Jane Jacobs and America’s Dysfunctional Urban Design

It’s the 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs birth, even celebrated with a Google doodle, despite Google going against literally everything she believed in and wrote about.

So, it’s time for a quick overview of the urban environment.

Data mining has confirmed what Jacobs knew through observation:

Back in 1961, the gradual decline of many city centers in the U.S. began to puzzle urban planners and activists alike. One of them, the urban sociologist Jane Jacobs, began a widespread and detailed investigation of the causes and published her conclusions in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a controversial book that proposed four conditions that are essential for vibrant city life.

In her book, Jacobs argues that vibrant activity can only flourish in cities when the physical environment is diverse. This diversity, she says, requires four conditions. The first is that city districts must serve more than two functions so that they attract people with different purposes at different times of the day and night. Second, city blocks must be small with dense intersections that give pedestrians many opportunities to interact.

The third condition is that buildings must be diverse in terms of age and form to support a mix of low-rent and high-rent tenants. By contrast, an area with exclusively new buildings can only attract businesses and tenants wealthy enough to support the cost of new building. Finally, a district must have a sufficient density of people and buildings.

Data Mining Reveals the Four Urban Conditions That Create Vibrant City Life (MIT Technology Review)

Lloyd Alter points out that this contradicts the dictums of the “market urbanists” who claim that building as many tall, dense buildings as we can in urban areas will solve all our house-pricing problems (who can afford them anyway?):

[Jane Jacobs’] words are an anathema to many in the so-called market urbanist school, who see all of this preservation of older buildings as an impediment to development; as Steve Waldman explains, these market urbanists…

…argue that cities should eliminate restrictive zoning and other regulatory barriers to development, then let the free-market create housing supply. In a competitive marketplace, high prices are supposed to be their own cure. Zoning restrictions, urban permitting, and the de facto capacity of existing residents to veto new development are barriers to entry that prevent the magic of competition from taking hold and solving the problem.

Which is where we are today, with economists like Ed Glaeser, Ryan Avent and writers like Matt Yglesias and Alex Steffen persuading many that Jane Jacobs was wrong, and Felix Salmon defending crappy towers filled with rich people by saying “Better we have a living city with a couple of less-than-perfect buildings, than a stifled one governed by nostalgists and Nimbys.” Glaeser has written that “An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low.”

In fact, in Toronto, the city where Jane Jacobs lived the last 37 years of her life, you can see what happens if you let this happen. Yes, there is a boom in housing, with lots of relatively affordable small units that are full of a monoculture of childless young people, with the ground floor plane filled with a monoculture of chain restaurants, banks and drugstores…

Someone posted this video on Reddit: Most of the problems that we face today in the United States, whether they are cultural, economical, social or environmental are rooted in poor urban design and planning. Due to America’s unique experience of economic growth during the 20th century (2015)

Okay, that’s clearly hyperbole. But despite that, it is a good overview about how badly our built environment contributes to a large number of problems. Every facet of living has become separated by miles and miles of land due to zoning restrictions originally intended to separate people from polluting industries. Here are just a few of the problems the video puts on poor urban design:

  • Corporate control and the loss of small business. Mom-and-pop stores which depend on social connection to the community were eliminated, because there was no more street life or mixed-use communities. Less stores mean less buying options and more power to the large corporations. Barriers to starting businesses are put in place by restrictive zoning and high rents.
  • Obesity  and food deserts As people had to drive everywhere, they relied on drugstores and gas stations for food. Fast food made it easy to get drive-through food. People were unable to walk anywhere, obesity rates increased.
  • Loss of community and civic participation With gas making it too expensive to drive, and unable to walk anywhere, people stayed in their houses, eliminating a sense of community. Children are poorly socialized since they can’t play or bike anywhere, and must be driven around.
  • High crime rates and incarceration. As people moved to sububs, urban areas lost revenue, tax base, and businesses. Those unable to move became trpped in cities. Loss of revenue caused jobs to disappear, leading to desperation and crime. This led to an expanded police presence, overcriminilization and mass incarceration.
  • Fragmentation of society. Americans are becomeing ever more segregated by income, race, and class, leading to more conflict mistrust, and suspicion.

“There is a populist notion that sprawl and suburban setting disperse people in such a way as to make things more peaceful between them. Simply separating people and resources from one another doesn’t make for a more peaceful society. Separating people and destroying the chance for social connection and communities makes people more stressed. Humans are inherently social creatures. If you try to take that away from them it makes for a tumultuous society.”

Let’s not forget other deleterious effects on health too. Maybe this is why our health care spending is so high: Commuting Takes Its Toll (Scientific American)

To the above list, we might add ADD. Boring buildings have a cost as well:

A growing body of research in cognitive science illuminates the physical and mental toll bland cityscapes exact on residents. Generally, these researchers argue that humans are healthier when they live among variety — a cacophony of bars, bodegas, and independent shops — or work in well-designed, unique spaces, rather than unattractive, generic ones. In their book, Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, Tufts urban policy professor Justin Hollander and architect Ann Sussman review scientific data to help architects and urban planners understand how, exactly, we respond to our built surroundings. People, they argue, function best in intricate settings and crave variety, not “big, blank, boxy buildings.”

And studies show that feeling meh can be more than a passing nuisance. For instance, psychologists Colleen Merrifield and James Danckert’s work suggests that even small doses of boredom can generate stress. People in their experiment watched three videos — one boring, one sad, and one interesting – while wearing electrodes to measure their physiological responses. Boredom, surprisingly, increased people’s heart rate and cortisol level more than sadness. Now take their findings and imagine the cumulative effects of living or working in the same oppressively dull environs day after day, said Ellard.

There might even be a potential link between mind-numbing places and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. In one case, physicians have linked “environmental deprivation” to ADHD in children. Homes without toys, art, or other stimuli were a significant predictor of ADHD symptoms. Meanwhile, the prevalence of U.S. adults treated for attention deficit is rising. And while people may generally be hardwired for variety, Dr. Richard Friedman, director of the pharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, makes the case that those with ADHD are especially novelty-seeking. Friedman points to a patient who “treated” his ADHD by changing his workday from one that was highly routine — a standard desk job — to a start-up, which has him “on the road, constantly changing environments.”

The Psychological Cost of Boring Buildings (New York Magazine)

As this Atlantic article points out, our dependence upon automobiles is insane from a practical standpoint:

What are the failings of cars? First and foremost, they are profligate wasters of money and fuel: More than 80 cents of every dollar spent on gasoline is squandered by the inherent inefficiencies of the modern internal combustion engine. No part of daily life wastes more energy and, by extension, more money than the modern automobile. While burning through all that fuel, cars and trucks spew toxins and particulate waste into the atmosphere that induce cancer, lung disease, and asthma. These emissions measurably decrease longevity—not by a matter of days, but years. ..53,000 Americans die prematurely every year from vehicle pollution, losing 10 years of life on average compared to their lifespans in the absence of tailpipe emissions.

There are also the indirect environmental, health, and economic costs of extracting, transporting, and refining oil for vehicle fuels, and the immense national-security costs and risks of being dependent on oil imports for significant amounts of that fuel. As an investment, the car is a massive waste of opportunity—“the world’s most underutilized asset,” the investment firm Morgan Stanley calls it. That’s because the average car sits idle 92 percent of the time. Accounting for all costs, from fuel to insurance to depreciation, the average car owner in the U.S. pays $12,544 a year for a car that puts in a mere 14-hour workweek. Drive an SUV? Tack on another $1,908.14
Then there is the matter of climate. Transportation is a principal cause of the global climate crisis, exacerbated by a stubborn attachment to archaic, wasteful, and inefficient transportation modes and machines…Total passenger miles by air are miniscule compared to cars. In any given year, 60 percent of American adults never set foot on an airplane, and the vast majority who do fly take only one round trip a year. Unfortunately, air travel is not the primary problem, contributing only 8 percent of U.S. transportation-related greenhouse gases. Cars and trucks, by contrast, pump out a combined 83 percent of transportation carbon.

And that’s not even counting cars’ most dramatic cost: They waste lives. They are one of America’s leading causes of avoidable injury and death, especially among the young. Oddly, the most immediately devastating consequence of the modern car—the carnage it leaves in its wake—seems to generate the least public outcry and attention…Car crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 1 and 39. They rank in the top five killers for Americans 65 and under (behind cancer, heart disease, accidental poisoning, and suicide). And the direct economic costs alone—the medical bills and emergency-response costs reflected in taxes and insurance payments—represent a tax of $784 on every man, woman, and child living in the U.S.

The numbers are so huge they are not easily grasped, and so are perhaps best understood by a simple comparison: If U.S. roads were a war zone, they would be the most dangerous battlefield the American military has ever encountered. Seriously: Annual U.S. highway fatalities outnumber the yearly war dead during each Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War of 1812, and the American Revolution. When all of the injuries from car wrecks are also taken into account, one year of American driving is more dangerous than all those wars put together.

The Absurd Primacy of the Automobile in American Life. (The Atlantic) Considering the constant fatalities, rampant pollution, and exorbitant costs of ownership, there is no better word to characterize the car’s dominance than insane. But what isn’t insane about the way we live in America, hmmm?

The freeways clearly facilitated sprawl and cut the heart of America’s formerly-prosperous and glorious cities. So why were they built? A lot of it was intentionally destroying African-American neighborhoods in the interest of “urban renewal”:

State and city politicians accepted these plans for a variety of reasons. In an era when suburbs had just begun to grow, DiMento says, “local politicians saw urban freeways as a way of bringing suburban commuters into city.” Some local businesspeople supported them for similar reasons.

But an unmistakable part of the equation was the federally supported program of “urban renewal,” in which lower-income urban communities — mostly African-American — were targeted for removal.

“The idea was ‘let’s get rid of the blight,'” says DiMento. “And places that we’d now see as interesting, multi-ethnic areas were viewed as blight.” Highways were a tool for justifying the destruction of many of these areas.

Highways gutted American cities. So why did they build them? (Vox). A must-read on the history:

City planners…saw the crowded African American areas as unhealthy organs that needed to be removed. To keep cities healthy, planners said, these areas needed to be cleared and redeveloped, the clogged hearts replaced with something newer and spiffier. But open-heart surgery on a city is expensive. Highway construction could be federally funded. Why not use those federal highway dollars to also tear down blight and rebuild city centers?

The urban planner Robert Moses was one of the first to propose the idea of using highways to “redeem” urban areas. In 1949, the commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads, Thomas MacDonald, even tried to include the idea of highway construction as a technique for urban renewal in a national housing bill. (He was rebuffed.) But in cities across America, especially those that didn’t want to—or couldn’t—spend their own money for so-called urban renewal, the idea began to take hold. They could have their highways and they could get rid of their slums. With just one surgery, they could put in more arteries, and they could remove the city’s heart.

The Role of Highways in American Poverty (The Atlantic) Syracuse, New York as case study. The fallout from this is what I touched on in my last posts on automation.

Lloyd Alter proposes the bringing back the Euroloaf building concept. I have to admit when I first saw this, I assumed Euroloaf referred to how Europeans spend their typical August.

Back in the 1970s a remarkable housing project was built in Toronto; The St. Lawrence neighbourhood has been described by journalist Dave LeBlanc as the “best example of a mixed-income, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, sensitively scaled, densely populated community ever built in the province”. Designed around principles espoused by Jane Jacobs (some even claim she had a hand in designing it; she didn’t), it was a mix of low street facing townhouses and long mid-rise apartment blocks of a relatively consistent height. They looked a lot like buildings from Paris or Scandinavia and were nicknamed “Euroloaf” because they are kind of shaped like loaves of bread.

Coincidentally, I was working on a post about Swedish prefab and looking at all their Euroloaves, still pretty much the standard typology…Right now wood is having a renaissance, and the point man is Vancouver’s Michael Green, with his Tall Wood…But perhaps he is trying to push a square wood peg into a round hole; perhaps it’s the wrong planning model for wood, where the Euroloaf is probably more appropriate…I have been arguing for Euroloaf planning for years without calling it that. I called it the Goldilocks Density,

 …dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

That’s what the Euroloaves are. The trouble with them is that developers like to build tall and thin; better views, (especially in Michael Green’s Vancouver) more repetition of elements vertically and cheaper costs per square foot (because of things like one plumbing stack serving more units).

When those Toronto developments were proposed in the seventies, the codes limited wood to three floors and they were built out of concrete. But now, building codes are changing to allow for six storey wood buildings. This changes the economics changes making low rise construction more affordable. Suddenly Euroloaves make a lot more sense.

Instead of Tall Wood, Let’s Bring Back the Euroloaf (Treehugger)

Various other readings:

Deferred in the ‘Burbs (Mike the Mad Biologist)

Finally! Tiny home subdivisions and developments are becoming a reality. (Treehugger)

How Burglars Commit Crime and Take Advantage of Cities by Hacking Architecture (Vice) Hey, I know architecture and programming! Is this my next career move?

Welcome to the Future: Middle-Class Housing Projects (New Yorker)

What Architecture Is Doing to Your Brain (Citylab)

Geography is making America’s uneven economic recovery worse (Quartz) Not geography, but urban planning.

Urban population growth and demand for food could spark global unrest, study shows (Los Angeles Times)

And finally, if you haven’t been reading the excellent series from The Guardian on the history of cities, it’s basically the equivalent of an entire book on urbanism in the proud tradition of Lewis Mumford:

The story of cities (The Guardian) Here’s the Jane Jacobs entry: Story of cities #32: Jane Jacobs v Robert Moses, battle of New York’s urban titans More here: Celebrating Jane Jacobs’ Birthday ’round the net (Treehugger)

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