Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jane Jacobs and the New Urbanism

"The term mixed use, which started as a sharp-eyed writer's observation of what underlies an organic urban fabric, has become a developer's mantra. Indeed, who could have envisioned the day when politicians and developers trying to sell New York on a gigantic football stadium beside the Hudson River would propose surrounding it with shops and cafes so that they could promote it as an asset to the city's street life? When that happened in 2004---when I heard people trying to sell the stadium as enriching street life---I knew the age of Jane Jacobs had entered a new phase, the phase that comes when radical ideas move into the mainstream and can be corrupted by those who claim to follow them. In the 21st century, the danger is not with those who oppose Jane Jacobs, but with those who claim to follow her.

She didn't have much patience with the New Urbanists, whose philosophy of returning to pedestrian-oriented cities would seem to owe a lot to Jacobs. But she found the New Urbanists hopelessly suburban, and once said to me, with a rhyming cadence worthy of Muhammed Ali, 'They only create what they say they hate.'

...I think of her less as showing us a physical model for cities that we need to copy and more as providing a model for skepticism."

"Uncommon Sense: Remembering Jane Jacobs, the 20th century's most influential city critic," by Paul Goldberger, The American Scholar, Autumn, 2006 (emphasis added).

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At 7:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...she found the New Urbanists hopelessly suburban."

Yes. These were/are guys who had visited Europe and thought that something could be planned/designed to have vibrant street life.

But that's only part of the picture. The real picture is that these areas developed naturally, over time, often with only the most rudimentary 'planning'.

The New Urbanists used the exact same processes that say, suburban developers would use, but applied this suite of methods instead to mixed-use and transit-oriented developments. Some succeeded and some failed.

We can't expect to plan economies and street life into existence. What planners have learned from New Urbanism is that we must instead set a few elements in place and let time and people take care of the rest.

It's impossible to plan something like Greenwich Village into existence. It's something that forms slowly, piece by piece, person by person, over many generations.

All planners can hope to do is help set the stage.

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Planners in SF think they know how to build "vibrant" neighborhoods, but it's hard to see how the Market/Octavia Plan, UC's massive housing development on lower Haight Street, or the highrise on Rincon Hill do anything but destroy and/or prevent the kind of neighborhoods Jane Jacobs liked from evolving. SF planners are also enamored of a false interpretation of the "transit oriented" neighborhoods, as if the city can jam an unlimited amount of new housing into the unfortunate Market/Octavia area. It's as if Jane Jacobs never lived.

At 6:00 PM, Anonymous Philip said...

I know little of Jane Jacobs reputation, philosophy or achievements.

The article however seems to imply that if there is any strategy Jacobs would be supportive of, it is restriction of auto-centric infrastructure.

It may not be possible to ensure vibrant community by design. But there is much can be done to avoid the elements which prevent the emergence of vibrant communities.

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It may not be possible to ensure vibrant community by design. But there is much can be done to avoid the elements which prevent the emergence of vibrant communities."

This is it exactly.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

This is exactly what SF is not doing with the Rincon Hill highrises, the Market/Octavia Plan, and UC's massive housing development on lower Haight Street.

At 11:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep, highrise development is that 'Manhattanization' of San Francisco that many of us are against.

Jane Jacobs would certainly argue against highrises in her parts of Manhattan to keep them from becoming like mid-town (which is what the Manhattanization epithet really refers to, it seems).

An interesting idea would be to develop an apartment building that didn't have parking (or had dramatically reduced parking requirements).

We're not doing the city any favors by building developments that will just lead to more car traffic on the streets.

Two experiments, a car-free and a car-lite building; and nothing over 5 floors.

At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Goodplanner said...

Jane Jacobs wrote her most important book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" as a response to the demolition of neighborhoods with street life for redevelopment proposals that put people in tall buildings without "eyes on the street". It was required reading for me in college. She recommended bay windows and porches and other things to make streets as humane as possible, and noted that it improved safety.

My assessment is that she would have been horrified at tearing down of low-rise buildings and building monsterous, impersonal high rises with interior hallways.

The problem in San Francisco is not the cars; its the density! Rather than see how many people we should cram into another high-rise, we should be encouraging the "village flavor" in more of our inner suburban ring with walk-up townhouses and condos wherever possible.


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