Among the observations we remember from Jane Jacobs” famous book THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES are “the ballet of the sidewalk” and “eyes on the street”. Another comes near the end of the book (never quoted probably because few people have actually read the book): “a city is not a work of art”. She was referring to three ideas which had gained prominence in the early modern era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which she had spent the previous 400 pages berating: The Garden City (English, Ebenezer Howard), The Radiant City (French, Charles Jeanneret) and The City Beautiful (American, Daniel Burnham)
These were movements led by architects who had concluded (on their own) that maybe we needed to rethink cities in the context of all that had gone wrong in the wake of the industrial revolution. All three assumed that traditional cities didn’t work and couldn’t work in humanely accommodating burgeoning populations and modern industry and therefore needed radical reconfiguration. Jacobs saw these speculations as top down, anti-city, artistic abstractions devoid of considerations for real people and real life. She called it the Radiant-Garden-City-Beautiful problem.
It is thought that Robert Moses—who replaced thriving neighborhoods with highways and towers all over New York --was Jacobs arch enemy but he barely rates a mention in her book. Instead, her enemies were established high modernist architects (and architects in general) all of whom in her mind had failed to understand the complex, organic and diverse systems of the American metropolis, didn’t value it and therefore were intent on obliterating it. She blamed them. They were Moses’ enablers.
But Moses was (recklessly and indiscriminately) employing ideas in the 1950s that had been formulated a generation earlier in the 1920s and that most architects by the 1960s already knew did not work. Jacobs seems not to want to acknowledge that by the time she wrote her book these ideas had already been dismissed. In architecture school none of us were taught that those early modern speculations were anything other than intellectual failures interesting only has historical object lessons on what not to do. (Although some architects still do to this day perpetuate the habit with speculations on wholesale interventions, giant projects that are supposed to solve a city’s ailments all at once.)
In her 450-page book Jacobs includes not a single drawing (except four diagrams about city blocks on pages 179-182). Instead she uses words to describe how she thinks a city should be “planned” by which she means policies, incentives and economical models that will ensure that streets, parks and neighborhoods will teem with life. She understands that a thriving city—especially a metropolis—is made up of complex, interconnected systems of people that organically evolve, but which also need monitoring and sometimes intervention to maintain.
Jane Jacobs saw the planning of a city in the way one might plan a party: invite the right mix of people, have something for them to do, make sure they intermingle. The party requires a host (a government), but one who, paradoxically, is just there to manage the spontaneity. The setting is secondary (maybe some flowers, a tablecloth, a candle or two) and if the setting is only secondary no wonder she thinks a city can be planned with words.
Jacobs disdain for modern (obsolete and long discredited) theories of city planning and worse her appropriation of the word “planning” to mean something other than what it had meant 5,000 years prior partly explains the tenor of our relationships as architects with cities and communities in our work. Jacobs managed to sow the seeds for the (self-defeating and unproductive) animosity we feel almost daily in our interactions with “city planners” and “community stakeholders.” Parroting Jacobs they think cities can be planned with words and numbers – social policies, economic incentives, development incentives, zoning regulations, design guidelines, height limits, setbacks, FARs. If we just MANAGE things right, our cities will turn out, ignoring the obvious that while, yes, cities are lived they are also MADE.
Neither Jane Jacobs nor any “city planner” (as we now know that to mean today) designed Greenwich Village. Architects designed it just as they have every place in the world that we value. We are architects-- not writers, planners, developers, lawyers, managers, economists, big tech, activists or politicians—who design cities. Thankfully, Jacobs saved Greenwich Village from the decimations of Robert Moses who didn’t know what he was doing anyway and who was certainly neither an architect nor planner (as we used to know that word to mean).
A city is a place for people to be sure, but the place matters, it effects people as much as the people effect the place. The physical environment creates culture as much as it is a result of it. The physical artifact that is a city is a collection of buildings and the spaces between them, the better the buildings the better the cities. The more buildings and the spaces between them are works of art, the more beautiful the city and the life within. Any city we value is as Jane Jacobs stated “not a work of art” but it is made up of works of art.