Against the modernist nightmare: the legacy of urbanist Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs at a meeting in Greenwich Village, New York City, 1961. Image: Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.

Back in May, urbanists around the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jane Jacobs. The American-Canadian author and activist’s spirited defence of inner-city neighbourhoods inspired a generation of urban activists and place-makers. So what might Jacobs have to teach a new generation of urbanists and planners?

Much of Jacobs' legacy stems from the successful “David and Goliath” campaigns she led in the late 1950s and 1960s against the development plans of Manhattan’s “master builder” Robert Moses.

Her first battle, to prevent an extension of Fifth Avenue that would have torn apart her beloved Washington Square Park, was followed by a series of protracted community campaigns. These ultimately saved some of Manhattan’s most iconic neighbourhoods – Greenwich Village, SoHo, Little Italy – from “slum clearance” and demolition.

New York "master builder" Robert Moses with a model of Battery Bridge. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

At this time, many Americans were retreating to the suburbs, and city planners – epitomised by Moses, then head of the powerful Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which managed vast tracts of land in New York City – imposed their “comprehensive city plans” on neighbourhoods, with scant input from local communities.

Working under the spell of Le Corbusier’s vision of the “Radiant City” (Ville Radieuse), planners like Moses saw themselves playing the heroic role of a city’s surgeon. They justified their radical urban plans through appeals to natural or scientific principle. For Le Corbusier, automobiles were machines of circulation, the “lifeblood of the 20th century”; cities needed them to avoid stagnation.


In love with the ‘sidewalk ballet’

Jacobs resisted this vision. In her first and most influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs attacked planners for ruining the cultures of cities. She saw the modernist vision of cities as:

… the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.

Jacobs wrote:

When city designers try to find a design device that will express, in a clear and easy fashion, the ‘skeleton’ of city structure (expressways and promenades are current favourites for this purposes) they are on fundamentally the wrong track. A city’s very structure consists of a mixture of uses... We get close to its structural secrets when we deal with the conditions that generate diversity.

Instead of city spines and clean lines, she asked her readers to look more closely at what makes a street really work. She loved the “intricate sidewalk ballet”, a complex order that helped to maintain public safety and wellbeing through a “constant succession of eyes”.

The complexity of a place made it impossible to replicate.

The ballet of the good city never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place it is always replete with new observations.

Jacobs’ polemic against urban planning would become its orthodoxy. Death and Life has been required reading for students of urban planning for decades. Today they learn of the failed spaces created by modernist planners and the geographies of single-use enclaves and far-flung highways they spawned.

Jacobs' campaigning inspired urban activists around the world to stage protests in their own cities. This helped usher in a new era of citizen-centric planning frameworks.

As Saskia Sassen wrote recently, it was Jacobs who first urged the need to recognise the value of “place” when considering the implementation of urban policies.

Is Jane Jacobs still relevant or useful?

Although Jacobs is a profoundly influential figure in 20th-century urbanism, in many respects her radicalism can feel like it belongs to another era.

The Manhattan districts she fought to preserve represent some of the most expensive real estate in the world, so it’s hard to disagree that a city’s dense, historic core might be worth preserving. Economist Edward Glaeser talks about “Jacobs Spillovers” – the transfers of knowledge and activity that help to explain the generation of wealth in cities like New York and London.

Some might even ask: was Jacobs simply one of the first to fly the NIMBY flag against any developments taking place within the prized neighbourhoods they helped to gentrify?

But if we take a closer look at what Jacobs had to say – and how she said it – it becomes clear her ideas remain as radical and important as they were in the 1960s. This is perhaps no more so than in relation to rise of the “smart city”.

Smart cities and the rise of a new urban science

Today’s smart cities are big business, powered by the potential for big data and the internet of things to improve the efficiencies of urban systems. Smart cities offer solutions to improve transport management, make better investment decisions, improve accountability and promote transparent decision-making.

The premise is that with so much data (big data) being produced, planners, governments and researchers can better understand cities as complex systems, and make better decisions about how they are planned and managed.

This explosion of data in cities – from traffic data, through mobile communications data to sensor data capturing the behaviour of natural systems and the everyday uses of infrastructure assets – is giving rise to a new “urban science”.

This incorporates machine learning, predictive analytics and complexity science. Its champions – such as Mike Batty and Luis Bettencourt – argue that we are starting to see the emergence of Jacobs' “sidewalk ballet” in data-driven form.

But while the rise of big data and smart cities opens up possibilities for cities that were previously unthinkable, we should also be wary of the limitations.

The fine arts of urban observation

Jacobs wasn’t simply claiming that cities should be understood as complex systems. At a perhaps deeper level, Jacobs was arguing against visions of the city over-determined by the technologies that produce them: for LeCorbusier, as for Moses, the view of the city enabled by the innovation of flight helped give rise to new urban utopias like the Radiant City.

"We are Data Watchdogs": a video game that explores the implications of data-driven approaches to solve urban problems.

In writing Death and Life, Jacobs was also resisting the dominance of expert knowledge about a city, in favour of a democracy of lived experiences and everyday insights. She once reflected that:

… learning and thinking about city streets and the trickiness of city parks launched me into an unexpected treasure hunt.

As a new generation of planners are taught of the possibilities of a data-driven urban science, we need to remember that Jacobs' love of the sidewalk ballet also gave voice to the multiple languages, meanings, experiences and knowledge systems that underpin a vibrant urban culture.

Not all of these can be rendered by data-driven systems. Hopefully, the best insights into a city’s infinite complexity won’t only be produced by those trained with the skills to generate insights from big data.

Mobile phone data in Portugal show an average urban dweller of Lisbon has approximately twice as many contacts as an average individual in the rural town of Lixa. Image: Kael Greco, MIT Senseable City Lab.

The “data exhaust” of our daily lives will increasingly shape the way cities are understood. Much work remains to be done to ensure a cities data infrastructure is valued as a fundamental public asset.

But I can hear Jacobs issuing a word of warning: don’t forget to keep taking unexpected treasure hunts through city parks and keep your eyes on the street (not on your phones!). And keep listening out for different lived experiences and ways of knowing a place – not only those that can be rendered real-time as the data flows of complex systems.The Conversation

Sarah Barns is an urban studies foundation postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.

The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.