May 16, 2016

What Jane Jacobs Missed

By Alex Marshall:


Not far from Jane Jacob’s famed home on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, and the White Horse tavern, and her famous street ballet, lies the West Fourth subway stop at 6th Avenue and 4th Street. It’s a massive thing, one of the largest in the entire system, with eight tracks across four platforms on two levels. Seven subway lines—the A, B, C, D, E, F and M—connect there, and the station pumps thousands of people per hour onto the streets of the quaint village. This stop, and the trains and tunnels it leads to, are crucial to how Greenwich Village functions.

Yet Jacobs makes virtually no mention of this stop nor, amazingly enough, the New York City subway system in her masterpiece and most influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This omission points to something Jacobs didn’t get, which was infrastructure: the big systems that make a city work. …

… let’s look at something she loved, density. How do you get density in an urban neighborhood? You have to make it possible for a lot of people to live well within a small amount of space. This means few or no cars. If people need cars, then they need parking spaces for their cars, and the parking eats up the land and the possibilities for density. So you need subways, streetcar lines and buses. Jacobs didn’t talk much about that in Death and Life, nor did she talk about the other big systems cities rely on. …

I suspect her tendency to not focus on big systems stemmed from her dislike of government, which is necessary to create big systems. Although she is viewed as a woman of the left, she shared with today’s right a deep suspicion of government, particularly big government.  … (But) there’s no escaping that if you love the Great American City, as Jacobs did, you have to love, or at least respect, the big systems that make them possible.

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  1. There is an alternative to city building that everyone seems to want to miss . . . . . . that is the incremental city where the city is developed by semi-self-contained villages. There are many elements to the modern city, now that everyone and every thing is linked electronically, that are accessible by just walking the dog. Of course some civic elements can only be central but we are at a stage were our ostensibly happy (according to Gordon) planners need to reassess who they are and where they are going . . .

  2. Perhaps her dislike of government was informed by New York City in her time, led by (unelected) Robert Moses who was bent on “modernizing” the city. It was precisely his particular taste in “big systems” that she was fighting against. Note also that she may not have shared your view that government was necessary to create this critical piece of infrastructure, since the NYC subway system was largely built by competing private enterprises (though the W 4th IND stop is an exception). Since the government took over NYC’s subway system, it has largely gone downhill and there have been few significant improvements in the ensuing 80 years. So it could be that, from her vantage, government wasn’t the indispensable change agent for urbanism, but the opposite. Of course, she took a similarly dim view of Moses’ slum clearance and tower-in-the-park housing projects.

    Separately, one thing I think we should consider is that Jacobs’ initial writings were describing a very different city than our own, and quite different from other cities in western North America. In New York, she organized protests against giving over the city to the automobile. It was a city whose pre-industrial heritage had allowed it to grow organically as a transit and pedestrian friendly place. The postwar vintage of most of our city gives us no such luxury. To Jacobs, if Moses would leave well enough alone that great heritage could be preserved. But other cities, like our own, face a different problem: reclaiming the city from the car. This situation really does call for government-led modernization. In other words, being a NIMBY made sense for urbanism in Jacobs’ context, but it won’t work for us.

  3. I’m not going to jump down Jane Jacobs’ throat for neglecting to also thank mass transit for its contribution to making urban neighbourhoods possible. She could have also gone on at length about the wonder of water tunnels, fibre optic cables, and high pressure gas lines.

    To Mr. Marshall, I say, “Relax. Please quit acting like a pro football player who feels ‘disrespected’ because the other team got more media coverage that week.” I’m sure Jane Jacobs was very impressed with subways.

    1. I agree about Jacobs, but I don’t think the article is really about her. Rather, it is using her to make a point about the relevance of government to an American audience. This is clear from the reference to public health care in the penultimate sentence: “We need government, sometimes big government, to do the big things that need doing, from national health care, to a decent train system between cities.” This emphasis is perhaps less obvious here, where there is broad support for government’s role.

      Something else caught my eye: “She and her devotees can focus too much on design, without recognizing the larger context that design lies within.” Again, I think this is unfair to Jacobs herself – she responded to the needs of a particular moment with insights that were revolutionary. Yet the point stands. I recently came across the term “bikeshedding,” which refers to the tendency of critics to focus on approachable but relatively unimportant details while ignoring the big picture. For example, focusing on the height or look of towers rather than the ground-level streetscape; or on the aesthetics of streets or neighbourhoods rather than whether they provide connectivity, services and community; or (to borrow an example from this blog) on the preservation of heritage architecture rather than the preservation of neighbourhood vitality.

      1. Right. We should not be debating details but instead identifying values. Then when something new comes along or is proposed we just have to see if it supports those values or not.

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