The housewife that changed the world?

‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ by Jane Jacobs; Random House, 1961. 458pp

Reviewed by Alastair Donald | 31 July 2011

“From this house in 1961, a housewife changed the world.” When she died in 2005, the tributes and flowers on the pavement outside Jacobs’ former flat in Greenwich Village suggested the high esteem in which she is held by many designers who see her as having played a pivotal role in altering how we currently think about cities. 

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of her most renowned work, ‘Jacobsean’ principles seem to have become central to the numerous planning and urban design guides published in recent years as part of the Urban Renaissance. From the uses of neighbourhoods and parks to community safety and permeable networks; from higher densities and land use diversity to ‘loose fit’ and ‘unslumming’; the debts are clear. It’s true the ‘Big Society’ remains a nebulous concept. But here too Jacobs’ influence is recognisable in the support for community activism and incremental change over central visioning and plans for urban transformation.

Given many of us deal on a daily basis with the ideas in Death and Life, why bother digging it out again? Actually, it’s our seeming intimacy with Jacobs’ work that makes it worth revisiting. On doing so, it’s apparent that several of her sharp insights have been overlooked, lost in translation or refashioned by changing circumstances. Unfortunately, some of her more problematic assertions have become common currency.

City life

Death and Life is a book about cities. While this seems blatantly obvious, her definition of a city is specific: large urban agglomerations where strangers are far more common than acquaintances. In contrast to towns, in cities, anonymity is essential, necessitating a firm commitment from people take responsibility for each other, especially where they have no ties to each other.

The most useful chapter in this respect looks at the socialisation of children. Assimilation, she argues, cannot be left to hired hands or even merely to parents, but results from the instruction offered by wider society. The anonymous inhabitants of cities must informally supervise and where necessary discipline children’s behaviour. Therefore, rather than ‘designing out’ loitering children, and shielding them from urban life, places must offer opportunities for interaction. Social policymakers should note Jacobs’ key insight that formalising hitherto informal urban relations has a corrosive impact. It’s no surprise that licensing adult – child relations (e.g. through Criminal Records Bureau accreditation) has failed to arrest declining levels of trust.

Cities make Citizens?

Death and Life presents a relatively libertarian defence of informal urban relations. Nevertheless, Jacobs clearly saw a social role for design, famously describing sidewalk contacts as “the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow”. Here she seems to overstep the mark. Successful public life requires more than occupying the same space – it implies shared, socially constituted values. In post-war America, optimism as to future social improvements heightened social coherence. As optimism waned, some places sustained a public culture – in Greenwich Village, it reflected the presence of the beats and urban intellectuals. But to blame the decline of social solidarities on the mono-cultural environs produced by modernisation and suburbanisation neglects the complexities of a much wider set of social changes.

Jacobs’ interest in arresting decline has recently acquired a more deterministic emphasis on creating community. Design it seems has a role to play in everything from improving well-being and happiness to creating better citizens: ‘Cities make Citizens’ argued Richard Rogers. Jacobs offers a canny rebuttal: justifying design on the pretentious grounds that it will work social miracles is, she says, self-deception – a “doctrine of salvation by bricks”.

Nevertheless, urban spaces in recent years have been fitted with high-grade paving, and filled with water features and public art. The problem is that while the urban furniture historically associated with civic life is present, spaces often still appear insipid. They often lack a vibrant public to bring them alive. Design cannot compensate for public gatherings where the collected are more akin to customers than citizens – consuming cappuccinos from adjacent cafes, or the sounds from festivals.

Without a genuine public culture we lack the means to relate to each other as citizens in the way Jacobs hopes. Ironically, the squares we create to induce civic values tend to feel artificial, drawing attention to what we lack. The recent Royal wedding illustrated some of the problems. Despite widespread official support, unlike previous Royal occasions, there were relatively few street parties. But the problem wasn’t the neighbourhood settings, but the difficulties society currently experiences in generating a sense of common purpose.

Perhaps we should recall the Renaissance city-states where a vibrant public life (and some of greatest urban projects ever) emerged as part of the republican ideal of Civic Virtue. This forms a stark contrast with the ambition of using design to create what Jacobs termed ‘social capital’ – a morally neutral concept, reflecting the absence of strong, shared civic values.

To be fair, the phrase ‘social capital’ appears just once, and Jacobs’ concern was with the qualities underpinning successful social interactions. Today, however, tasked with building communities and constructing evidence bases to prove our success, we seem to want to formalise and quantify what we previously accepted as intangible qualities of city life.

To the extent that ‘virtue’ exists nowadays, it takes a highly individuated form: to be virtuous is to take your safety seriously, consume ‘ethically’, and protect your bodily health. But are such inwardly focussed, conservative, often narcissistic values, consistent with flourishing public?

Increasingly designers are tasked with promoting these new ‘virtues’. But while they’re unlikely to boost public life, the behavioural constraints they imply do militate against important urban freedoms – of movement, choice and social experimentation – surely the essence of city life. Jacobs stressed that individuals should be free to exercise control over “who shall make inroads into your time and when”. Yet today when the city stranger invites suspicion, he’s become the target for all sorts of people and organisations wanting to poke around in his affairs. By determining to set aside our suspicions and instead restate Jacobs’ case for the right to privacy, we could take a huge step towards recreating genuine social virtue, and a vital aspect of successful city life.

Anticipating the future

Throughout Death and Life, it’s clear that Jacobs was anticipating a changing world. ‘Unslumming’, for example, anticipates de-industrialisation and gentrification. Her discussion of ‘safety’ predicts the shifting terrain of social order. Before the 1960s, using design to create order was often a question of reinforcing the dominance of centralised power. By posing the question of order in terms of ‘safety’, Jacobs anticipates (and provides tools for accommodating to) the emergence of a more distrustful, individuated world. Panopitican urban space for a watchful Big Brother is now accompanied by places where we’re all expected to watch each other.

The final chapter on the then new science of complexity reveals how sharply Jacobs’ antenna homed in on nascent trends. Today, few object to her idea that cities are complex, evolving organisms – indeed the promised land of ‘new localism’ might suggest her time truly has arrived. As Kelvin Campbell’s recent Smart Urbanism project suggests, this is a key area of urban design we need to unpick.

Whatever the genuine insights of the ‘new sciences’ in terms of understanding physical and social processes, their tendency to emphasise the fragility of eco and urban systems suggests a decline in human confidence to shape our world. ‘Chaos’ and ‘non-linear relationships’ suggest fears of a loss of control; the embrace of self-organising principles suggests nervousness over imposing human order.

In adopting complexity over comprehensive planning, Jacobs foretells the relegation of aesthetes and visionaries to occasional appearances in the obituary columns – for many a welcome muting of hubris. But, we might ask, has the social and urban imagination become overly constrained? Have we become too cautious about developing and testing ambitious, bold new ideas?

Looked at practically, there seems to be a tension between ‘emergent’ forces of localism and community planning and the reality that most successful cities have, to a greater or lesser extent, sided with Daniel Burnham and his dictum ‘make no small plans’. In New York, even the projects of technocrat Robert Moses – Jacobs’ sworn enemy – are now considered by some to have been vital to keeping New York operational. This conflict between the seeming contemporary desire for incremental change and the apparent necessity for Big Planning is perhaps one of the biggest questions to resolve in how future cities should be planned.

Reaching once more for the Death and Life is a way of interrogating many of these issues. But more than that, it’s worth delving into purely for its unrivalled documenting of the circumstances that gave birth to modern day urban design.

This article originally appeared in Urban Design as part of the series Urban Design Library

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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