The Death and Life of Great American Cities

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The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Jane Jacobs

Systems thinking 1960s style

There is so much that is breathtaking about this book. That its author, Jane Jacobs, had neither tertiary education nor experience in urban planning; that she published it sixty years ago yet its prescriptions depict uncannily the high-modernist attitudes that persist today; that Jacobs’ prescription, while superficially counterintuitive, is so visionary, pluralistic and brilliant. Anyone interested in how distributed networks should best be organised —or should be allowed to organise themselves — should read this, imaginative magnificent book.

It resonates with some other minor classics in adjacent fields over the last sixty years which caution against the folly of the reductionist, disposition which sees top-down control as the only way of harnessing the networks and mitigating the caprice of unreliable, inconstant individuals. Of course that's very unreliability and caprice is a feature and not a bug. Contributors to this of this contrary position are impressive: Adam Smith and Charles Darwin hashed out the basic template, and then a series of brilliant works in the middle of last century, of which Jane Jacobs’ was one of the first, gave these remote principles vivid articulation in specific fields. Jacobs’ was urban planning — wait: bear with me — and she targeted her ire at the likes of Le Corbusier and Robert Moses, father of what might have seen as still a good idea at the time, the housing project.

In doing so Jacobs articulates — or at any rate spookily anticipates — later developments in thinking on complexity, systems theory and (anti)fragility. So read Great American Cities with Seeing Like a State, Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents and Donella H. MeadowsThinking in Systems and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile and you will have the bones of a grand unifying theory of everything.

This contrarian, “bottom-up” thesis is simple: those on the ground generally understand their own predicament better, and are better placed, motivated and incentivised to make appropriate, quick, and proportionate decisions to improve it for themselves; that homo sapiens are naturally adapted to co-operate in unexpected ways if only given the chance and not presented with direct disincentives to doing so, and will go out of their way to do so if incentives run that way.

Yet in much modern management theory, regardless of how putatively liberal, the same conditions for disastrous central planning that James C. Scott recognises in Seeing Like a State are present: an unrealistic faith in simplistic organisational models that only make sense from 30,000 feet; an unshakable conviction that human relations are homogeneous and predictable and can be can be described without loss of fidelity by the these simplistic models; central authorities with the authority and capacity to impose their simplified designs on on the population; and a supine population without the will or faculty to resist them.

The self-direction that emerges from the aggregation of micro-decisions individuals with “skin in the game” can hardly fail to be more effective than a future state imagined by a public-spirited homunculus sitting in a corner office pulling levers. It is no bloody wonder that high-modernist incentive structures don’t work.

Yet here we are.

So, of the thundering, plainly right, observations Jacobs made in 1961, and which we seem to have forgotten, are these:

  • Streets, and not the buildings, and critically, not parks, that are the veins and arteries of the city. Where they are clearly demarcated from private space, regularly occupied, or mixed use, and where activity is there for all to see and as such there are eyes on the street belonging not to the authorities but to the “natural proprietors of the streets”, the conditions are right for a safe, dynamic and prosperous neighbourhood. It is where these conditions are not met —long blocks, deserted sidewalks, little diversity and especially and where buildings face away from the streets — as they tend to in the projects — that the security and vibrancy is lost.
  • Far from being calming influences, planned parks tend to be magnets for delinquency, crime and antisocial behaviour. The modernist view has the relationship between parks and streets exactly backwards.
  • A mixture of uses, residential and commercial, educational and recreational, together, adds cohesion, and reinforces positive feedback loops. This steadfastly flies in the face of modernist orthodoxy. Businesses open by day, bars by night, ensure that the street are constantly over-watched by those natural proprietors. School children should interact with shopkeepers and publicans. They will, soon enough!
  • You need old buildings as much as you need ones: not just fancy old ones, but also humdrum, run down, or even dilapidated old ones. For some members of the community, they will be all they can afford. If you have mechanisms to allow these people into the community in places they can with their limited means sustain, they have the opportunity for development. If the whole place has gentrified, there will people who can’t afford to live there.
  • The modernist disposition to organise, make efficient and eradicate redundancy and disorganisation in the organic community necessarily prioritises homogeneity and, at the limit, monopoly, and these accentuate fragility.

The “city” is comprised of people when and where you can see them, and they can see each other, and not when they’re behind closed doors and, as far as the city dynamic is concerned, out of circulation. This is a profound, but obvious, observation. It is hard not to analogise to our modern corporate sufferance. Are our carefully demarcated, siloed, ring-fenced and security-controlled sub-teams, where specialists in strictly demarcated functional units are penned together, away from other units, in separate “housing projects” optimised for a richness, diversity, and agility? It doesn’t really feel like it. And what does Jacobs’ observation that we naturally seek out humanity, and thrive most the more we have of it — that the sight of people in the street attracts people, and does not, as the modernists suppose, repel them — tell us about our modern(ist) obsession with secrecy, confidentiality, and proprietary information?

Central to her argument is the inestimable, practical value of diversity — not just the cosmetic facsimile it has become today, but real diversity, an essential foundational quality of any live community. The richness and variety of everyday life — the durability and vitality afforded by a great mix of different people of different ages, different backgrounds, different perspectives, different ways and means — this is the heartbeat of Jacobs’s observations. This collective — as long as it really is diverse — can adapt to anything. The city is an ecosystem. It depends on the caprice, slack, redundancy, oddness, idiosyncrasy and multiple facets to respond to the unexpected vicissitudes, and opportunities, that life presents us.

The very thought that we should leave the great unwashed to sort themselves horrifies the high-modernists, of course. Partly because it would leave them with so little to do. And this perspective infuses the prevailing dogma of modern business that, above all else, values scale. Scale afforded by technology, processing power and the amplifying effect of the distributed network. Scale emphasises efficiency and speed and the removal of cost, waste and redundancy: tightening margins, aggregating categories, standardising, commoditising, offshoring, compartmentalising, just-in-time producing, straight-through processing. These are exactly the dispositions advance by Le Corbusier, Robert Moses and the brutalist administrators of the post war accord.

Jacobs observes that diversity and efficiency are, at some level, mutually exclusive. You can’t move with infinite economy and have a multiplicity of viewpoints. You can’t have everyone housed in homogenous boxes and cater for every shape and size. You do one or the other. That is another profound idea. And so obvious, that it beggars belief no-one is harping on about it today. You can’t homogenise, economise, compartmentalise, rationalise, standardise and embrace caprice, idiosyncrasy and divergence. The high-modernist who claims commitment to diversity — and they all seem to — is lying.

This is the great, huge irony of our modernist diversity agenda: it’s so homogenous — so legible. We are expected to wear the same badges, signal the same virtues, declare ourselves each others’ allies as if there is a war on, or we are Stepford wives. That is not what Jacobs is talking about at all. She is talking about a variety, a serendipitous, redundant, overlapping, scattershot fripperousness that generates all kinds of unexpected opportunities and challenges. This is the richness of city.

That it was laid out with such clarity so long ago and with so little lasting effect has to make you a little pessimistic as to whether we will ever get there, but we can but battle on on in hope.

If, like me, you prefer your books on the go, buy with confidence, by the way: Penguin’s 50th anniversary audiobook is beautifully narrated by Donna Rawlins.

See also