Pin It
Favorite

Urban Warrior 

by Robert Herold & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & J & lt;/span & ane Jacobs died last week at age 89. A writer who made no claim to professional standing of any sort, she published her classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961. From that moment, America began to change the way it viewed urban life.


At that time, the late 1950s, American cities were not in good shape at all: "White flight" was emptying out the middle class; urban renewal and public housing were replacing so-called "slums" with sterile high-rises and "projects" that would produce ghastly, dehumanizing results; old buildings were being destroyed just because they were old; and freeways were being run right through downtowns. We recall the elevated Embarcadero, in San Francisco; completed in 1958, it walled off much of the waterfront until it was destroyed in 1991. Or consider the infamous "Highway in the Sky" in Boston: It displaced thousands upon thousands of people and destroyed almost as many structures while separating historic North Boston from the rest of the city. The "Big Dig" project brought down the sky highway in the mid-'90s.


Forty-five years after being published, Death and Life remains on every urbanist's must-read list.


Jacobs' vision has finally arrived in Spokane: the condominium boom, the mounting pressures against outmoded traffic engineering, mixed land use, higher density, growth management, the return of two-way streets, the emphasis on pedestrians, rediscovery of light rail, and our city's growing appreciation of the importance of street life and diversity.


Jane Jacobs saw it all first.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n New York City, where Jacobs lived in the '50s and '60s, her Public Enemy No. 1 was Robert Moses, who had his hands in everything from public housing to parks to freeway construction. Jacobs and her neighbors managed to prevent the man biographer Robert Caro referred to as "The Power Broker" from running a new freeway right through the middle of Washington Square.


She disagreed with reformers who sought to fix cities by abandoning them. The "Garden City" movement had been developing over the years and had won over the eminent social critic, Lewis Mumford. But Jacobs, breaking with Mumford, argued that Garden Cities weren't cities at all, but rather artificial solutions that lacked the necessary density and diversity. The answer wasn't to build ersatz cities; the answer lay in bringing our real cities back to life.


Nor did she think that the "modernist" solution associated with the architect Le Corbusier was any solution at all. He saw his "vertical" city, or, as he called it, "Radiant City," providing the Garden Cities with the necessary density and diversity. But to Jacobs, Corbusier's overly rationalized, automobile-centered and heavily scaled design would only make matters worse -- which, in her mind, so many of the modernist architects had already managed to accomplish.


Many, even today, say that Jacobs doesn't compare with Mumford, whose breadth, scope and theoretical depth Jacobs couldn't match. Jacobs, they sniff, wasn't at all well traveled or well schooled; she relied, say her critics, merely on anecdote. But all that is like saying that Alexis de Tocqueville's seminal insights into America should be dismissed because he based Democracy in America on nothing more than notes he made while riding through the country in a buggy for less than a year and talking to people along the way.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t is true that, like de Tocqueville, Jacobs came up with seemingly simple observations from which she drew her deeper insights. For example, she opens Death and Life with three chapters about sidewalks. Sidewalks? Yes, sidewalks.


She argues that sidewalks are critical to city life, that they serve to make "living with strangers" inviting. Then comes the broader implication: Sidewalks make "living with strangers" unthreatening while providing social contact. They also provide safety. And they assist in the "assimilation of children." (Jacobs even argued that kids may actually do better playing on sidewalks than in poorly designed parks.)


Her views about street safety preceded by almost two decades James Q. Wilson's important distinction between "order maintaining" and "crime fighting." If getting people out in public space is our goal, then safety must be our objective. Safety, argued Wilson, is more dependent on "order maintaining" than "crime fighting" and presumes the kind of citizen surveillance called for by Jacobs. Surveillance begins on the sidewalks. Thus a small observation leads to an important insight.


Jacobs objected to those urban planners who tend to view important things like sidewalks in narrow, functional terms -- i.e. they get you from one place to another on foot. If more happens along the way -- if people linger, or "hang out" or indulge in entertainment, then something must be wrong. Sidewalks, for too many planners, are viewed as single-use amenities. And her broader insight? Nothing should have a single use.


Which observation leads her to take on zoning, the stock in trade of planners. Zoning sanitizes the urban landscape, Jacobs argues, turning it into a boring place where no one wants to be.


Her criticism anticipated New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who once remarked that "life in New York is found in the cross streets."


Jacobs' example encourages us all to see the cross streets and allow them to flourish.
  • Pin It

Latest in Comment

  • Spilled Votes
  • Spilled Votes

    One last look at the conservative domination of the Idaho elections earlier this month
    • Nov 25, 2014
  • Making Spokane Pop
  • Making Spokane Pop

    Publisher's Note
    • Nov 25, 2014
  • Size Matters
  • Size Matters

    Class size isn't a silver bullet, but it will help
    • Nov 25, 2014
  • More »

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Today | Thu | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue
BRRC Turkey Trot

BRRC Turkey Trot @ Manito Park

Thu., Nov. 27, 9 a.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

Most Commented On

  • The Lives on the Bus

    Can the STA redesign the Plaza in a way that makes everyone happy?
    • Nov 12, 2014
  • Prisoners of War

    The war on drugs isn't over. Still in the feds' crosshairs: medical marijuana growers across eastern Washington
    • Oct 29, 2014
  • More »

© 2014 Inlander
Website powered by Foundation