July 1, 2011
This blog covers my thoughts and insights from the first three chapters of the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.
But first I want to cover the forward Jacobs wrote to her book in 1992. What Jacobs covers in this section of the book helped set the stage of the book for me in terms that I could relate with.
While Jacobs was writing this book in 1958 she came to realize that it was all about the ecology of cities (p.xvi). She relates a natural ecosystem to a city ecosystem by stating that “A natural ecosystem is defined as ‘composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude.’ A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethical processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies.” Both ecosystems require “diversity to sustain themselves” and that “diversity develops organically over time” also “The more niches for diversity of life and livelihoods in either kind of ecosystem, the greater carrying capacity for life (p.xvi).” This helped me to put into words what I intuitively felt about the contrasts between an old- growth forest and a regenerated clear-cut forest and between European cities and towns and areas like the Pearl District in Portland. You can’t just raze a place, replace all the known elements, and expect a thriving community to pop up. Struggling communities have to be handled with care and the small anchors of life that have made it through the worst times must be supported and integrated into new elements that are added.
In the first chapter, the introduction to the book, Jacobs calls urban planning a pseudo-science (p.18) and that “The economic rationale of current city rebuilding is a hoax. (p.7)” Jacobs argues that instead of trying to improve cities with contrived, organized, linear plans that require the clearance of entire pockets of struggling areas we should be thinking of a city as “ an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in city building and design.(p.9)” I agree with Jacobs. We do not live in a society that encourages much trial and error in city building and design. Those whom are most influential to shaping cities- banks and developers- are driven by short term profit and are resistant to risk and unknowns, especially when the knowns create enough profit. Government agencies are also influenced by the fear of risk and they are dependent on the wishes of banks and developers to help them develop a tax base.
The second and third chapters deal with the relationship between sidewalks and society in cities. Jacobs argues that busy sidewalks are safe sidewalks and safe sidewalks bring people in and create successful neighborhoods. People perceive empty, unused sidewalks as dangerous. City sidewalks are used by both neighbors and strangers (p.38). The relationship between neighbors and strangers on sidewalks are interdependent. She gives three main qualities that successful city streets and sidewalks must have;
1. There must be a clear demarcation between private and public space.
2. There must be eyes on the street.
3. There must be a fairly continuous use of the sidewalks.
There is also a role that business and public establishments play in establishing safety on city streets and sidewalks (pp. 46-47)
1. They give people a reason to use the streets.
2. While people are using sidewalks along a route to an establishment, they become eyes on that route.
3. Business owners are proponents of peace and order near their establishments.
4. People attract more people.
The role of successful sidewalks in a city is that they create a special kind of non-committal trust between people, in other words, they help to create a civil society. Also, they create contact between strangers and people not like themselves and can become incubators of tolerance and a deterrent of racism and discrimination (p. 94).
The world of Jacobs in 1958 in NYC is much different than the world of 201l. Although many of her points are as relevant today as they were then, some major changes have happened that will never be the same again; the economic structure, the internet, and the growing shift in natural resource availability.
We do not manufacture and buy locally anymore. Cities have many small businesses (at least in Portland) but I argue that the majority of people in the US do not care where products are manufactured and that the trend of wealth consolidation among larger corporations does and will affect the type of communities that we have and create. One-stop shopping makes it unnecessary for us to walk on a sidewalk in our neighborhood.
But in Portland some of these sidewalk ecosystems are thriving. Northwest Portland has the density necessary for sidewalk culture. Some streets such as N Alberta and N Mississippi are starting to become healthy, vibrant communities. The dangers among these areas are that the businesses in these areas supply trendy luxuries and not basic necessities for all people. Are the new shop owners along Mississippi getting to know their neighbors? Are they around for the long haul, committed to the community needs? Or are these mostly young business owners giving it a try until they get bored with owning a business, or until the trust fund runs out, or they sell out to a corporation?
Another possible danger to the health and strength of communities and sidewalk culture is that fact that many of these new areas that are attempting to create vibrant communities are very expensive to live in. High rents require people to work more therefore not allowing residents to have the time to get to know their neighbors, neighborhoods, and sidewalks. This also affects people’s ability to stay put in an apartment or home.