Just now we are nearing the end of the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacobs' hugely influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The year has seen a remarkable series of re-assessments and, in some cases, revisionisms. Planner Thomas Campanella has criticized Jacobs' "evisceration" of planning, which created a vacuum into which privatizing interests rushed; economist Ed Glaeser has argued that Jacobs fed gentrification with her call for preservation of some old buildings instead of all new towers; and sociologist Sharon Zukin attacked Jacobs' alleged fantasy of the "social-less" urban block. Most recently, my friend Anthony Flint suggested that Jacobs was a libertarian with a mixed legacy of NIMBYism.
What I find remarkable about these accounts – speaking as an instructor who regularly uses her texts - is that in almost all cases these were things that Jacobs herself simply never said. She was clearly not against planning, but against failed planning; not against government, but against government badly organized; and not against new buildings, but against rushing monocultures of the new. She was for a deeper tactical understanding of how the "inherent regenerative force" of "self-diversification," as she termed it, can be put to work to provide more diversity of income and opportunity, as clearly has happened in cities throughout history. (...)
Jacobs argued, a city is a diverse mix of people and processes, with its own self-organizing dynamic. We can exploit this dynamic by design, but this is a different idea of design, perhaps. Top-down interventions can certainly be part of this process (Jacobs mentions, for example, the use of public projects as "chess pieces" to trigger other changes) but we understand that we have to pay attention to multiple factors and multiple relationships. We have to use different tools for different conditions – "tactical" urbanism as it has been called. We have to figure out where – and how – to change the "operating system," the rules, processes and standards that constrain and corrupt our intended outcomes. And we have to plan with self-organization, in a way that exploits its inherent capacity to solve our problems.
by Michael Mehaffy 15 Dec 2011
Original photo by Sam Beebe / Ecotrust