite her being in many ways the godmother of urban design many of her lines in this book minimise somewhat visual aesthetics and deal principally with process and people, the ingredients of economic life.
Throughout the book, but specially in part 3 and 4 (Forces of Decline and Regeneration and Different Tactics), she writes about the then termed slum clearings (nowadays we would likely call urban regeneration). But she writes about these matters in a way that, despite the intervening decades that have made the examples and data somewhat obsolete, is very coherent and logical. Nearly every time one reads about social housing it either becomes a moral-emotional issue or one obfuscated by a minutiae of analysis and few clear ideas.
In her numerous mentions about the New York City Housing Authority she makes it plainly clear that she does not think that the creation of these ‘projects’, as they were then termed, owes its existence primarily to undue political influence by a few interested parties that stood to make a lot of money. She actually makes it clear that it is, or more accurately, was our collective will that allowed it to happen; Occam’s Razor anyone?
Simply put it was the thinking of what was deemed to be good for the society emerging from the Great Wars that lead to the likes of organisations like the NYC Housing Authority and their particular vision of urban regeneration, or, in Jacobs’ words: “First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image”. The image was one where existing communities in overcrowded parts of America’s cities were seems as slum dwellers that should be vacated wholesale from their neighbourhoods and, generally, rehoused in towers, or, as Jane Jacobs liked to call them Radiant Garden City (a neologism she created by merging the Garden City movement with Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse).
It is surprising, yet at the same time it makes perfect sense, that it was the idea of the suburb as a salubrious location for families that led to the 1930s Federal Government guaranteed mortgage scheme principally for suburban homes. It was, consequently, the planning ideas of the early 20th century, of the likes of Ebenezer Howard, that later modelled the USA and from there ever larger areas of the world, Australia included.
Jane Jacobs’ essential recommendation to avoid the social and economic breakdowns associated with this unslumming process promoted by the likes of the NYC Housing Authority is simple on the surface: introduce gradual money/credit to the urban areas affected by urban decay. It is her belief that ‘catalysmic’ money, both from public and private sectors, together with prior cash starvation that leads to communities not been able themselves, with some external assistance, to transform their neighbourhoods into vibrant and successful places.
Ultimately I believe that her keen and logical observations on the economic and social forces that make cities rise, thrive and eventually fall are of much greater value to the urbanist than her prescripts on the form and shape of the city. These seem to stand the test of time, and, more importantly, of place specificity far better. I, therefore, truly believe what she wrote all those years ago:
“This observation [about subsidised dwellings] is, obliquely, a warning against the limitations of my own prescriptions in this book. I think they make sense for things as they are, which the only place ever to possible to begin” page 335.
We should always try to begin, I include myself, with how cities and places work or should work and not with stale and rigid doctrines.