Monday, October 14, 2013

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

But what we have to express in expressing our cities is not to be scorned.  Their intricate order--a manifestation of the freedom of countless numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans--is in many ways a great wonder.  We ought not to be reluctant to make this living collection of interdependent uses, this freedom, this life, more understandable for what it is, nor so unaware that we do not now what it is.

I live in a pretty vibrant neighborhood.  If you've ever watched HBO's Girls, you've seen it--a densely populated collection of vinyl-siding houses interspersed with gritty warehouse and factory buildings that, for the most part, have been transformed into luxury loft spaces, artist's studios, and artisanal pickle companies.  There's a lot of young people and a lot of bars to service them, although it retains its old identity as a middle-class Polish neighborhood.  This vibrancy, of course, comes with consequences--skyrocketing rents, for one.  But also it has become prey for real estate developers wanting to cash in on the neighborhood's success by clearing out vast tracts of space for monstrosities like this one, called Greenpoint Landing:

Jane Jacobs died a few years ago, just before the boom that made such a development possible, but in 2005 she wrote a letter to Mayor Bloomberg responding to a similar plan centering around the old Domino Sugar factory in neighboring Williamsburg that simply and eloquently decried this kind of project.  Reading this letter--it was blown up and framed in a neigborhood coffee shop--made me want to read Jacobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities because I thought it might help me understand what's happening in my backyard, and maybe provide expression to the mute unease that I feel about it.

The central argument of Death and Life is that city planning--the way cities are physically designed and put together--has a tremendous impact on vibrancy and quality of life.  Jacobs is highly critical of the faddish trends of mid-century city planning, which advocated low-density communities with tons of open green space built on cleared land--which you may witness in the rendering above.  What good neighborhoods need to become vibrant, Jacobs argues, is four things: A mix of primary uses, small blocks, old buildings, and high densities.

Jacobs' explanation of these "generators of diversity" is so lucid, so persuasive, that I felt almost embarrassed not to see them as common sense before reading them.  Take the need for old buildings: Without them, Jacobs argues, where will fledgeling businesses find rents low enough to support them?  A quick scan of any major city shows this to be absolutely true; into new buildings go the Starbucks and Subways, while entrepreneurs seek out older storefronts or unconventional spaces, not only for their charm but because they have to.  What businesses are going to be crowded out by the full-scale clearing of the warehouses that occupy the site of the future Greenpoint Landing?

The other generators of diversity seem equally obvious, once Jacobs explains them: Areas that rely too heavily on single primary uses, like the financial district of lower Manhattan, are dead, dull places because they only have foot traffic at very specific times of the day; there are no good restaurants in the financial district because they would have to survive on lunch business alone.  Parks in these areas become breeding grounds for crime because there are huge swaths of time in which they are essentially unoccupied.  The need for small blocks seems silly, but it too makes sense; long city blocks are economic dead zones because they discourage pedestrian traffic.

Part of the fun of reading Death and Life is that it provides an interesting picture of what American cities looked like at mid-century.  For example, while we often read about how Detroit's woes derive from the collapse of the American automobile industry, apparently it's always been kind of a hellscape:

Virtually all of urban Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx.  It is ring superimposed upon ring of failed gray belts.  Even Detroit's downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity.  It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o'clock of an evening.

But it's also fascinating to see what's changed.  Who knew that posh Riverside Drive was once "plagued by trouble?"  More fascinating still is to hear Jacobs' perspective on Brooklyn, decades before its economic renaissance:

If Brooklyn, New York, as an example, is ever to cultivate the quantity of diversity and degree of attraction and liveliness it needs, it must take maximum economic advantage of combinations of residence and work.  Without these primary combinations, in effective and concentrated proportions, it is hard to see how Brooklyn can begin to catalyze its potential for secondary diversity.

Jacobs deserves credit for her prescience here; north and west Brooklyn are all "diversity" and "liveliness" now, and, from what I can tell, precisely because it followed her advice.  But Jacobs also warns against the prospect of too-rapid development that eats itself, infusing areas with what she calls "cataclysmic" money, crowding out slow, healthy development that retains the qualities that made such development possible in the first place.  I can't think of a better example of that kind of mistake than Greenpoint Landing.  Let's hope this idea dies the horrible, fiery death that it deserves.

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