Fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs wrote a classic urban planning book. Has the world learned anything in the years since?
Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. To honour this, I’ve gathered a few pieces that have come to mind in my travels to Peru, India, Hong Kong, China, and the US in the four years since I read it.
Jacobs writes that planners “do not know what to do with automobiles in cities because they do not know how to plan for workable and vital cities anyhow— with or without automobiles.”
There are good signs that people are considering it more today in the US, though surely it’s exceedingly difficult to manifest get more bike lanes in major urban centres. And in areas like Troy, Ohio, where my father lives, putrid planning ensures that everyone drives a car simply to go to the library. To be fair, un-urban Americans would be better off not to rely on their cars.
“The street is bad as an environment for humans; houses should be turned away from it and faced inward, toward sheltered greens.”
I’ve seen a lot of this in Lima, Peru. Here, residents have small streetside courtyards, but focus more of their energy on larger interior courtyards. They also use narrow alleys in the block on which I live. Here, kids play during the day. My female roommates and I feel safe when walking here at all hours. Everyone has some sort of flora before their house and doors jut almost immediately up to the sidewalk.
It’s from her book I learned of Le Corbusier’s ‘Radiant City’ plans.
This I saw in full effect in mainland China…in skyscraper after identical skyscraper, placed not beside each other but far apart, surrounded not by the grass that Corbusier hoped for, but cement clogged with cars and people. Colour me a Decentrist, against whom Jacobs often railed. I too saw it as “institutionalisation, mechanisation, depersonalisation.”
“Public peace — the sidewalk and street peace — of cities is not kept primarily by the police…. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.”
In Lima, Peru, police vans patrol streets regularly. On residential streets are unarmed guards called vigilantes. Whatever comfort this is supposed to affect has been eliminated by its very presence.
I hope Jacobs’ book celebrates a century of popularity. It’s a timeless classic from which planners the world over can still glean grand ideas.