Austin Williams examines two books that probe the dynamic relationship between people and city.
Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs
- Robert Kanigel
What a City Is For: Remaking the Politics of Displacement
- Matt Hern
Jane Jacobs's book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) signified a historic moment for urban planning; it was as pivotal as biologist Rachel Carson's Silent Spring would be for environmental conservation the following year. This year, the centenary of Jacobs's birth, is marked by retrospectives, tours, public talks, hagiographies and a Google Doodle. In his biography of the urban theorist, Eyes on the Street, Robert Kanigel calls her an “urban visionary”. Meanwhile, in What a City Is For, Matt Hern offers both a development and a contemporary renunciation of Jacobs's thinking.
Jacobs, as Kanigel reveals, was a journalist first and foremost. Her self-taught passion for cities arose from her belief that mass demolition and slum clearances were damaging lives and contributing to the loss of what was vital about cities — the local, personal and parochial. She identified elements of successful urban spaces, such as building density and mixed use. Her triumph was to celebrate community “in all its smallness” in that ultimate metropolis, New York, while keeping the bigger picture in view. That focus led her inexorably to challenge the planning system, and for many she remains the embattled everywoman, standing up to a corrupt cabal of urban master planners such as the ruthless Robert Moses. “The respect accorded her sometimes slipped over into veneration,” writes Kanigel (ironically, a charge that could be levelled at his book). But was she heroic, or simply driven centre-stage by events?
There is no denying Jacobs's impact, intelligence and determination. Kanigel notes that she “embodied the Victorian virtues” such as self-discipline. In 1958, heading a committee that included luminaries such as anthropologist Margaret Mead and sociologist Lewis Mumford, Jacobs successfully fought off the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. A brainchild of Moses, this dual carriageway would have run through Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park and a swathe of Jacobs's beloved low-level brownstone buildings. The “doyenne of urban activism”, as sociologist Saskia Sassen put it, had little taste or aptitude for the limelight, but was bold enough to force Moses out of a meeting (he famously claimed that he hadn't wanted to deal with “a bunch of mothers”). Such moments prompted Matt Tyrnauer, director of documentary Citizen Jane (2016), to call her an intellectual “badass”.
Her radicalism found full expression in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Opening bluntly with “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding”, Jacobs articulated a disillusionment with authority that heralded the mood of the tumultuous 1960s. It was a powerful rejoinder to faceless power-brokers “holding court” over urban decisions. She railed at the exclusionary nature of formal planning procedures, and condemned decades-old modernist planning policy that she saw as prioritizing buildings over people. As a counterweight, she documented many examples of healthy social engagement in neighbourhoods soon to be erased in the rush towards high-rise alienation. The title of Kanigel's book refers to one of Jacobs's key ideas: that the design of shared spaces overlooked by windows can contribute to urban safety. The book has influenced the urban-planning debate ever since, characterizing master planning, for instance, as brutal, car-centric and focused on bland concretization.
Kanigel's book, although well researched, often delves gratuitously into minutiae. We are told of the time Jacobs broke her hip, and the occasion when her husband managed to eat a large quiche. Thus, the bigger picture on this fascinating thinker is largely missed. Most surprisingly, the dramatic struggle with Moses is relegated to a single scene. It's an odd treatment of a writer who seems to have been interested only in large ideas and intellectual engagement, arguing with everyone over her kitchen table or in public meeting rooms. For her, the search for truth was meaningful, and personal life was of little importance.
To Hern, by contrast, the personal is everything. What a City Is For is predominantly an examination of the impact of planning policy on local communities and individuals, particularly in relation to gentrification. There are inevitable echoes of Jacobs's thinking, such as her concept of 'unslumming' — seeing and encouraging the inherent value in poorer neighbourhoods, rather than sweeping them away. But Hern reveals how residents' trust in any official intervention has deteriorated. He starts in Portland, Oregon, where discriminatory planning legislation has effectively made a ghetto of Albina, a black neighbourhood. When the local authority tried to upgrade the area, residents resisted, convinced of impending displacement. Activists told Hern that they knew black residents were doomed as soon as they saw the community gardens and bicycle lanes.
Hern is at pains to check his privilege as a white man speaking on predominantly black issues. He writes “cautiously and hopefully with humility”, endorses conflicting arguments and seems unwilling to offer clarifications. The result is confusing: an apologetic polemic. Hern even wonders whether communities are actually merely refuges for “misogynist oppression, violence, and misery”, leaving the reader to wonder what is being defended other than the process of community defence. In essence, this is a book about power relations, but not in the dualistic manner of Jacobs versus Moses. Rather, it's a more fundamental rejection of anyone's right to set standards of what a good community or city should be. A truly democratic commons would obviate the concept of ownership, Hern argues, because all land was stolen from colonized peoples. Cities, he feels, need to “disown” themselves.
The great US urbanist Daniel Burnham once said: “Make no little plans.” Sixty years later, Jacobs decried the arrogance of such grand modernist thinking. A further 60, and Hern is opposed to the very concept of conscious planning. Jacobs was hugely influential in democratizing the planning process, and in supporting socio-economic and cultural diversity by advocating variety in architecture and vitality in shared spaces. But she saw urban diversity as fluid. Hern treats diversity as a value in its own right, and seems compelled to endorse social fragmentation in the name of increasing socio-economic and ethnic diversity, to the point of urban liquidation. I don't think Jacobs would have approved.
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Williams, A. Cities: Humanizing the urban fabric. Nature 537, 614–615 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/537614a
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