Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Chapters 6 and 7; Cities, Streets, and Districts

In the chapter “The Uses of City Neighborhoods”, Jane Jacobs believed that Americans are not good at localized self-government. If healthy neighborhoods in a city are to be created and protected, self-government through specific types of neighborhood organizations are needed.

Jacobs thought that there are three specific types of neighborhoods that are important for self-government;
  1. the city as a whole
  2. street neighborhoods
  3. districts of large sub-city size of around 10,000 people

The city as neighborhood is responsible for allocating Federal and other tax monies to the the city; its districts, and its neighborhoods. It is also the center of the arts and other intellectual organizations. Special interest groups and pressure groups tend to work within the city. Cities are also important for bringing together its neighborhoods into a cohesive entity (p.154).

Street neighborhoods consist of a small area that can vary depending on the layout of the streets. For instance, in a city laid out in long blocks, a street neighborhood may consist of just one street on one block, from intersection to the next intersection. Other street neighborhoods may consist of a few blocks and its intersecting streets. An important roll of the street neighborhood is to call on help from others when a problem arises in the streets and they are not able to solve the problem though their own self-governance.

A district is potentially the most powerful neighborhood organization because it has the potential to fight city hall (pp.158-159) It is the neighborhood organization that should be responsible for protecting the street neighborhoods. Districts need to be able to bring the resources of the city to the local street level. “The chief function of a successful district is to mediate between the indispensible, but inherently politically powerless, street neighborhoods, and the inherently powerful city as a whole (p. 158)”. Jacobs argued that although we have districts by name, Americans fail at effectively using these organizations to self-govern.

Besides the importance of the physical organization of neighborhoods and districts, relationships between different groups of people and organizations is a crucial element of districts. Jacobs calls them hop-and-skip relationships, which are “working relationships among people, usually leaders, who enlarge their local public life beyond the neighborhoods of streets and specific organizations or institutions and form relationships with people whose roots and backgrounds are in entirely different constituencies (p.175)”. “It takes surprisingly few hop-skip people, relative to a whole population, to weld a district into a real Thing (p.175)”.

The importance of having strong neighborhood organizations is because “There are only two ultimate public powers in shaping and running American cities: votes and control of money (p.171)”. “..seduction and subversion of the elected is easiest when the electorate is fragmented into ineffectual units of power (p.171)”.

From my own experience in the observing the public involvement process and neighborhood meetings, Portland does a good job. The City of Portland actually facilitates some of these roles that maybe Jacobs thinks should be left to the self-governance of neighborhoods.

The city helps facilitate and fund the creation of “hop-skip” meetings, called stakeholder meetings, which consist of local organizations, business leaders, and neighborhood citizens who meet to discuss city or neighborhood planning projects through the public involvement process. The city also funds and encourages block parties and other neighborhood gatherings. Portland has a system of strong neighborhood groups but I have not heard of powerful district organizations (Hollywood District, NW Portland?).

Another important aspect of creating strong neighborhood organizations, that Jacobs discussed, is the ability of a neighborhood to retain its people. A neighborhood must be diverse enough that, even if a family changes either in family size, change in career, or income level, there is enough sufficient diversity in housing and businesses that they can remain in the neighborhood (p.182).

There are four generators of diversity, covered in chapter 7, that Jacobs gave to encourage diversity in districts and in streets;

  1. The district must serve more than one primary function. These functions must be able to use sidewalk facilities for different reasons and functions and for during different times of day.
  2. Blocks must be short in order to have convenient pathways to all places.
  3. The district must have a variety of buildings of diverse ages and in diverse conditions in order to support diverse businesses and economic diversity needed to support the district. “This mingling must be fairly close-engrained”.
  4. There must be a dense concentration of people
The first three leads to the 4th condition. (pp. 196-197)

Portland neighborhoods have many of these aspects. Blocks are mostly short, especially on the east side of the river, inner northwest, and downtown. Many of these neighborhoods have a diversity of building ages but this does not always mean that the rents of the older building are cheaper and allow more diverse businesses. The Urban Growth Boundary does help Portland increase its population density
Many of Portland’s neighborhood streets and districts serve more than one primary function.  For example, the Pearl District has many small and diverse businesses. It has art galleries, restaurants, and stores. The Pearl and the surrounding NW area has industrial warehouses and businesses such as advertising agencies.

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