Without Jane Jacobs, our cities wouldn’t be less diverse and public health would suffer.
In honor of Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday today, there are many wonderful encomiums on the web, including at Vox, the Guardian, and a rich, multi-faceted post at Curbed. And of course, more on Google. All are well worth reading, but Jacobs is chiefly remembered for her influence on urban planning. I think she might have taken issue with that characterization. After all, Jacobs was always interested not in what people could do for cities, but what cities could do for people.
Jacobs had human thriving as her touchstone in all she did. In that sense, she was a kindred soul of public health. Her descriptions of sidewalks are evocative and revealing. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she described how sidewalks provide safety, social capital, and education for children, a description that was as surprising in its new insight as it was familiar in how it rings true for anyone who has lived in successful cities. Jane Jacobs gave us terms like “eyes on the street” and “social capital” and the “sidewalk ballet”. She observed that parks without strong amenities go largely unused, and that public squares are best when there is a diversity of uses around them. In that sense, she was a public health pioneer, developing ideas about public health and the built environment that we’re still catching up with.
The core of her advice to cities was to promote density, diversity, safety, and stability. She insisted on a diversity of economic uses, and said that cities would work for people only if there are some high-yield enterprises, some low-yield ones, and some with no yield at all. She deplored racial insensitivity, and in fact argued that cities would work only if there is room for all. In fact, she went further, arguing that one of the main points of cities is to allow people to experience the Strange.
Some have criticized Jacobs ideas for fostering gentrification or segregation. No criticism could possible ring more false for anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with her work. Jacobs herself explicitly warned of the dangers of gentrification and segregation. Cities destroy themselves with too much success, she said.
But it is true that some people have misunderstood Jane Jacobs to have stood against development. Her energetic and essential defense of lower Manhattan against development was precisely what was needed at that time to preserve diversity. But preserving diversity now usually requires more development, not less, whether in Minneapolis, Portland, or Santa Monica.
As former NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan puts it: “What we’ve seen in too many cities is that people actually use Jane Jacobs logic to fight Jane Jacobs ideals. That’s a fair point, but in fact, they’re not even using Jane Jacobs logic. “A successful city neighborhood is a place that keeps sufficiently abreast of its problems so it is not destroyed by them,” said Jacobs, and she meant preserving diversity.
What is the primary problem of cities today? Hands-down, it’s affordability. Jacobs’ diversity of economic uses is fast disappearing from coastal cities, and the opportunity to engage in no-yield uses of city spaces is practically gone already from large swaths of the urban landscape. This matters. Cities in California are in danger of being choked by their own success, as Jacobs’ warned. Let’s honor her by redoubling our commitment to her ideas.
Diversity—racial, ethnic, economic, occupational— promotes public health.