Monday, December 19, 2011

Jane Jacobs Shook Up City Planning 50 Years Ago

2011 was the 50th anniversary of the hugely important book by Jane Jacobs (right) (1916-2006), "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961) (left). Jacobs is one person every student should learn about in schools because she influenced the development of New York City and, in turn, shaped ideas about city planning across the country. Urban planning is part of 4D spatial design which also includes architecture, landscape architecture and interior design.

Some of her key ideas included:
Cities need to be walkable. This means that cities shouldn't be disrupted by freeways, large parks and big plots that break the pedestrian's ability to walk through the city. Isolated housing projects, large super blocks surrounded by isolated landscapes or parking such as large shopping centers and industrial sites surrounded by parking; large hospitals; and even large university campuses.

Cities need to resist gentrification by not automatically demolishing old buildings and building high rises, but by going into depressed areas and regenerating them. Jacobs did not say don't do new buildings, but she said keep a mix. Avoid scraping away all existing context, in exchange for new, untested, and out of scale projects.

Density of people is a valuable characteristic of cities, but is not an end in itself. Cities must be wary of single-variable solutions, like "skyscraper cities." Sheer aggregations of people massed together – or separated by "open space" – is not the goal but connections and everyday encounters between people. Compact, walkable cities can provide these connections, including big cities and smaller towns.

Cities are creators of knowledge that create economic prosperity that starts at the pedestrian scale. Lack of diversity creates socio-economic stratification. The capacity to solve our problems rests with the informal web of creative and regulatory relationships cities have – their culture – and not with specialized "experts."

Jacobs said that urban planners broke cities and the built environment but they can fix it. Planners have the power to make walkable, thriving cities and towns, and to erase the disastrous course of suburban fragmentation cities set themselves on several generations ago. The problems of cities can be solved – if we understand it, and learn from the past.

Click on the heading above to read an article by Michael Mehaffy on

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