Thursday, July 28, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", by Jane Jacobs

"For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind."
2 Timothy 1:7

[Author's Note: We finished this book close to a month ago.  It's taken that long to digest.  While now is the appropriate time to commit these thoughts to writing, we will continue to unpack it in the coming months.]

The Death and Life of Great American Cities. by Jane Jacobs, is the most challenging book we've read in some time.  Written in 1961, the book details the failures of 'urban planning' wrought by the bureaucrats of that era.  Sadly, many of those attitudes have not only persisted among policy makers, it has expanded and become more entrenched.  All of Jacobs' predictions have, unfortunately, come to pass.  At the same time, however, Jacobs investigates and presents common traits of successful urban areas.  The problem is finding political will to implement them.  The final result is a product that, regardless of the political preconceptions one brings to the effort, will confirm some while rocking others to the core.

The biggest takeaway from Jacobs is that successful cities emerge from spontaneous order, not central planning.  Jacobs is SCATHING towards the ethos of the latter that, unfortunately, prevails to this day.  She decries a system where, "[O]nly supermen could understand a great city as a total, or as whole groups of districts, in the detail that is needed for guiding constructive actions and for avoiding unwitting, gratuitous, destructive actions" (410).  Residents of urban neighborhood are victimized by bureaucrats who "too often, we believe, make decisions about it from desks downtown" (122).  Even worse, "[E]xtraordinary governmental financial incentives have been required to achieve this degree of monotony, sterility, and vulgarity" (7).  Ouch.  And that's a small sample.

The biggest area where we were personally challenged was sidewalks.  In Jacobs' view, lively sidewalks are so essential to urban vitality that she devotes three chapters to the subject.  A widely used network of sidewalks is the foundation of public safety.  As Jacobs explains, safety is "kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls" (32).  When people use a city street for daily activity, it begets a sufficient number of eyes and ears to maintain public safety.  In the context of a city like Austin, which has a sidewalk deficit stretching back decades, this example illustrates how a modest expenditure on sidewalks could have an additional benefit beyond mobility.

Another critical component of successful streets is multiple uses over the course of the day.  Jacobs explains: "[T]he continuity of this movement (which gives the street its safety) depends on an economic foundation of basic mixed uses" (135).  For example, this concept would encourage the integration of residential and commercial uses over segregation via zoning laws.  When businesses serve their customers, in addition to the obvious economic benefits, it simultaneously creates a level of foot traffic that keeps residents safe.  And that's before we discuss the convenience factor we discuss the convenience factor of completing daily tasks within a short distance.

Speaking of zoning, another fun discussion was land-use restrictions for commercial locations.  Long story short: zoning restrictions create barriers to entry where competitive ecosystems had previously flourished.  This might be the greatest sentence of all time: "This protection -- which is nothing less than commercial monopoly -- is considered very 'progressive' in planning circles" (195).

That being said, nothing could have prepared us for Jacobs' discussion of the origins of sub-urbanization.  It turns out current suburban land use patterns are a New Deal legacy.  We quote Jacobs in full because there's nothing we can add:
The idea of diverting huge sums of money to thin suburban growth at the expense of starving city districts was no invention of the mortgage lenders (although they, as well as suburban builders, have now acquired a vested interesting in this routine).  Neither the ideal nor the method of accomplishing it originated logically within the credit system itself.  It originated with high-minded social thinkers.  By the 1930's, when the FHA methods for stimulating suburban growth were worked out, virtually every wise man of government -- from right to left -- was in favor of the objectives, although they might differ with one another on methods.  A few years previously, Herbert Hoover had opened the first White House Conference on Housing with a polemic against the moral inferiority of cities and a panegyric on the moral virtues of simple cottages, small towns and grass.  At an opposite political pole, Rexford G. Tugwell, the federal administrator responsible for the New Deal's Green Belt demonstration suburbs, explained, "My idea is to go just outside centers of population, pick up cheap land, build a whole community and entice people into it.  Then go back into the cities and tear down whole slums and make parks of them.  (310)
To put it mildly, this website has no use for the legacy of either Herbert Hoover or Franklin Roosevelt.

That's not to say, however, that density is a magic bullet.  Jacobs: "to assume that this is 'the' answer would be to oversimplify outrageously" (204).  To have a central planner decree 'let there be density' and dedicate large sums of money for this purpose would invite the same dangers giving central planners large sums of money always invites.  Instead, density should be encouraged over time, "densities should be raised...gradually rather than in some sudden, cataclysmic upheaval to be followed by nothing more for decades" (216); in other words, spontaneous order over central planning.

Jacobs makes several other fantastic points that we can't work into a coherent narrative, so we list them without comment:

  • Schools can't create 'good neighborhoods' (113).
  • A successful neighborhood has to be big and powerful enough to fight city hall (122).
  • The project that ultimately became the World Trade Center was doomed from the start (157).
  • "Public policy cannot directly inject private enterprise" (167).
  • Old buildings allow businesses that can't support new construction to be economically viable (188).
  • Cities are incubators of new industry (197); thus, it's completely natural for businesses to be in the city during their startup phase and move to the suburbs as they mature and need more space.
  • "The problem with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so" (271).
    • Author's Note: That's SERIOUSLY amazing....
  • Allowing neighborhoods to gradually 'unslum' on their own doesn't make special interests rich (288).
  • The federal tax code encourages slumlords (316).
  • Corruption gets "more inventive" over time (355).
  • Food trucks can add tremendous neighborhood diversity at minimal cost (396).
An online review cannot do this book justice.  It's taken a month to collect our thoughts to this point.  Read The Death and Life of Great American Cities for yourself with an open mind and an understanding that Jacobs doesn't fall neatly along the left/right spectrum.

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