Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Until the late 1950's, most city/urban planners in the USA were architects. Most schools blueprinted plans that indeed had cultural and sociological implications,  but either couldn't or refused to see that their biases had stark implications for the kinds of buildings and cities they envisioned. It wasn't until the late fifties, when sociologists became involved in questions of urban ethnicity and neighborhood richness and viability that cities were seen as more than collections of buildings, parks,streets, stores, traffic patterns and transportation grids.

Jane Jacobs, who never received a degree in architecture or urban planning, but whose freelance writing on urban neighborhoods took her to most of them, and many not visited by the owners and managers of the journals for which she wrote, saw something at work that she first labeled "weird wisdom" - people staying safe and content in areas which were labeled "slums" by urban planners. She went on to figure out what really made cities work: not high rises, random green spaces or rich people, and especially not areas which emphasized only one kind of spatial and time-marked use. Rather, the areas which seemed to work best for cities and city people were those that included short blocks, a variety of architecture, a variety of uses, a lack of one-usage zoning, and green spaces integrated into their neighborhoods.

Cities, she felt, especially city streets and areas, had to create diversity by helping it along in zoning. If there were too many buildings of one kind or one use, cities had to factor in different uses and help by welcoming other uses, and without labeling uses as immoral. Bars, for instance, could actually could serve as welcome spots for relaxation and natural anchors and eyes for night time travelers on their streets. On the other hand, if businesses such as banks proliferated in an area, they left little space for other uses, cross use, and night time use.

She compared cities to puzzles and city street orders to dances. She made urban planners and city dwellers aware that those who could only see building in terms of one or two variables (calling Robert Moses!) were destroying the natural, useful and healthy density of cities, neighborhoods and streets.

Jacobs, who loved Greenwich Village and, along with her husband, owned a building on Houston Street, left the USA in 1968 in order to make sure that her sons would not be drafted into the Vietnam War. From Toronto, she continued to work for diversity and natural density in cities, neighborhoods and streets.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is now required reading in urban planning and urban sociology classes.

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