What Joel Kotkin (and others) got wrong about Jane Jacobs

Google’s icon of Jane Jacobs from her recent 100th birthday.

Writing in The Daily Beast, the champion of American suburbs attacked the champion of city life – and missed the mark

Not long ago, the urbanist Joel Kotkin wrote an attention-getting article titled “What Jane Jacobs got wrong about cities.” Mr. Kotkin is a noted urban contrarian, often challenging the “irrational exuberance” for ever-higher urban densities and over-heated cores – and in that respect I have considerable sympathy for his view. So do former fans of the over-heated cores, now more contrite, like Richard Florida (with his “creative class”) and Ed Glaeser (with his “triumph of the city”). They and other urbanists have expressed new reservations in the wake of growing malfunctions in these over-heated cores: gentrification, displacement, loss of affordability, homelessness, pockets of poverty, and (ironically) a certain kind of stagnation.

But in his analysis of Jane Jacobs and her view of cities, I think Mr. Kotkin gets some things terribly wrong.

He is far from alone in doing so. As someone who regularly uses Jacobs’ texts in teaching, research and writing about her ideas, I am often struck by how many bright people attribute things to her that the woman simply never said – or in some cases, ignore points she did indeed address (like topics of race and class).

More broadly, I am struck by how few people can actually get their heads around some of her best and most important ideas. The ones that relate to gentrification and “the self-destruction of diversity” are among those, I think.

Perhaps most important is her idea that cities are indeed “social reactors,” capable of generating great creativity and wealth. They bring us together to interact and create in various public and private places, built on the fundamental connective framework of public space, especially streets. Florida and Glaeser are right that this network phenomenon is very powerful, and it’s key to understanding how cities can generate so much immense wealth.

But as Jacobs warned, too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing. “Money floods” can be just as bad as “money droughts,” and over-concentrated, monocultural cores can be just as bad, in their own way, as desolate slums. In either case, the self-destruction of diversity results in a dangerous kind of stagnation.

What Jacobs argued for was something of a “Goldilocks principle” – neither too much of one thing in one place (money, new buildings, density, etc.) nor too little. Diversity, mixing and “spreading it around” are at the core of her urban recipe. Following her logic, that includes geographic diversity too – and a range of densities and settlement types.

Jacobs did note, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that she was writing about her primary interest at that time, big cities and their cores – and especially, her home city of New York. But her ideas (including a later series of books on urban economics) apply equally well to other kinds of settlements, and indeed any settlement.

At heart, she was describing the ways we connect to one another in urban spaces of all scales. We do sometimes connect within “special land” – her term for the private spaces, and other parts of cities that are restricted from free movement and connection. But we connect more fundamentally within “general land” – the larger network of inter-connected streets, squares, parks, and other public spaces.

She was especially interested in sidewalks and their “lowly, unpurposeful and random” contacts that form “the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.” In her later work, she expanded this notion to other forms of wealth, including economic development and creativity. Public space networks, in her view, form the ultimate framework within which we create “knowledge spillovers” – the life-blood of the “catalytic network” that generates the wealth of cities.

Why is public space fundamentally important to this system? Because it’s the natural connective fabric that underpins all the other “multi-stranded” networks that we form with one another. To take a simple example from my own life: walking down the street with my sister recently, we ran into a friend who is a fellow board member in my neighborhood association, and I introduced the two of them. They might now pass on knowledge to one another about a job opportunity, or a new idea – or they might not. But our respective “multi-stranded networks” just grew another tiny strand – and by myriad such “lowly” processes, a city generates its immense network of human connections and, ultimately, creative wealth.

Mr. Kotkin doesn’t indicate a grasp of any of this. On the contrary, he portrays Jacobs much as her nemesis Robert Moses did – nostalgic, out of touch with modern American socio-economic realities, and having sweet but impractical ideas.

He rightly points out that big cities didn’t re-urbanize in the way that Jacobs advocated – they were indeed too focused on the wealthy and the childless. But he fails to recognize that this trend did not occur spontaneously in a vacuum: it was actively encouraged by policy and practice. This is the “voodoo urbanism” that too many city boosters have bought into of late: build up your white-hot cores with creative classes and innovation districts, and watch the wealth shower down to everyone else.

In that respect it doesn’t work, of course: instead, as Florida and Glaeser have recently acknowledged, it produces a wave of unaffordability, gentrification, displacement, growing inequality – and a growing political backlash against “urban elites.”

But in another sense it works all too well, creating great (if unequal) wealth for city administrations, tech companies, and urban core (often high rise) developers. We could call it, with considerable irony, “Donald Trump Urbanism.”

Precisely the same kind of monocultural thinking from on high formed America’s modern suburbs, of which Mr. Kotkin seems so fond. Like other suburban champions, he seems to imagine that they formed spontaneously out of sheer consumer desire. But there is a long history of government planning and spending, from GI mortgages to zoning codes to street and highway systems, not unlike the kind that Robert Moses promoted around the country. That history is built on a modernist planning model of functionally segregated homes, workplaces and shopping, re-connected mostly by cars.

We have choices, Jacobs said, and out of those choices our cities are shaped, for better or worse. Our cities are built on our mental models, and if the models are defective, so are the cities – or their suburbs.

To be fair, these modern suburbs also work as engines that generate immense economic wealth – but not in the way Jacobs prescribed. The issue is not density per se, but rather, public space: the modern American suburbs are largely without it. Of course there are parks and recreation centers, and neighborhood streets with sidewalks – sometimes.

But for the most part, these bits and pieces don’t add up to a coherent public space system of the kind that Jacobs advocated. There is no “sidewalk ballet,” no “eyes on the street.” There is little serendipity and little propinquity in this network. My sister would never meet my fellow board member walking down the street.

Instead, the economic spillovers have to take place across more private networks – and much more resource-intensive ones: suburban office parks, conference centers, private shopping malls, phone and data networks, and especially, automobile travel networks. We are consigned to live and work in capsules (home, workplace, shopping), connected by capsules (cars) fueled by prodigious amounts of fossil fuel and other resources.

This investment of resources is immense, and the spillover return on resource investment is relatively meager. Another kind of stagnation, of “self-destruction of diversity,” sets in. The evidence is growing that this suburban enterprise is unsustainable, in the most basic sense of the word: there are insufficient resources to sustain it, and too many “externality costs” to be paid by others, at potentially catastrophic levels: climate change, resource depletion and shortage, ecological destruction, pollution. Then too there are more subtle social and health costs, notably a growing obesity epidemic.

The trouble with Mr. Kotkin’s critique of “nostalgia” – suggesting that all aspects of cities in the era before modern suburbs must be permanently consigned to irrelevance – is that it expresses a one-dimensional conception of history. “That was then, this is now” – and this “now” is an inexorable arrow forward. But on the contrary, history is more like a fugue, and we have choices now, just as we did then. Indeed we have a responsibility, to make cities work better in both their suburbs and their cores. Therefore all options – including learning from and possibly recapitulating aspects of cities that worked well in the past – need to be on the table for fresh consideration.

None of this is to take away from Mr. Kotkin’s valid point that the densest cores of cities are not for everyone. Instead we need geographic diversity too, and polycentric cities. Different people with different life choices need different kinds of places, certainly.

What they all need, however, is good quality, livable public space: that is to say, well-connected, walkable places, the core characteristic of all good-quality urbanism and urbanization of whatever scale. Without it, we are all immensely poorer – and all threatened by immense dangers in the future.

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