This Old World - Articles
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
"... the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual effort; more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life."
This passage from a larger text by Oliver Wendell Holmes is used by Jane Jacobs to open her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and is the grail that drives her efforts. The spirit behind this passage is what animates Jacobs self-described attack on current city planning and the dehumanizing effects those practices have wrought.
The book addresses such topics as: the social behavior of people in cities; their economic behavior; the decay and regeneration of the city; and strategies for ordering the complexity of cities. The real emphasis of her writing, however, are what she believes to be the four primary conditions for a vital city and the preceding topics serve as points of departure to illustrate the primary conditions.
Of consequence to the analysis of Toledo, Jacobs claims her book applies to large cities and not necessarily towns, suburbs, or even small cities. Toledo, with a population of about 350,000 and holding steady for several decades now, is very much an in-between city. Although among the top 50 in metropolitan population size nation-wide, Toledo has the feeling of a much smaller town. As such, analysis must focus on those kernels of knowledge that can be used, those that must be further distilled, and those that must be disregarded.
This process is not a science. If it were, good city design and planning would be an easy process. It is my own subjective beliefs, interests, knowledge, and creativity that make this assessment possible. In beginning her analysis, Jacobs assigns a very high value to the role of sidewalks in urban living, devoting the first three chapters to them. Streets and walks carry the lifeblood of healthy neighborhoods, customers, clients, and neighbors. They mean something - socially, economically, and architecturally - relative to the buildings that line and define them. These relationships affect people and how they relate to their environment.
In successful cities, sidewalks provide a kind of safety that even police can not provide: an on-going din of activity, an unconscious network of law enforced by every citizen. Unlike towns or suburbs, Jacobs points out, cities are full of strangers. In a healthy urban environment, these strangers become an asset, providing a density and balance of activity that act as mutual support rather than a threatening intrusion. What develops is a network of friends, acquaintances, and strangers who are comfortable enough in their environment to self-regulate that environment. They become what Jacobs calls watchful eyes on the street.
These eyes on the street ensure that individual behavior conforms with public mores. It is not an invasive activity. It is a natural and healthy form of interaction between people and their community. It may take the form of reading a newspaper by an open window or playing chess on the stoop. The active use of sidewalk for commerce, play, exercise, and transport is essential to a healthy urban environment.
An important characteristic of sidewalks is that they are inherently public and the presence of people is both a social and safety benefit. Many strata of relationships develop, from casual to intimate, and streets facilitate this. Cities allow a certain anonymity that could never exist in a small town; you can blend into the background. People are surrounded by strangers in a city so another one is nothing to take note of. It is small towns, on the other hand, that are notorious for the spread of gossip and meddling.
In the city, the individual is in control of the amount of contact they have with others. Architecture can be used as an aid to achieve any level of privacy and isolation both visual and acoustic. The city also provides the tolerance that comes from respecting others privacy and in turn that provides diversity that leads to safe streets. Further, Jacobs asserts, the diversity and resulting contact leads to the improvement of race relations.
Another critical aspect of sidewalks in the urban environment is their role and relationship to children. Part of the misinformation modernist thinking inflicted upon society included the fallacy of the moral and physical degeneration of children living in the urban environment. Modernists engaged in social engineering claimed children are safer in parks and the open plazas of projects. Jacobs vigorously disagrees. Busy watchful streets provide children with the safety they need and the access to the world they require, access that allows them to learn to function well in the world. This includes libraries and schools, stores and friends.
One of the chief characteristics of safe streets is a clear delineation between public and private property. This helps assure that there is no ambiguity as to peoples proper course of action or their appropriate physical location within the urban landscape.
A common problem that has affected many urban areas is the placement of surface parking lots. Surface lots typically crop up where buildings have been demolished or even in front of newer in-fill buildings. These parking lots become quasi-public zones intended for customers of businesses or for commuters. But the transient quality of these lots becomes an opportunity for those whose intentions are not good or are unknown. They may not have parked in the lot but they are there either passing through or placing solicitations or looking for vehicles to rob.
Such lots also have other implications, both architecturally and urbanistically, but their inability to clearly define public versus private space has a major negative impact on a neighborhood.
Diversity, on the other hand, does much to aid the safety of streets. Residents and strangers have an opportunity to interact, use common streets and cross paths. Business owners and employees establish a second regular group of users who keep eyes on the streets while other residents are at work in different parts of the city. The diversity of activity that results from numerous different uses becomes an attraction in and of itself.
According to Jacobs, the absence of the elements of diversity and concentration are part of the failure of modern planning and design. The Radiant City has no diversity of purpose but is strictly segregated into use groups. Work and commerce are relegated to zones accessible only by roads and automobiles. Housing towers have a stifling lack of character and individuality with corridors that are a poor substitute for real sidewalks.
Plazas that surround the towers fail to enclose the pedestrian nor form any meaningful relationship to streets or buildings. Streetscapes became unwalkable no man lands.
The results of modern planning and design are insecure streets that cultivated at best the use of the automobile as refuge or, at worst, the formation of a gang mentality figuratively if not literally. Ironically, In many urban areas, gangs have taken over the role the design professionals failed to perform by defining the use, ownership, and shape of space within their environments.
Old historic buildings suffered greatly as a result of modernism. Single-use philosophy drove residential and retail out while leaving behind much abandoned space. The suddenly under-valued property was more than the single use designation could fill so deterioration set in. With that came many of the ills associated with stagnation such as indigent people, decay of infrastructure, crime, and animal infestation. It is precisely our current misunderstanding of the urban environment with its greater densities and mixed-uses that make older neighborhoods and structures appear to be social ills.
This very private raising of children in the suburbs may lead to sheltering them from lifes realities and may even lead to less social or socially aware attitudes. Given the perception that suburbs are safer, it is difficult to criticize any parent who chooses a suburban over an urban neighborhood for the sake of their children. While it may be easier to monitor children in suburbs, cities do offer advantages and are generally perfectly well suited at producing healthy kids. After all, children have been raised in cities for thousands of years while suburbs have only served this purpose for about a century with mixed results at that.
City children have more social opportunities and a more diverse set of acquaintances. There are likely to be a greater number of intellectual and cultural opportunities available in an urban setting. While free play in open spaces may not be as readily available, there are adequate ways to ensure that children get physical exercise. This may mean that play is more structured or that a larger portion of the house is reserved for childrens activities. Urban living may lead to more direct interaction with a parent rather than leaving children on their own in the suburb.
Neighborhood parks in an urban setting are quite volatile and are either boom or bust according to Jacobs. Each must be considered on its own merits and as such, parks do not necessarily add value or stability to neighborhoods. Often, there are no people where the parks are and no parks where the people are.
Most often parks are only as successful as the surrounding neighborhoods. Parks must be diverse in their functions and capacities and be surrounded by diverse uses such as residential, offices, and restaurants. Parks must be judiciously placed in the community along regular paths and routes used by pedestrians. Too many may spread the population too thin and harm all parks.
Jacobs specifies four attributes that contribute to the success of parks, though by no means guarantees their success. Each must be intricate enough to support multiple uses. They should have a center, a single place that can universally be recognized as representing this place such as a statue or a fountain. There must be sun light, suggesting a connection to the natural environment. This fosters the feeling of clean air and good health. Finally, there should be a sense of enclosure. Enclosure defines space, separates different levels of public and private activity, and imparts a sense of security and protection from unsafe elements.
The last chapter of Part I of Jacobs book addresses urban neighborhoods. She suggests that failed city neighborhoods are failure in local self-government when she states, A successful city neighborhood is a place that keeps sufficiently ahead of its problems This implies a level of civic involvement and responsibility that has not been common in quite some time.
At the time Jacobs wrote in the early 1960s, urban planning was committed to inwardly turned neighborhoods. Barriers for gated communities were coming into being and rather than the natural growth and extension of the urban environment as a continuous fabric, small self-sufficient enclaves developed. This planning type still persists today, especially dominating new residential construction. The city has become a series of turfs that needs to be defended from each other. The fluidity of both use and choice, so natural in an urban environment, has been slowly choked out.
Cities are governed and life is lived at many levels. At the top, there are institutions that serve the entire city. They are either so large or so specialized in their nature that they require an entire city to support them. Professional sports teams, large galleries and museums, or a rowing club would be examples of these.
A second level would be districts that share a mutual commercial or social objective. Community Development Corporations are typical of these. These organizations tend to mediate between the individual person and large institutions. By banding together with people of like interest and working through leaders of other interest groups, a dynamic can be reached to achieve localized goals through a larger governmental or commercial entity. Finally, at the bottom of the hierarchy, there is the individual. The needs and desires of the individual must be served by these other levels to ensure a quality of life that is acceptable and stable.
The second section of Jacobs book, subtitled Diversity, discusses her primary thesis of the text, the Four Conditions for Diversity. They are fairly simple tenets that are easily understood though somewhat difficult to implement through the actions of individuals and through the legislative process. They can not stand individually but, when they are implemented concurrently, result in a successful neighborhood.
In short, the Four Conditions for Diversity are that 1) buildings, streets, and neighborhoods must have two or more mixed-uses; 2) city blocks must be short with frequent opportunities for alternative paths; 3) there must be a variety of building types and sizes and: 4) there must be a sufficient density of people, buildings, and uses.
The method analysis of cities which was prevalent at the time of the writing of Jacobs book was to divide the city into different use groups. This is still the dominant method used today with categories such as M for manufacturing or R for residential and these categories are broken down even further into sub-types. This is a method developed by the modernist desire to segment and segregate uses. Its major result was to make a true urban environment impossible by code. It does not recognize the compatibility of mixed uses within a single area.
As the author points out, these new mixed use neighborhoods are the ideal incubators for small businesses providing amenities and conveniences otherwise unavailable to them. Large companies are able to provide benefits, amenities, and conveniences to employees and, therefore, are not reliant upon an urban setting. They can easily locate in a suburb. Small and new companies must rely on the city to provide these benefits. Indeed the city is lively by virtue of its collection of small elements.
Primary mixed-uses, that is, having more than one significant use, is essential to the urban environment. It results in people on the street at various times of day engaged in a variety of different types of activities. Parks need it; retail needs it; residential needs it. The mixed-uses serve as the economic foundation and provide necessary safety .
Any district that is focused too much in any one area of activity will stagnate. Entertainment districts, restaurant districts, and business districts all tend to stagnate. Jacobs example is Wall Street in New York City and the manner in which it serves only the financial community. There is no significant residential so commercial operations such as lunch counters and dry cleaners must make enough over the lunch hour alone to justify maintaining their location. Most do not.
Jacobs speaks very plainly about the notion of a district being too successful for its own good and how that can lead to escalating costs, crowding out mixed use developments. This, in turn, leads to an over extension of supply which leads to degeneration.
Jacobs makes the distinction between primary mixed uses, those that bring people to an area such as residential, offices, and a stadium, and secondary mixed-use or those that service people such as video stores and convenience stores. There can be overlap between the two categories such as the video store that has specialty and rare movies that draws people from throughout the city.
American cities are dying by deliberate policies that are intended to sort uses. Professionals of this era developed policies designed to create a new society for the masses and politicians passed legislation to codify it. These policies sought to recreate the urban landscape not just with new buildings in the modernist style and spirit, but also by destroying the continuity of the past. In Toledo, the most beautiful and distinctive buildings of the old era have been leveled and laid bare.
In place of highly articulated humanly scaled and urbanistically friendly buildings, behemoths have risen from the dust to create foreboding, poorly scaled, indiscreet boxes that provide little haven for pedestrians and allow almost no opportunities for the small entrepreneur.
Segregation of uses has been drummed into us as a society and it continues to be forwarded as the solution to social and aesthetic problems it has created. In reality, cities have come to be in trouble not from what they have, but from what they lack and what has been driven out through government policy.
The second of Jane Jacobs Four Conditions for Diversity is short blocks. Frequent streets provide more opportunities for interaction and variation in routine which add interest and additional safety. Isolated streets, as is illustrated in the book with a portion of New York City, become isolated economically and socially. In areas with large blocks, businesses are forces to cluster at intersections or on the short end of blocks in order to be accessible to a decent number of consumers. This causes these areas to become too concentrated in single use and the long portion of streets to become too residential and restrictive in nature.
Socially, long blocks require traffic of all sorts to use the same path every time. Paths for walking to the store or walking a pet become limited. Certain areas stagnate and other become too congested. On the other hand, streets multiply in successful areas as residents and businesses look for more frontage. Even alleys become streets as seen in London, Georgetown, and New York. Toledo has blocks which are in between in length. At 550 feet on center of street block to block, the city has a typical block length that is somewhat longer than desired according to Jacobs. It is not, however, quite as stifling as some others that are discussed. Toledo does have precedent in its past and present for breaking these blocks down into a more user friendly scale. Perry Street provides a street interval that maximizes frontage and pedestrian opportunities.
Toledo also has a history, unfortunately, of increasing block size. As part of modernist thinking and urban development, super blocks were developed in the downtown to accommodate the convention center, Levis Square, and, most recently, the main library expansion.
Frequent streets had long been a common if not unconscious part of city design. In part the creation of larger blocks is a result of the settlement of the American continent with a vast, seemingly unending horizon. In larger part though, the view of streets as wasteful is part and parcel of the modernist radiant city philosophy.
In reality, as Jacobs comments, streets are a means to an end: they provide the stage for vibrant urban living. For that life style to thrive, it must have a sufficiently dense fabric in which the characters interact. Streets make that density possible and therefore they must be frequent.
Jacobs discussion of the need for a mix in the building stock, her third of the four conditions, is tangential to her greater thesis. Her position is that new buildings or perfectly restored old buildings can only support high cost uses. A neighborhood which is dominated by many new and restored buildings prices out mixed-uses that lead to successful urban neighborhoods according to Jacobs.
My question then would be, can there not be within a single neighborhood, expensive residential area that houses the very rich, offices nearby in which they work, and services such as dry cleaning and dog shearing which support them and their lifestyle? Would they not all require new or well finished rehabs? It would seem this would be as plausible as the healthy lower middle neighborhood that has brownstone housing, light manufacturing work locations, and a convenience store and bowling alley as amenities.
Jacobs view would seem to hold that in order to be successful, an urban neighborhood, really an entire urban city, would have to be completely diffused economically and socially into an indistinguishable homogenous mix. I cant disagree that newer buildings and improved older buildings are going to require higher rents, but there is a wide range of difference in building and rehab costs and this will result in a wide range of rental prices. Figure in land acquisition costs for different areas and the range becomes even greater.
Jacobs makes the keen observation that an area is old (run down) because it is a failure NOT that an area is a failure because it is run down. This is an important idea to remember for both political and design professionals during the planning process . It is this very difference that often leads people to believe that urban neighborhoods are inherently dangerous or that the people living there are inherently dangerous. Both of these are wrong.
Many people who have been part of the continued flight from the traditional center of the city, be that from the city to suburb or from inner suburbs to ever further out suburbs, believe that the failure of the housing programs of the 1950s through the 1970s was the fault of the people being provided the housing. In truth, however, the architectural forms that these projects most often took, large towers and blocks based on modernists ideas of separating uses, provided living spaces that were destined for failure.
These modernist neighborhoods, as Jacobs notes, were a form of social engineering and experimentation that were foisted upon the working poor, the newly migrated, or the aged and infirmed, vulnerable populations to begin with.
Concentration causes convenience. states Jacobs in writing about the last of her Four Conditions for Diversity. Our current form of development results in mile after mile of suburb periodically dotted with malls that all have a GAP and Chi Chis. These malls have become poor substitutes for downtown. The artificial streets of malls do not provide a real and substantial diversity and the density at the mall is an artificial one supported by acres of free parking but no amount of community and ownership, just shared consumerism.
Modernists gave high density a bad name by associating it with slums. High density is different than over-crowding with important architectural and social differences. In assessing overcrowding, the important numbers and ratios to assess are dwellings per acre as opposed to people per acre. For example, you can have the same number of people on two particular blocks. In the case of many dwelling units with just a few inhabitants in each, the result will be a diverse active neighborhood. In the case of many inhabitants in just a few dwellings, blight, disease, and overcrowding will result.
The over-crowding of individual dwelling units can happen anywhere, the city, the suburb, or the country, and in all cases it is bad. There must be a sufficient number of dwelling units with private kitchen, toilet facilities and bedrooms to prevent over crowding. It is poor economic conditions that lead to over-crowding. And while people ordinarily do not choose to live in over-crowded conditions, they frequently do choose to live in high density neighborhoods. Many of the most posh neighborhoods in New York have population densities that exceed slums, yet the number of people per dwelling is lower. This requires a greater number of dwellings units per acre.
There is much debate over specific densities that must be met to ensure certain levels of safety and diversity.
Jacobs believes that below about 80 units per acre, urban settings are problematic. Above 20 units, urban life and diversity begins but without the level of safety that is necessary. Other authors believe much lower densities are sustainable and are in fact preferable. Many practitioners are designing buildings at densities of six units per acre and calling that urban.
Obviously, this is a very difficult, controversial, and unsettled debate. The vast majority of the designers that are advocating and building the lower density projects are doing controlled and well financed developments rather than rebuilding, rehabbing, or in-filling in existing neighborhoods. In the vast majority of cases these developments do not include commercial space and could not be called mixed use. They may be pedestrian in scale but the paths are meaningless except for walking the dog.
It would be interesting to see what the zoning and codes for these developments have to say regarding running businesses out of them. Limited personal office space may be allowed, but how about some commercial retail or light assembly? Are these units for rent or for sale? Does a neighborhood association replace public policing? Are streets in these developments public or are they really different looking private parking lots?
At the end of her chapter on density, Jacobs makes a strange comment. It is silly to deny Americans are city people living in city economies. I disagree with this proposition. Historically, Americans are a rural people who formed cities for economic convenience, a kind of necessary evil. Among the reasons our ancestors left their homelands and came to America was to escape the disease and repression and unemployment of the cities of their native lands.
While I feel urban neighborhoods should be a choice available to all, suburbs are a legitimate response to factors, real or perceived, that have been in place for over 100 years. Whether they are a sustainable solution remains to be seen.
Diversity offers a highly ordered manner of living and is not the danger and chaos it has been portrayed to be over this past century. The differences among us create interest and strength. To this extent, it does require a shift in the world view. Strangers and others do not have to be seen as threatening. We need to be aware but not necessarily wary.
Issues of Decline and Regeneration
Parts Three and Four of Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities addresses specific issues related to the decline and regeneration in cities that support and illustrate the main body of her work. Rewording her thesis, Jacobs writes The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to developcities that are congenial places for the great range of unofficial plans, ideas, and opportunities . The means to accomplish this is mixed uses, multiplicity of paths, density, and differing age buildings.
The destruction of these attributes can occur from several forces. Too much of a single kind of success can occur. The Warehouse District could suffer from too many trendy bars and eateries while not providing stabilizing residential units and office space. Small amounts of duplicity can succeed, but too much chokes out all.
Duplicity denies other uses that add to diversity. The drive for high profit uses stagnates neighborhoods. The Warehouse District currently has a large number of speculative owners who are not developing their properties but are waiting for sufficient momentum to garner higher selling prices. These high selling prices will support only high income generating uses which in turn will guarantee a lack of diversity, which in turn will guarantee the failure of the district.
What can be done? Investors should be looking toward the south end of the Uptown area or the north end of Heritage South. This will create continuous up-grading of the urban structure and keep prices appropriate for development of a mixed-use neighborhood.
An important specific issue Jacobs discusses is border vacuums. These are created by massive single uses such as universities, rail lines, and stadiums. Borders divide a citys fabric or continuity which has an undesirable effect of dividing communities. Yet uses that create borders are often times necessary. Strategies to circumvent the negative effects must be used such as cross-uses which can make borders a seam rather than border.
Cross-use strategies include using bike paths along rail lines or allowing public use of university buildings. This can aid in making borders into seams. Urban design and architectural responses are needed to compensate for destruction brought by borders. Extra lighting, placement of commercial entities, and frequent paths through borders are helpful.
In discussing methods of unslumming, the process of reversing overcrowded single-use neighborhoods, Jacobs points out that some problems can be addressed with architectural solutions while others are more difficult and require social changes and governmental policy action. As discussed before, the paternalistic and patronizing modernist design of slums create problems.
Solutions having to do with good urban planning involve questions such as dwelling units per acre versus the number of people per dwelling and the definition of public and private space. These are solutions that are less expensive for our society to bear.
Subsidized housing in this century proved that the American people have a good deal of will and compassion to address the problem. Its failure was a result of untested and incorrect professional philosophy and design and was not the fault of the publics will or intent.
Government policy has driven settlement patterns toward new forms. By subsidizing road building and the fossil fuel and construction industries, suburbs became the most cost effective manner for individuals and families to live. Simultaneous subsidizing of public housing put the government in competition with private enterprise.
Cars needed a philosophy like modernism in order to ruin the city. The answer to over-crowding became to build more roads rather than build more housing units.
Segregated uses rather than mixed-use became the accepted norm and the law. All of this led to a windfall for construction and manufacturing, an artificial boon subsidized by government money and guaranteed by government policy.
Cities provide more opportunities and more choices, a greater freedom for its citizens. But cities require the ability to move around easily. Cars crowd out that ability by consuming more and more space. The more cars you have, the more space is required for cars and the more cars you need to get around - a classic Catch 22.
The car provides little for the city yet trucks provide much, especially in terms of commerce. The more space reserved for cars, the greater the need. The answer to crowded roads is more roads or fewer roads coupled with public transportation. The latter solution is more conducive to a healthy urban environment If you provide for the auto, it places a greater demand on the infrastructure of the city. A reduction in automobile use, on the other hand, will require a change in habit and lifestyle.
Jacobs uses the final chapter of her book to discuss her views of the visual order of cities. She believes that art can be woven into the city but that the city should not be confused with art itself. To approach a city or neighborhood as if it were an architectural problem Is to make the mistake of substituting art for life. This is a warning to the design professions. The social and economic life and behavior of people is more important than any architectural design, beautiful as it may be. In the context of the city, design may, indeed, hinder the development of a healthy urban environment. This was her main complaint against modernists and is a fair warning to new urbanists as well.