Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life

Roger Scruton
1 May 2006

Jane Jacobs wrote little, held no academic position, and espoused views that were widely dismissed as reactionary and impractical. But to turn now to her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, is to encounter a store of wisdom and insight that the intervening years have only served to confirm.

Jacobs, who died in Toronto on 25 April 2006, was perhaps the first person to see clearly that cities can be successful only if they solve a huge problem of coordination, and that theories of the market which argued for the impossibility of solving such problems by a comprehensive plan, ought equally to apply to cities. Cities, she argued, should develop spontaneously and organically, so as to enshrine in their contours the unintended results of the consensual transactions between their residents; only then will they facilitate the peaceful evolution of urban life. A true city is built by its residents, in that every aspect of it reflects something that results from what uncountably many residents have wanted, rather than something that a few experts have planned.

Modernist housing projects, which stack people vertically instead of allowing them to live side-by-side in streets, cause estrangement and social disintegration. Zoning laws which banish industry to one part of town, offices to another part and shopping to yet another, leave the residential areas deserted in the daytime, and lacking the principal hubs of social communication. Building styles which appropriate whole blocks, or thrust jagged corners in the way of pedestrians, prevent the emergence of the principal public space: the street.

Streets, with doors that open on to them from houses that smile at them, are the arteries and veins, the lungs and digestive tracts of the city – the channels through which all communication flows. Nothing is more important in protecting urban life than the defence of the street against expressways and throughways, against block development, and against comprehensive plans which assign whole areas of a town to a single and transient function, and which therefore guarantee that the town will decay when that function expires. A street in which people live renews itself as life renews itself; it has eyes to watch over it, and shared forms of life to fill it.

Jacobs developed those ideas in prophetic pages that foretold the death of American cities, as the middle classes flee to the suburbs, as multi-storey car-parks colonise the centres, as the old genial terraces, deprived of the wealth that would maintain them, fall into decay and as crime, road-rage and addiction take up their allotted place in the centre of town. The situation against which she warned can be studied in downtown Detroit and Minneapolis, not to speak of the bidonvilles around Paris, which in the riots of October-November 2005 puked up an alienation fermenting for thirty years in their concrete stomachs.

Her message has been taken up and refined in recent years by James Howard Kunstler who, in The Geography of Nowhere (1994), describes the aesthetic and moral disaster of American urbanisation, as the zoning laws drive people constantly further from their places of work and recreation, leaving the abandoned wreckage of fleeting businesses in their wake. Kunstler has gone on to argue (in The Long Emergency [2005]) that suburbanisation – which is the only consensual solution to the disaster – is unsustainable, and that America is preparing a long-drawn-out emergency for itself when the oil runs out.

Whatever the response to Kunstler's doom-scenario, Jacobs's original argument ought surely to earn her an honourable place in all discussions of the urban future. Most of the official and semi-official institutions concerned with planning in Britain (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment [Cabe], the Royal Institute for British Architects [Riba], and English Heritage, for example) express themselves as though her warnings had never been uttered.

Yet the evidence of their wellfoundedness is everywhere on display. Take a look at Coventry, or Milton Keynes, or any of the standard results of the planning mentality in Britain, and you will encounter just the disaster that Jacobs foretold: empty centres, lonely suburbs, ugly high-rises, streets that have lost their eyes, their lungs and their souls, and the motor-car in charge.

Also in openDemocracy's debate on urbanisation and planning, contributions by Leon Krier, Colin Ward, Ben Plowden, Jane Ridley, Sophie Jeffreys, and others

Spontaneity vs planning

The question that Jacobs has bequeathed to us remains unanswered, however. How do we get out of the mess? If the problem is planning, how can we plan to avoid it? And is there no distinction between a good plan and a bad plan? Wasn't Venice planned, after all, and Ephesus, and Bath, and a thousand other triumphs of urbanisation? Just to allow a free-for-all is to replace the city with a shantytown.

Perhaps the wisest response to Jacobs's argument therefore is to point to the distinction between positive plans and negative constraints. Although a free economy is needed if we are to solve the problem of economic coordination, freedom must be contained, and it is contained by law. Legal side-constraints ensure that cheats will not prosper. Likewise with the city: there must be planning; but it should be envisaged negatively, as a system of side-constraints, rather than positively, as a way of "taking charge" of what happens where.

Thus Helsinki, which grew within the constraint that no building must rise above the height that would entirely fill the street with shadow, developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries into one of the most genial and people-friendly of places. Similar rules have preserved the urban character of Geneva and Washington, just as the law demanding the use of Roman pan-tiles has preserved the landscape and townscape of Provence.

Constraints on materials, styles, heights, and sizes, rather than on functions; recognition of the street as the primary public space, and of pedestrians as the primary users of it; preservation of façades and street frontages, while facilitating change of use behind them: all such remedies, which are slowly emerging (for example in the renewal of Baltimore and other damaged American cities) and which have been powerfully advocated and illustrated by Leon Krier at Poundbury and by the New Urbanists in Italy and America – all owe an incalculable debt to Jane Jacobs.

But they also illustrate the way in which her own preference for "spontaneity" over "planning" cannot, in the end, be sustained. It is not planning that has destroyed the American city, but the wrong kind of planning directed towards the wrong kind of things.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData