Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Jane Jacobs and The Difficulty of City Planning

A major figure in the history of urban planning passed away last week, one who single-handedly challenged and brought down the orthodoxy of her day. Jane Jacobs, who rose to fame with her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, unflinchingly pointed to the mistaken assumptions that led designers to create dreadful crime-ridden super-blocks under the rubric “urban renewal”. In our current obsession to preserve as much historic urban fabric as possible, even to re-create it from scratch in some places, it is difficult to understand that throughout most of the twentieth, improving a city meant to demolish the old and replace with newer, supposedly more enlightened, public projects. Le Corbusier was among the biggest champions of such a view, and is frequently cited as the guiding influence for numerous faceless modernist urban blocks throughout the world. Nowadays, to improve the city is to restore the elements that once made urban life enjoyable, emphasizing sidewalks, mixed-uses and preserving the character of old neighborhoods.

Such a changed consensus on planning is largely due to Jacobs’ firm stance, who as an outsider to architectural planning circles and no academic herself. She steadfastly took apart principles that guided the practice of urban design since the late nineteenth century while proposing more workable solutions without even needing to graphically illustrate them. This was contrary to the traditional evolution of architecture, which consisted usually a graphic proposal followed by a graphic response. This explains why pattern books and monographs were crucial in the popularization of new styles of architecture. Part of the reason Le Corbusier’s ideas for the “Radiant City” were so popular was due to his clean and dream-like renderings. Jacobs did not respond by proposing a new architectural order, but by teaching us to think about urban problems as they actually to happen, not as the result of some abstract excuse like ‘poverty’ or ‘discrimination’.

And that is actually one of the most striking things about Jacobs’ book: she refutes the planners--a group that communicates strictly in forms and patterns--by using her knowledge sociology and daily human interactions without ever discussing in terms of architectural form or styles. She reveals a common flaw among all designers of habitable environment: that often they are driven by notions of how things ‘should’ work rather than finding how things actually work. A designer will claim that by putting a park here, a shopping strip there, and so much housing nearby, that an area will be filled with joyous crowds and that the neighborhood will rejuvenate by virtue of thoughtful design. After all, a drawn plan is essentially graphic depiction of how an organization of spaces ‘should’ work. The problem with this approach to solving urban problems is that it simplifies the way humans interact with their environment and with each other.

There are countless reasons why people do the things they do, many on a purely irrational basis. Dallas’s West End features charming historic architecture, manicured pedestrian zones, excellent public transit access, and a historic museum that draws many tourists. And still on any given day, you will find many times more people inside a gargantuan blue and yellow box surrounded by a sea of parking next to an unfinished highway. Why would they rather be in the latter situation? Because people have developed an inexplicable, and thus irrational, loyalty to the IKEA brand. A designer can only at best guess where people are likely to congregate, but much of the success of a development relies on understanding the reality beyond the drawings. The nature of particular businesses, the habits of certain social classes, and the informal systems of ensuring security and social trust will be more critical to the success of creating lively public spaces than the design. Still, Jacobs understand that design matters in facilitating the social mechanisms needed for success. Rather than being prescriptive, she favors restrictions on certain architectural tendencies that destroy fundamental human relationships.

Other writers have labeled Jane Jacobs as a libertarian, and I can see why that is so. If one reads libertarian publications, particularly like Reason Magazine, you will find that much of their writing focuses on issues at a very intimate yet practical level. Jacobs, who based all of her research on her own personal observations and conversations with others (she rarely cites any outside sources), is able to present a mundane yet revealing perspective on the various ways people behave and relate. Libertarians often propose original solutions to problems by discarding idealistic values in favor purely pragmatic ones. Their beliefs on general philosophy and political theory are simple and consistent, which allows them complete freedom to consider alternatives that may upset most people’s moral instincts. Whether it is the complete legalization of drugs to the dismantling of the welfare state, libertarians are not afraid to question and propose our most cherished assumptions about how to improve our lives. Jacobs ascribes no intrinsic value to open space and parks, since they are dependent on surrounding social factors. And she definitely ascribes little value building as a way to solve social problems, similar to the closely held libertarian belief that it is futile to throw more money at a problem if its diagnosis is flawed.

Jacobs’ main contribution to urban studies is the realization that cities are more about the people that populate the city than it is about its physical forms and structures. They are a dynamic confluence of culture, commerce, leisure and individuals making countless decisions that affect how urban spaces are inhabited. It’s a messier state of affairs than what an elegant master-plan describes, and often the outcomes of what happens to an area has more to do with factors outside the realm of design, such as poor law-enforcement, the macro-economic context or punitive taxation. With all these considerations, it’s no wonder that the practice of urban design could be considered too confined by abstraction. One studio I took at school entailed the master-planning of an existing European city. The recommended strategy at the time was to map prevailing existing patterns found in the surrounding urban fabric, to overlap these patterns on top of each other in order to ascertain evident graphical densities that would influence new urban forms. This process was fun and fascinating, but it was all so abstract that it instilled a feeling of uneasiness in me when thinking about how the actual inhabitants would perceive my ambitious construct. To defend my scheme, I came up with all sorts of rationalizations of why I zoned particular functions in certain areas and why it was a good idea to put a park that space but not in that one. In the end it was a lot of wishful thinking, but the renderings were seductive enough to receive favorable reviews.

Still planning is a noble pursuit, since a certain amount of visual consistency and order gives a city a useful legibility that makes its inhabitants comfortable. And despite the relative dearth of information an urban master-plan provides compared to the reams of construction documents for single buildings, urban design is considerable intellectual undertaking. It isn’t enough to follow rules of thumb in design, which are often abstract tools. It also requires a deeper understanding what people are really like.

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