Politics & Policy

Keeping Cities Free

Jane Jacobs was a prescient defender of cities from stifling, centralized government urban planning.

The passing of Jane Jacobs this week calls to mind the following passage from her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

The economic value of new buildings is replaceable in cities. It is replaceable by the spending of more construction money. But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time. This economic requisite for diversity is a requisite that vital city neighborhoods can only inherit, and then sustain over the years.

It was this dissent from reigning orthodoxies of planning and “urban renewal” which, no doubt, caused William F. Buckley Jr., to include a chapter from Jacobs’s book in his anthology, American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century (1970). The chapter was titled “The City: Some Myths About Diversity” and dealt with successful and unsuccessful cityscapes, not race or gender.

Jacobs focused on the uses of space and buildings, both economic and domestic, which brought a richness and energy to the urban context. She argued:

Flourishing city diversity, of the kind that is catalyzed by the combination of mixed primary uses, frequent streets, mixture of building ages and overheads, and dense concentration of users, does not carry with it the disadvantages of diversity conventionally assumed by planning pseudoscience.

Sounding like a true Burkean, Jacobs warms to her theme:

When we build, say, a business area in which all (or practically all) are engaged in earning their livings, or a residential area in which everyone is deep in the demands of domesticity, or a shopping area dedicated to the exchange of cash and commodities–in short, where the pattern of human activity contains only one element, it is impossible for the architecture to achieve a convincing variety–convincing of the known facts of human variation. The designer may vary color, texture, and form until his drawing instruments buckle under the strain, proving once more that art is the one medium in which one cannot lie successfully.

This unremitting hostility to a Cartesian approach to urban planning led Robert Nisbet to classify Jacobs as yet one more expression of the bitter reactions that began in the late 1940s, or even earlier, to urban renewal and what was called “the Federal bulldozer.” According to Nisbet

Jane Jacobs is only the most eloquent of experts on town and city planning to register dismay at the callous destruction in the larger cities of old and tightly constituted communities, some ethnic, some occupational, most merely local, under the spur of Federal programs of urban reconstruction. It would well be that the greatest and most valuable single consequence of such nationalization programs is the counteracting awareness on the part of individuals of how much locality means in their lives.

While Jacobs was anything but a political conservative, she anticipated at least parts of the 1968 neoconservative classic, The Unheavenly City (1968) by Edward Banfield. (Remember when neoconservatives used to talk about domestic issues?) Banfield recognized that, strange as it may seem, “the mammoth government programs to aid the cities are directed mainly toward the problems of comfort, convenience, amenity, and business advantage. Insofar as they have any effect on the serious problems, it is, on the whole, to aggravate them.”

“Urban renewal has also turned out to be mainly for the advantage of the well-off–indeed, the rich–and to do the poor more harm than good,” said Banfield. “To the least well-off, ‘blight’ was a blessing. They were able, for the first time in their lives, to occupy housing that was comfortable.” Banfield predicted the phenomenon now characterized as “gentrification”:

If the populations of the inner cities are not again replenished by low-income immigrants…the time will come when cleared land in the depopulated central city will be worth less than vacate land in heavily populated suburbs. When this time comes, the direction of metropolitan growth will reverse itself: the well-off will move from the suburbs to the cities…

So it was that in 1975 the American Institute of Architects’ jury on honors recognized Jacobs as “one of the earliest liberal opponents of such a generally accepted liberal programs as urban renewal and city planning.” The Washington Post claims “she was regarded as a chief influence on the ‘new urbanism” architecture and planning movement to restore multi-use neighborhoods–retail and residential functions–in aging urban centers.”

Jane Jacobs eschewed the 18th century sentimentalization of nature (e.g., Jefferson’s rejection of cities or Marie Antoinette’s playing milkmaid) and embraced the medieval saying, “City air makes free.” Back then a serf could obtain his freedom if he could make his way inside the city walls. “City air still makes free the runaways from company towns, from plantations, from factory-farms, from subsistence farms, from migrant picker routes, from mining villages, from one-class suburbs,” wrote Jacobs.

For conservatives of a distinctly non-agrarian bent, these are words to remember.

May she rest in peace.

G. Tracy Mehan III, a native of the City of St. Louis, was assistant administrator for water at EPA in President Bush’s first term.


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