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Reading Questions: Jane Jacobs, Life and Death of Great American Cities
Introduction (pp. 3 -25)
1. At what group of professionals is Jane Jacobs taking aim in this book? (p. 3) n Jacobs is at war with professional urban planners, especially those involved with urban renewal projects that involve tearing down large sections of established cities and replacing them with public housing projects, high rises, and other forms of modern development. She was also opposed to free ways that cut through traditional neighborhoods, affected pedestrian patterns, and required destruction of buildings and dislocation of people. She names almost none of her adversaries by name. Some of the contemporaries whose ideas or policies she is opposing include Lewis Mumford, an urban reformer and intellectual. Another is Robert Moses, the planner responsible for the modernization of New York. Architect Le Corbusier was still alive when Death and Life appeared.
Links: n On Le Corbusier n On Robert Moses n On Lewis Mumford
2. What do “towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities” have in common, and how are they different from “great cities”? (pp. 6 -7) What’s a sanitorium? n These are all utopian communities, forms of “unurbanization, ” which try to master the complexity and diversity of cities by sorting out their functions and populations into tidy zones and neighborhoods. n
3. What is the “one principle” that emerges from Jacobs’ “adventuring in the real world” of American cities? (pp. 1314) n A recurrent theme of the book – and now a commonplace of contemporary urban theory – is the importance of many forms of diversity in successful cities. This includes economic diversity among inhabitants; different heights, sizes, and ages among buildings; and the concentration of different types of activity within a small area (housing, shops, light industry, recreation, culture). Although race is not an active category in the book (a topic for possible discussion), she certainly means something like ethnic and racial diversity as well, and occasionally refers to it.
4. Why don’t the inhabitants of the East Harlem housing project like their lawn? (p. 15) What, according to Jacobs, is the “pretended order” and what is the “real order” in this episode? n The lawn was put in without tenant input. Although there is plenty of grass in this and other public housing projects, there are few “third places” where one can buy coffee or get a newspaper.
5. Distinguish the following types of modern city: n The “Garden City” n The Towns of the Decentrists n The “Radiant City” n The “City Beautiful”
The Garden City (pp. 17 -19) n The Garden City was the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard, an English reformer who also spent time in America and knew Emerson and Whitman. Horrified by the living conditions in London and other large cities, he wanted to design better, more suburban living arrangements for the poor. These planned communities would located be outside the city, surrounded by agricultural green belts, and financed and run by the people living in them. Not so bad, in theory at least …
The Towns of the Decentrists n (pp. 19 -20) The Decentrists were the American adapters of the ideas of Ebenezer Howard and Sir Patrick Geddes. They included Lewis Mumford (who gave Jacobs’ book a negative review when it appeared, after writing her a positive recommendation for the Rockefeller Foundation Grant that allowed her to compose it). Mumford was architecture critic for The New Yorker and author of The City in History, which received the National Book Award in 1961, the same year that Death and Life appeared. The Decentrists applied the Garden City idea to regional planning, with the idea of “decentralizing” cities by spreading their functions and populations out over a large area. Their ideas had more impact on suburban development than on regional planning per se.
The Radiant City (pp. 21 -23) n The Radiant City is associated with the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier. Like Mies Van der Rohe, whom Bob Moeller introduced in connection with the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier (sometimes referred to as “Corbu”) was a modernist architect who believed that modern design could lead to cleaner, more rational living for workers and other urban inhabitants, largely in the form of high-rise housing. Jacobs describes the Radiant City as a vertical version of the Garden City, a stacking of housing units on top of each other, surrounded by parkland accessed by highways. High density in the vertical dimension allowed for plenty of open space below. Many upper- and middle -income housing projects are designed on the Radiant City model – as are low-income “projects. ” Unlike the Garden City and the regionalism of the Decentrists, the Radiant City is a form of development really designed for use inside cities – and it has had a major impact on the skylines and housing patterns of Chicago, New York, and other “great” and not-so-great American (and global) cities.
The City Beautiful (pp. 24 -25) n The City Beautiful is the World’s Fair approach to urban planning. It eschews the clean modern lines of Corbu in favor of decorative, thematic architecture. Think Disneyland the kinds of developments inspired by it, as well as downtowns focused on large, embarked, cultural destinations (the Mall in Washington, Balboa Park in San Diego, Museum Mile or the Getty in LA, the Great Park in Irvine) rather than high-density shopping, walking, and gazing.
5 b. The end results of these different cities may look very different. According to JJ, what do they all have in common? n Each of these models is at war with the mixed use, high density, pedestrian landscape of cities that have not undergone modern planning and rebuilding processes. Each assumes that lots of open space and parkland will make for healthier, happier living environments, whether inside cities or in the areas around them. Each tends to segregate residential areas from commercial and industrial functions. There is also a tendency to separate out economic classes from each other as well, for example, by restricting public transportation into wealthy areas or by promoting cul de sacs. .
Chapter Two: the uses of sidewalks: safety (pp. 29 -54)
6. According to JJ, what is the essential difference between a city and a town? (p. 30) n Cities are full of strangers, and have developed means for strangers to live together.
7. Why does life in housing projects (both low and middle-income) resemble the story of the three little pigs? (p. 31) n According to Jacobs, large housing projects, turned away from the street and in towards courtyards as well as up into the sky, have given up the life of the street and the sidewalk that allows strangers to interact and neighbors to supervise the neighborhood. Their corridors and courtyards are not visible. There is very little commerce to encourage a steady flow of pedestrians whose presence would deter crime and encourage active looking by neighbors and passers-by. There are no passers-by because there is nothing to do in these residential tracts. Thus, if a stranger comes to the door, he just might be the big bad wolf.
8. What does JJ mean by “the Great Blight of Dullness”? (p. 34, pp. 40 -42) n JJ uses this phrase to describe large residential areas that lack commerce and pedestrian traffic. These places are boring to walk around in, so nobody does. And because they are often deserted, they tend not to be safe. Yet they appear to have the physical attributes of “good neighborhoods” – largely residential, lots of trees and grass, not densely populated. Many of these areas were built recently, as attractive suburbs for people leaving the city centers, and then decline quickly.
9. According to JJ, what are three characteristics of a safe street? (p. 35) On a safe street, you know what’s public and what’s private. n On a safe street, “there are eyes on the street” – people walking around, proprietors of businesses checking out the action, neighbors looking out their windows. n On a safe street, sidewalks are in almost continuous use, thanks to a mix of businesses that open at different times of day and serve the needs and wants of different kinds of people, some from within the neighborhood, some from outside. n
10. How does JJ use the narrative about the man struggling with the little girl to demonstrate her point about safety and sidewalks? (pp. 38 -9) n This is a nice example of JJ’s skills as a writer. She builds up some drama – we think the man is going to abduct the little girl. The neighbors gather, but don’t quite intervene. Tension mounts. It turns out that the man is the girl’s father (and not a father under a restraining order, we presume). Although the story is deliberately anticlimactic, it illustrates not only the vigilance of the people on the street, but also the relative safety of the street itself.
11. How is Los Angeles like a wild animal park in Africa? (p. 46) n People observe the life of the city from the safety of their cars.
12. Explain Jacobs’ axiom, “Wherever the rebuilt city rises the barbaric concept of Turf must follow. ” (p. 50) Turf is a principle that develops in gang warfare. JJ analyses a situation in 1956 in which the New York City Youth Board brought provisional security to an area torn by gang violence by capitulating to the turf principle. The police used their force and authority to support rather than challenge the rule of the gangs. The real irony, however, is that official institutions, such as hospitals, upper income housing towers, and universities also assert the principle of Turf when they gate and fortress their campuses. n Gated communities as we know them hadn’t been invented yet, but we see their origins in these high rises for wealthy Manhattanites: , highsecurity affairs with fences, doormen, and (perhaps) underground parking. It is interesting to note that gating begins in the cities, as a way of creating a kind of pastoral suburb within the city. As urban patterns have deteriorated and the “great blight of dullness” has seeped into posturban America, gating has now become a feature of suburban life as well. The irony for JJ is that gated communities make cities less safe rather than more safe, by destroying the fabric of trust and the life of sidewalks that deters crime from the ground up. n
13. How does JJ use the image of the “intricate sidewalk ballet” to organize her account of a typical day on Hudson Street in New York City? (50 -54) n This is the most famous passage in the book. JJ uses the metaphor of the ballet to choreograph the different traffic patterns and interactions that vitalize Hudson Street in 1960.
Chapter Five: the uses of neighborhood parks (pp. 89 -111)
14. What conventional idea about parks does JJ want to “turn around” in this chapter? (p. 89) n One of the truisms of orthodox planning that JJ takes on in this book is the idea that parks and open space are in and of themselves healthy, positive additions to urban and suburban life – genuine and inarguable improvements over the asphalt and concrete of urban streets and sidewalks. She “turns this idea around” by suggesting that it is cities (their activity, their density, the interest that they bring in the form of foot traffic, the enclosure they provide by way of buildings and streets) that make parks successful. The lack of sufficient city life renders parks both dull and dangerous. It is not quite fair to say that “Jane Jacobs loves sidewalks and hates parks, ” but it’s a good place to start, since one can read her project as an attempt to restore dignity to streets and sidewalks by understanding the kinds of activity they support, while reevaluating the salutary role of parks and open space – especially their dependence on streets and sidewalks if they are to succeed in pulling neighborhoods together.
15. Explain JJ’s statement, “Parks are not automatically anything. ” (p. 92) n This claim is key to JJ’s new approach to urban planning, which looks at systems and patterns of use, rather than at the absolute value or meaning of any one item in the urban landscape. To paraphrase Hamlet, “There is no good or bad, but living makes it so. ” JJ is interested in discovering the “reality” of parks (how they are really used, why so many fail, how we might make them better) rather than the “myth” of parks (that they are in and of themselves a boon to the neighborhoods where they are placed). This concern with parks runs through the entire book, beginning with her analyses of the Garden City, the Radiant City, and the City Beautiful, and ending with her critique of Nature in the final chapter. Alll of these moments take a certain pastoral myth of the park as their founding image for the rebuilt modern city. One might argue, however, that JJ substitutes a certain urban pastoral for the rural pastoral of the planners.
16. What exactly is “blight” anyway? (p. 97) n ”Blight” is a term taken from biology and horticulture, where it refers to the symptom of chlorosis (browning) in plants as a response to infection. In urban theory, blight refers to the process by which a neighborhood loses its vitality and appeal, exhibiting such symptoms as depopulation, vacant buildings, crime, and empty, inhospitable urban vistas. (Fans of The Wire may recall the “the vacants”—abandoned stretches of row houses in inner city Baltimore. This setting could be contrasted with the “low rises” and “The Towers, ” two forms of public housing where much of the drug trade occurs in the series. The first is an example of blight, the second of failed urban renewal. )
Blight… n In American cities, blight tends to afflict urban centers first, and then spreads to the rings of suburbs that first sucked population out of the center. In cities in other parts of the world, blight tends to be associated with the great slums that form around them, leaving the city centers relatively vital and prosperous.
Blight… n A review of the word blight in the OED reveals that the plant meaning stems from the 17 th century. The first use in relation to urban contexts is attributed to none other than Lewis Mumford. Part of the import of JJ’s use of the word “blight” may be to assign it to regions other than unreformed urban centers, to show blight can characterize suburban developments and new urban projects. In other words, the war against blight – as waged by Moses, Mumford, and others – itself causes new forms of blight, both inside urban neighborhoods that have been bulldozed and rebuilt, and in the suburbs designed to produce alternatives to “blighted” urban living. To call “dullness” “blight” is to take the solution to urban blight (redevelopment and suburbanization) and diagnose it as itself a form and cause of blight.
Blight in the OED (selected): n PLANT LIFE – 1. gen. Any baleful influence of atmospheric or invisible origin, that suddenly blasts, nips, or destroys plants, affects them with disease, arrests their growth, or prevents their blossom from ‘setting’; a diseased state of plants of unknown or assumed atmospheric origin. – 1669 WORLIDGE Syst. Agric. viii. § 3 (1681) 159 Spoiled by the various mutations of the Air, or by Blights, Mildews, etc.
Blight in the OED (selected): n URBAN LIFE – b. spec. An unsightly urban area (cf. BLIGHTED ppl. a. 1 b). – 1938 L. MUMFORD Culture of Cities 8 We. . face the accumulated physical and social results of that disruption: ravaged landscapes, disorderly urban districts, . . patches of blight, mile upon mile of standardized slums. 1952 M. LOCK et al. Bedford by River i. 23/1 Blight clearance will affect another 4, 100 people who will be displaced from the main clearance areas.
17. What does JJ mean when she says that you can “neither lie to a neighborhood park, nor reason with it”? What would be an example of lying to a park? What would be an example of reasoning with a park? (p. 101) n JJ wants to replace myths about parks (as promoted by planners) with the reality of parks as observed by people actually using them: the difficulty of creating and maintaining successful ones, and their absolute dependence on the vitality and diversity of their urban surroundings. “Lying to a park” might include brochures and artistic renderings that advertise the virtues of a new housing development through images of parkland. “Reasoning with a park” might include adding “improvements” that are supposed to make the park nicer (new benches, a play structure, a fountain, or -- egads -- more grass!!), but which don’t really address the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood and the resulting traffic patterns. For an example of “reasoning with a park, ” see the discussion of the empty fountain in the middle of Washington Square, and the plan to fill it in with grass, “’restoring the land to park use. ’” (p. 105)
18. What is JJ’s attitude towards Skid Row parks (pp. 99 -100)? n Such parks were typically seen as examples of “urban blight” by urban planners. JJ certainly does not see Skid Row parks as urban amenities, but she does see them as serving important functions for the homeless (not a term in use when she wrote the book), and she takes seriously the forms of social life that she observes in them. She also distinguishes Skid Row parks (parks for the homeless) from crime parks. Fans of The Wire might want to consider the attractive character of Bubbles, a largely homeless junkie who supports himself through minor theft and recyling, and spends much of his days in and around city parks, and the drug dealers, who push their products in the courtyard of the Low Rises (public housing development), and who make business plans in a deserted concrete park.
19 a. What according to JJ are the four features of good park design? (pp. 103 -106) n Intricacy: a variety of paths and vistas, perhaps exhibited in grading of the site, that lend variety to the pedestrian experience of the park. It need not be intricate as viewed from above; intricacy is a ground-level phenomenon.
Cont’d… n Centering: – successful parks usually have a center or focal point, like the empty fountain shell in Washington Square.
Cont’d… n Sun: – sun encourages picnicking and hanging out; when sun is blocked by tall buildings (think Corbu), parks can be adversely affected.
Cont’d… n Enclosure: – a park needs a set of boundaries. Streets, sidewalks, and buildings afford visible limits to parks, which shouldn’t be too big if they are to succeed as true neighborhood parks (rather than destination parks like zoos, sports parks, or museum complexes). What JJ calls with her characteristic irony “land oozes” – indeterminate chunks of grassland spread out around high rises and housing projects – lack this bounded character, and are thus avoided by picnickers, strollers, and other potential park visitors, who will, she says, actually cross the street rather than walk through their creepy green.
19 b. Is good design enough to make a park successful? (p. 103 -106) n These four features of good park design are necessary but not sufficient causes for park success. Design alone is not enough: this is one message of JJ’s book. A park is not a thing; it is part of an urban ecology. These four features can encourage its integration into city life, but they by no means guarantee it. Put in terms of this course, we might say that Jane Jacobs is mapping the limits of human making, as expressed in modern planning and technology. You cannot make a great city; a great city is something that develops over time, out of the selforganizing actions (doings) of human beings. Thinking and making can be brought to bear on cities, but they cannot replace these self-organizing processes.
Chapter Twenty-Two: the kind of problem a city is
20 a. What, according to JJ, are three kinds of problems identified by the history of modern science? (pp. 429 -32) n Simple Problems: – problems with two variables, as approached by the early physical sciences.
Cont’d… n Disorganized Complexity: – problems with many, many variables, solved through statistical analysis. Important to modern physics, actuarial analysis, economics, communication and information theory.
Cont’d… n Organized Complexity: – developed by the life sciences, especially biology and medicine, to address problems with many variables, which are interrelated. The biological organism is an obvious example. so is the environment, conceived as an ecological system. You might recall some of Martin’s descriptions of aetia / causes in Aristotle, and his discussion of ecology as a modern science that develops the integrated approach to causality first approached by Aristotle.
20 b. What kind of problem is a city? (p. 433 -34) n Jane Jacobs see the city as an example of organized complexity, since the many features and factors (“variables”) of urban life, such as employment opportunities, population density, the size of city blocks, the number and types of businesses, and the height and age of buildings all act on each other. The word “life” in the title of the book certainly evokes the organic / biological model of organized complexity that Jacobs develops implicitly and explicitly throughout the book.