The Pretty Bourgeois
February 21, 2016 § 2 Comments
I have read books about cities before – Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization, for instance, which was a grand historical sweep of generations and circumstances that made certain cities great, and several books of great fiction set in a single city, where the city itself is not just the backdrop but a participant, even a protagonist. But urban planning as a branch of science is not one that I can claim any expertise in whatsoever. I have lived in several big cities, and have roundly cursed the traffic conditions in most of them, but apart from that, I have no theoretical foundation in the subject, nor a knowledge of the historical evolution of thought in it: a cursory review of this site will confirm to you that urban planning does not occupy my thoughts as much as a dozen other disciplines do.
Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities is, I am told, the most influential book on urban planning in the world. Jacobs was not an urban planner but an activist, and it shows. It is an intense and polemical book, written by someone who had devoted her entire life to the subject, written for an audience already familiar either with urban planning concepts or with the 1950s New York that she lived in and wrote about. It is 400 plus pages of tightly packed prose, where every aspect of a city is taken up and discussed threadbare, conventional thought torn to shreds, examples of bungling waved like a belligerent little fist in the face of officialdom, studies cited and conclusions drawn: the sidewalks, the parks, the slums, the neighborhoods, the streets, the safety, the size of the blocks, the projects, the source of funds, the governing and planning, the problems of automobiles, the problems of parking, and above all, the people. It was all too overwhelming, a relentless overload of facts and data that left me gasping.
But then, Jacobs’s last chapter, titled ‘The kind of problem a city is’, was the one that finally provided me with the theoretical framework I needed to grasp her way of thinking. Would it have made sense for her to have made it the first chapter? But then Jacobs doesn’t do top-down; she goes inductively, from the specific to the general, from the people to the city, it is just the way she thinks.
The science of non-linear dynamical systems was a brand new one at the time Jacobs wrote the Death and Life, and it is therefore with profound personal insight that she labels a city ‘organized complexity’, like a human body, subject to different laws of behavior than the two-variable static simplicity with which planners had been approaching their subject. The city is subject to processes that involve dozens of parameters, varying simultaneously and subtly interconnected with one another. Any planning exercise needs to study these before making sweeping, top-down pronouncements and taking decisions that impact thousands of people. The key to these interconnections, the very key to understanding a city, says Jacobs, lies with the people of the city.
Before Jacobs, city planners do not appear to have sought to understand the people who lived in those cities. She doesn’t mean the influential people of the city – the politicians, captains of industry and other prominent personalities- but the ‘small people’: the owners of small groceries, laundries, restaurants and other businesses, the families who have lived there all their lives, the families that moved in last week, the women who lean out of kitchen windows and yell to their children playing in the sidewalks, the young men who prop up the local walls and give the local girls the good old-fashioned eye (but whose permanent presence paradoxically makes the neighborhood safer for those girls), the local constable having a quiet word with the owner of the local pub, the man hurrying home from work through the park, briefcase in hand: THEY define the city for Jacobs in a way that they would not for a Le Corbusier. What kind of city do THEY want?
For far too long, says Jacobs, urban planners have played God. They have looked at the common people as problems that need fixing. They have tried to define, in a patriarchal and condescending manner, not just what buildings and flyovers should look like, but how people should live and behave, where they should work, and how they should get there. But that is a static, simplistic view of a city, as Jacobs points out. Urban planning should be about planning for vibrant, diverse communities that create their own beauty and art, and lead their own way of life. Jacobs means diversity not just in ethnicity and economic strata, but means of livelihood as well: a good neighborhood is where offices mingle with small businesses, parks and residences. A slum is not to be bull-dozed over to give way to parks and high rises, but to be ‘unslummed’ by giving its denizens a reason to remain living there and contributing to it even after they no longer need to. There is something stirringly democratic in Jacobs’ writing and in her way of thinking: she sticks it to the man.
While her principles are probably universal across generations and geographies, Jacobs herself makes no claims to universality, as is clear from the title of the book. She writes about big cities in mid-20th century America. Things were booming, and cities were expanding: those were great times to be living in a big American city. But to Jacobs, the Great American City is always about the great American lives lived by the small American people.