Legendary author and urban theorist Jane Jacobs passed away last week at the age of 89. Her classic 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” delivered a damning indictment of postwar city planning and urban renewal efforts, revolutionizing the way we think about and plan our cities.
A working mother with no formal education in urban planning, Jacobs became an icon in the 1960s when she mobilized citizens to fight the redevelopment and highway-construction plans of New York City planning czar Robert Moses, who wielded almost unchecked power over the city’s urban development during the mid-20th century. She famously led the effort that defeated Moses’ plan to build an expressway through Manhattan’s Washington Square Park and West Village, which would have displaced nearly 10,000 residents and workers and destroyed thousands of historic buildings.
Given urban planners’ almost universal reverence for Jacobs, it is ironic that many have largely ignored or misinterpreted the central lesson of “Death and Life” – that cities are vibrant living systems, not the product of grand, utopian schemes concocted by overzealous planners.
Modern planners have contorted Jacobs’s beliefs in hopes of imposing their static, end-state vision of a city. They use a set of highly prescriptive policy tools – like urban growth boundaries, smart growth, and high-density development built around light-rail transit systems – to design the city they envision. They try to “create” livable cities from the ground up and micromanage urban form through regulation. We’ve seen these tools at work in Portland, Ore., for more than three decades. But the results have been dismal and dramatic. The city’s “smart growth” policies effectively created a land shortage, constricting the housing supply and artificially inflating prices. By 1999, Portland had become one of the 10 least affordable housing markets in the nation, and its homeownership rate lagged behind the national average. It has also seen one of the nation’s largest increases in traffic congestion and boasts a costly, heavily subsidized light-rail system that accounts for just 1% of the city’s total travel. Not exactly how they planned it.
That’s because these planning trends run completely counter to Jacobs’s vision of cities as dynamic economic engines that thrive on private initiative, trial-and-error, incremental change, and human and economic diversity. Jacobs believed the most organic and healthy communities are diverse, messy and arise out of spontaneous order, not from a scheme that tries to dictate how people should live and how neighborhoods should look.
She felt it was foolish to focus on how cities look rather than how they function as economic laboratories. “The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop – insofar as public policy and action can do so – cities that are congenial places for [a] great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish,” Jacobs wrote.
Sadly, many in the Smart Growth and New Urbanism movements cite Jacobs as the inspiration for their efforts to combat so-called “urban sprawl” and make over suburbia with dense, walkable downtowns, mixed-use development, and varied building styles. While Jacobs identified these as organic elements of successful cities, planners have eagerly tried to impose them on cities in formulaic fashion, regardless of their contextual appropriateness and compatibility with the underlying economic order. In short, they’ve taken Jacobs’s observations of what makes cities work and tried to formalize them into an authoritarian recipe for policy intervention.
As Jacobs opined in a 2001 Reason magazine interview, “[t]he New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places that they develop….And yet, from what I’ve seen of their plans and the places they have built, they don’t seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They’ve placed them as if they were shopping centers. They don’t connect.”
Jacobs’s ideas came from the heart. Her foray into urban theory was partly inspired by the failed urban renewal efforts of the post-World War II era that displaced tens of thousands of poor and minority residents and resulted in the isolation or destruction of previously vibrant neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
Fundamentally, there is little difference behind the social engineering mentality of those who wrought the disaster of postwar urban renewal and the mindset of today’s planners trying to regulate away suburbia in hopes of master-planned urban living for everyone.
More and more, these planners are calling for the centralization of land-use control under state and regional governments, usurping the American tradition of local control over development. In the view of many planners, this command-and-control bureaucracy is needed because municipal planning is too “uncoordinated” to achieve “societally beneficial” goals like open-space preservation, mass transit and urban densification.
But if they go back and reread “Death and Life,” they’ll find Jacobs rightly asking, “How is bigger administration, with labyrinths nobody can comprehend or navigate, an improvement over crazy-quilt township and suburban governments?”
She went on to ridicule the idea of regionalism as “escapism from intellectual helplessness” predicated on the delusion that the problems planners are unable to solve at the local level will somehow be more easily addressed on a larger-scale, concluding that “no other expertise can substitute for locality knowledge in planning.”
Politicians and planners would do well to commemorate Jacobs by revisiting her work. Despite the best efforts of well-intentioned planners, you can’t “create” a vibrant city or neighborhood. The best cities and neighborhoods just happen, and the best thing we can do is to step out of the way of innovators and entrepreneurs.
Leonard Gilroy is a certified planner and policy analyst at the Reason Foundation. This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal. An archive of Gilroy’s research and commentary is here and Reason Foundation’s growth and land use research and commentary is here.