Jane Jacobs is everywhere, even when you don’t see her

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:

Cities, buses, and bikes

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.

11 responses

  1. Ah, Jane Jacobs. She’s been haunting me since I was an Urban Studies major at the University of Minnesota more than four decades ago. I now live in downtown Santa Monica, CA. Poor Jane would be both delighted and appalled at what has happened to downtown SM since I last lived here in the early 1980s (when Jake was a pup). SM then was a sleepy beach town with not much going for it except the ocean breezes. Now, it is a center of hipster culture in LA. Blocks of typical LA one story storefronts have been demolished and replaced with check by jowl five story apartment buildings, each of which has an expensive locavore restaurant and vaguely Euro hair salon on the ground floor. I rented a unit on the top floor of one of these and have a sweeping east view, but most units face other units since the SM planners failed to require varied building eighths. Note to planners: one can get about the same density with a three story building next to a six story buildings while also creating views and a much more pleasing streetscape than the East German-like approach of marching five story buildings up and down the avenues. So, Jane would like the density, but not the execution. She would also like the fact that light rail will arrive a block from my place in a year or two, the chaotic street life of the 3rd Street Promenade (one of the only successful pedestrian street conversions in American; these were very popular in the 60s, but most failed, including the one on Seattle on Pike or Pine) and the wonderfully hokey and preserved Santa Monica pier, but perhaps not the intrusion of the terminus of the SM Freeway in downtown, the many public parking structures (five stories once again) and the very dated Santa Monica Place mall. Still, I can find vestiges of the old downtown SM by walking east to the Busy Bee Hardware, $15 pr cut barbershops and old style coffee shops, rather than west to $30 plates of housemade pasta, $12 cocktails and $4 lattes. Perhaps Jane would like downtown SM after all with its juxtaposition of tired and trendy, hard against Palisades Park and the endless Pacific.


  2. “Jacobs didn’t understand one important part of basic economics, which is that restricting demand in the face of increasing supply raises prices.”

    Sorry, this is foolish. Jacobs was an excellent economist, and if you don’t believe me, listen to Nobel Prize winner Robert Lucas, who cited Jacobs’ influence on his own theories of economic development.

    Jacobs understood, though, that neighbourhoods go through cycles, and the Greenwich Village of the 1950s wasn’t going to remain unchanged.


    • Jacobs understood, though, that neighbourhoods go through cycles, and the Greenwich Village of the 1950s wasn’t going to remain unchanged.

      “Citation needed,” as they say on Wikipedia.

      Jacobs was an excellent economist, and if you don’t believe me

      Maybe so, but I wrote that she “didn’t understand one important part of basic economics.”


  3. Didn’t you mean to write, “restricting supply in the face of increasing demand raises prices”? I get the impression from reading Jacobs that she just sort of assumed that in a well-governed city, more and more places would become attractive. This increasing supply would keep prices relatively stable.


    • Here is Jacobs on supply and demand:

      JHK: How did Greenwich Village fare over the fifty, sixty years that you have known it.

      JJ: Oh, it has done very well. If other city neighborhoods had done as well there would be not trouble in cities. There are too few neighborhoods right now so that the supply doesn’t nearly meet the demand. So they are just gentrifying in the most ridiculous way. They are crowding out everybody except people with exorbitant amounts of money. Which is a symptom that demand for such a neighborhood has far outstripped the supply.


      Jacobs was skeptical about the ability to design a functioning new neighborhood with central planning. She thought a good functioning neighborhood required a diversity of ideas and building types. She thought that new buildings are restricted by their most economical forms, and this made building a functioning new neighborhood from scratch impracticable. She was not anti-density; she was pro-density.

      Not to deny that there is nimby-ism in San Francisco, and SF could definitely have more housing, but the areas, like SOMA and by the ballpark, that are getting the most new housing are not great neighborhoods and are not becoming great neighborhoods. They are better off than they were before, so go ahead build more housing. But, don’t kid yourself.

      SF also has large sections of single family homes that lack the density to support great walkable neighborhoods. They are basically street car suburbs in which increasing density will be hard to do.


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