In a Reddit thread someone recently asked:
Who the hell actually thinks Jane Jacobs has any influence on Seattle’s urban planning?
Through The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs has influenced urban planning in every American city at the very least and perhaps every city in the world, though I can’t speak to the experience of other countries.
Jacobs correctly observed that city planners, most notably and famously Robert Moses, were bulldozing important areas for highways and other sub-optimal uses, and that communities should have more of a say in what happens regarding development, especially development that uses eminent domain. In addition, she correctly observed that city planners were frequently disconnected from the way people actually live, which is somewhat similar to the way academic literary critics today are disconnected from the way people actually read.
But by now the pendulum between “planners ruler” and “community veto” has swung too far in the opposite direction: today NIMBYs and People United Against Everything (PUAE) have too much power, and we’re seeing the consequences in most places anytime anyone tries to build subways, rail, or housing. In many places, with San Francisco and New York leading the pack, supply restrictions on building have led to enormous housing cost increases, but markets can’t effectively respond because a small number of incumbent property owners can block new, private developments.
I’m optimistic about cities over the medium term, but in the short term the real problem faced by cities is not too little “community” input but too much, usually represented by a relatively small number of NIMBYs and busybodies—the process privileges existing homeowners and the fact that “only socially and psychologically abnormal people want to waste their evening showing up to neighborhood hearings.”
Still, Jacobs’ influence remains, and this essay by Edward Glaeser, comparing Jacobs and Robert Moses, demonstrates how their ideas have come to define a great deal of what people think about cities. This is especially important:
Moses was also right that cities need infrastructure. People cannot just argue forever on an unpaved street corner. They need homes to live in and streets to travel along and parks for relaxation. Jacobs underestimated the value of new construction—of building up.
Jacobs didn’t understand one important part of basic economics, which is that restricting supply in the face of increasing demand raises prices. Someone like Jacobs can’t afford to live in Greenwich Village today because the housing is too expensive. Most of Manhattan and much of New York more generally has priced out the middle class, in part due to the rules and laws that stem from Jacobs’ victories; instead of living in the city, those people are now driving cars in Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix. Places like Seattle and Portland are somewhere between Atlanta and New York, but even Seattle won’t allow sufficient development to allow for middle-class growth.
The language Jacobs uses in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is sometimes dangerous, as when she says that “streets or districts which do have good primary mixtures and are successful at generating city diversity should be treasured, rather than despised for their mixture and destroyed by attempts to sort out their components from one another.” She’s right about mixed-use areas being valuable, but the word “treasured” is a problem: a mixed-used building that is three stories tall can be equally good at being mixed-use with thirty stories. Treasuring buildings that already exist can lead to the San Francisco problem, and San Francisco itself is only the furthest along example of what happens when supply can’t meet demand.
There is one thing I think Glaeser gets wrong in his article:
Jacobs was right that cities are built for people, but they are also built around transportation systems. New York was America’s premier harbor, and the city grew up around the port. The meandering streets of lower Manhattan were laid down in a pedestrian age. Washington Square was urban sprawl in the age of the omnibus. The Upper East Side and Upper West Side were built up in the age of rail, when my great-grandfather would take the long elevated train ride downtown from Washington Heights. It was inevitable that cars would also require urban change. Either older cities would have to adapt, or the population would move entirely to the new car-based cities of the Sunbelt. [. . . ] No matter what Jacobs thought, there simply was not a car-less option for New York.
The issue with older cities is less about cars than about older cities doing what they do well: density, public interfaces, and so forth. Instead of trying to capitalize on the strengths of older cities, older cities built the massive highways and parking lots Jacobs and her acolytes eventually learned to fight. Sometimes the response to a technology shift isn’t to attempt to ape the shift but to make sure you focus on doing your core strength better—which many cities have utterly failed to do.
When the car began spreading in earnest in the 1920s, the total U.S. population was 106,021,537. In 1930 it was 122,775,046. Today it’s approximately 316,000,000. Moving to a highly car-dependent lifestyle made sense for a long time, but now a lot of urban areas are simply choked by them. This famous photo from the City of Muenster Planning Office succinctly demonstrates the problem, as does L.A. during rush hour:
Education is also part of the city puzzle, since it’s provided publicly and, usually, on a per-city basis. For much of the period from approximately 1970 – 2010, it was possible for parents to outrun well-meaning but poorly executed court degrees pertaining to school districting. It’s hard to measure the extent to which school busing and similar schemes drove many parents to the suburbs, even if they would’ve liked to stay in cities. This 2006 WSJ piece describes some of the pernicious consequences that are still reverberating in Seattle, which is a microcosm for the problems elsewhere. Schools and real estate both show the same basic principle: when principles meet self-interest, self-interest usually wins. Everyone favors low- and moderate-income housing in theory but don’t want it in their neighborhood, and everyone favors racial integration in theory unless their kid gets moved to the worse school.
Still, that’s tangential to Jacobs’s main points and how they affect contemporary decisions in cities. That I’m still citing Jacobs’ work more than 50 years later demonstrates its importance. To the extent any normal person has heard of anyone having anything to do with urban planning, they’ve heard of Jacobs and Moses. Pretty much anyone with any formal education in the subject has not only heard of them but read at least excerpts of their writing. It’s like being in English lit and wondering who this Shakespeare guy is.