September 21, 2016

Adam Gopnick on Jane Jacobs – 4

Adam Gopnick in the New Yojrker does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.


Two core principles emerge from the book’s delightful and free-flowing observational surface. First, cities are their streets. Streets are not a city’s veins but its neurology, its accumulated intelligence. Second, urban diversity and density reinforce each other in a virtuous circle. The more people there are on the block, the more kinds of shops and social organizations—clubs, broadly put—they demand; and, the more kinds of shops and clubs there are, the more people come to seek them.
You can’t have density without producing diversity, and if you have diversity things get dense. The two principles make it plain that any move away from the street—to an encastled arts center or to plaza-and-park housing—is destructive to a city’s health. Jacobs’s idea can be summed up simply: If you don’t build it, they will come. (A third is less a principle than an exasperated allergy: she hates cars, and what driving them and parking them does to towns.)
There is an oddity, though. As in the scene of the little girl and her potential molester, the surprising virtues of the street in fighting crime are essential to Jacobs’s vision. Her work, written in the late fifties and the early sixties, seems obsessed with crime, and with insisting that crowded streets don’t make crime happen. Writing at the start of the crime wave that warped and reshaped so much for the next two decades or so, she is fiercely determined to prove that cities are not friends to criminality. One of her most emphatic arguments is that street play is actually safer than playground play, and that wider sidewalks are necessary to keep cities safe.

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