Jane Jacobs, Urban Planning, and Other Rambles

One of Jane Jacobs’ central insights in Death and Life of Great American Cities was the need for a local voice. Urban planning had changed dramatically in the fifty or so years prior to Death and Life‘s publication: from very ancient times up to the middle of the Industrial Revolution, urban planning had more or less meant “plat streets”. Indoor plumbing didn’t exist; electricity didn’t exist; gas lines didn’t exist; for all intents and purposes, the only thing the municipality really needed to maintain was the street network. And so urban planning was a branch of architecture.

Of course, this made for emergent urban orders. Grid cities have a deep tradition going as far back as the Indus Valley civilization, and have arisen independently in multiple distinct urban civilizations; the first major innovation in urban planning in millennia was when Baroque architects began to treat fortress towns’ street plats as a higher-order ornamentation. In some ways, it was because of the Industrial Revolution, which made more cities bigger, denser, and more crowded than ever before, that we see the development of the prescriptivist schools that would spin urban planning away from architecture and into a field of its own.

While this was initially resisted in the United States — the Beaux-Arts school was, at the turn of the 20th century, the most-respected American planning school, and is itself a derivative of the Baroque planning model of “architecture at a bigger scale”, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City model proved popular in Britain. But at a certain level, Garden Cities were still another realization of hill forts: self-contained cities that essentially exported surplus population out into a core city’s city region, to mix up a batter of pseudo-Jacobs terminology.

What really changed things were key innovations that occurred in France and Germany in the 1920s. In France, a pesky Swiss showman who stylized himself “Le Corbusier” developed his urban theory of hyperdense tower cities surrounded by lawns; in Germany, a new architectural school, the Bauhaus, began to formulate what would become the tenets of modern architecture. When Hitler came to power in the 1930s, the Bauhaus architects moved to America; in the aftermath of WWII, the Soviets utterly embraced Corbusier’s urban theory.

And finally, in its bid to become a Respectable Profession, urban planners began to use statistics. In postwar America, these statistician-planners, led by Bauhaus architects, mixed in the prevailing Corbusierian urban theory and created the modern American city. Other influences are present as well, of course; decentralization has always been a strong trend in urban America, and the myth of William Penn’s garden city pops up surprisingly often. But it is important to realize here that the 1950s was really urban planning’s big bid to become experts in their own right, rather than just architecture attachés.

(Of course, something that has gone wholly unremarked is that Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities were meant as a solution to a problem that a different group, the sanitary movement, were also attempting to solve — mainly by providing running indoor plumbing to cities. Howard’s Garden Cities might’ve been underlain to some degree by miasma theory, i.e. the idea that sickness was transmitted by vapors.)

But with Death and Life, this New York housewife seemed to be arguing that … that hard-won expertise was all wrong!

Urban planning in the United States has never truly digested Jane Jacobs, and economists are so engrossed with their Keynes-Hayek dogma battle that most don’t ever bother reading her Economy duology (The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations), to the field’s detriment. Part of this is, of course, that the Jacobs message is that these experts with their hard-won educations need to be able to listen to the local voice … something that is very hard to do.

But in the meantime, I want to suggest something surprising. I believe it’s been suggested before, but I’ve never seen it quite formulated in these terms. Namely: that the “local voice” can be toxic at times.

What I am referring to is the role of NIMBYs — i.e., the landed, monied, time-rich “local voices” that are against all change, no matter what. Very different from NIMBYs who unite against negative change, this breed of NIMBY, legally empowered in the postwar era, is characterized by a total anti-development ideology, and has the resources to make development in their communities … painful. This in turn ossifies supply even as demand increases, pushing prices for supply skyward, benefiting no one except for those who were able to buy in when prices were cheap.

And in most of the United States, we see anemic redevelopment, due to profoundly anti-development permitting processes and the vigilance of these NIMBYs. Because supply near the core cannot expand at a rate commesurate with demand, it sprawls over greenfields until they, in turn, become entrenched enough to stop up development pipelines, forcing redevelopment to occur further out … This process is exacerbated by zoning ordinances built around the myth of universal auto ownership, and the need for every adult to store a car … somewhere.

While every urbanist knows of some example or another of out-of-control NIMBYism, we must respect the logic of it. If the Experts are enforcing paternalistic change that the community does not want, then the community fights back by using the courts to enforce their own parochial view of their neighborhood. It is clearly toxic for everybody involved … but it is a reflection of empowered local voices, though in a manner that is very much in the realm of “unintended consequences”.

What to do about it?

That’s the hard question. See, at some level we have to rethink urban planning. This is happening, albeit slowly. At a certain level, urban planning probably works best when developed simultaneously on two levels: that of the community and that of the city (i.e. the discrete economic unit of a city, which is much more akin to a “metropolitan region” these days).

This is because both have important voices to bring to the table, and the real plan is the result of negotiation between these voices. This is because planning is, at a certain level, about constraints, and city and community planners are aware of very differing sets of constraints.

What I mean is this: A city planner should be aware of the city’s current economic behavior (is it growing? explosively? stable? declining?) and this behavior sets the city region’s resource needs. A city with explosive economic growth needs to be able to add housing at a rapid rate, because explosive growth means many in-migrants, fast; one that is stable or declining need only add housing stock in line with natural increase, if any at all. This in turn dictates resources that need to be allocated towards “growth” viz. “maintenance”. A planning department also needs to be flexible enough to transition between two modes: a fast-growing city might need new districts platted weekly, or a lot of investment in rapid transit if it’s hit its commute-shed boundaries, while a slow-growth one is more likely to need hinterland resource management (i.e. farmland preservation, forest management, that sort of thing). Essentially, a city-scale planner is employed to develop and maintain various scenarios, as well as acting on the needs that the most probable scenarios suggest. City planners do not zone in the modern sense; nor do they enact or uphold parking requirements; in fact, city-scale planning does not involve neighborhood shaping at all.

I would like to suggest that city planners are involved in economic engineering — that is, developing and implementing policies geared towards ensuring full employment — but given that economics doesn’t really understand how work is created, that’s almost certainly a fool’s errand at this point.

The other planner is the community planner. Community planners are expected to have intimate knowledge of their community, and are trained to understand architecture. The idea here is that the community planner must be able to have an idea of how change will affect their community — and, this is the kicker, they must be able to do it in an unbiased manner. This is because community planners are the ones who are the interfaces between the city’s needs, developers’ needs, and the community’s needs. And in order to do this, they have to understand where everybody’s coming from.

Community planners do not make or enforce zoning codes, although they can produce neighborhood visions. Nor do they enforce parking requirements — parking is understood to be a private-market amenity. What they do do, however, is enforce whatever form-based codes the community might have for itself, do hyperlocal economic development (i.e. work to keep business districts populated), steward neighborhood parks, and work to both push community knowledge to the city level and transmit city needs to the community level. Their workload is complex and varied.

Although auto obsession is omnipresent in American society, we can actually see this happening in well-run NAs, CDCs, and BIDs. Organizations like NLNA, SOSNA, or the CCD or UCD in Philadelphia are excellent examples of competent community planning, although no planning at the city scale in the manner I’ve described seems to exist anywhere.

Counterintuitive insights can take time to metastasize, especially when those insights run against received wisdom. Germ theory didn’t become fully mainstream until people with microscopes saw bacteria with their own eyes. Darwinian evolution is still rejected by a surprisingly (depressingly?) large part of the populace. It’s been two generations since Jane Jacobs formulated her critique of urban planning and theories of urban design and economics. And we’re still a long, long way from fully understanding her insights.


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