Wednesday 10 February 2016

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

(February 2016)

We’re going to kick off Arbitrary Theme Month with a couple of foundation texts, the cover blurb of the first of which informs us that it is “perhaps the single most influential work in the history of town planning.” Now, I realize that on first reading this sounds a little like being the most famous Belgian, but that in itself is a measure of how little thought we (still) seem to give one of the most important fields of human organization.

Great American Cities is a polemic against the autocratic philosophies that dominated American urban planning for much of the 20th (and, seemingly, the 21st) Century; its essential argument is that cities need to be appreciated at the individual human scale or not at all. This is built around the key insight (which like many such insights is so obvious it’s amazing that it needs making) that people who want to live in cities behave differently from those who don’t, specifically in their expectations of privacy: they enjoy connecting with people, but not so much that they want to invite them into their lives and homes. When poor planning inhibits people from making this easy, obligation free contact, city streets and districts decay: “The more common outcome in cities, where people are faced with the choice of sharing much or nothing, is nothing.” (p. 65)

While I suspect this observation remains as true today as when it was made, I also suspect that some of the early descriptions of the life of a popular city street were overly-romanticized even at the time; wonderfully written, and positively Dickensian in the evocation of character and vivacity, but a touch overegged nonetheless. Even so, Jacobs definitely has a novelist’s eye for language and was not afraid to give both barrels to anything she set her sights on: “Detroit is largely composed, today, of seemingly endless square miles of low-density failure.” (p. 204)

This contempt for homogeneity brings us to the second key insight, which is that the best way to ensure city residents can achieve the optimal, Goldilocks levels of contact and privacy is to ensure the diversity of city streets; primarily of use, but by extension of users. The present-day implications of this rallying call for diversity hopefully don’t need spelling out for the readers of this blog (you few, you happy few), but given present political shenanigans on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific, it’s a vital reminder that, far from undermining cultural purity or whatever, diversity within human societies is overwhelmingly a source of strength, not weakness.

I’m going to close by quoting a passage at length, because I think it demonstrates not only Jacob’s arguments and strengths as a stylist, but also as I think it will prove to be an illuminating* way of highlighting this month’s reading. In this section she seeks to explain the general structure of a city from the points of view of its users, and how they are drawn to specific and various points around it. Hopefully you won’t need too much prompting to recognize the more famous metaphor(s) being invoked:

…if the slippery shorthand of analogy can help, perhaps the best analogy is to imagine a large field in the darkness. In the field, many fires are burning. They are many sizes, some great, other small; some far apart, others dotted close together; some are brightening, some are going slowly out. Each fire, large or small, extends its radiance into the surrounding murk, and thus it carves out a space. But the space and the shape of that space exist only to the extent that the light from the fire creates it.
              The murk has no shape or pattern except where it is carved into space by the light. Where the murk between the lights becomes deep and undefinable and shapeless, the only way to give it form or structure is to kindle new fires in the murk or sufficiently enlarge the nearest fire. (pp. 376-7)

So Plato and Bede right there. This month is all about cities, in case you hadn’t clocked to that already. While I’m not massively enamored of Urban Fantasy, I think it’ll be interesting to see what our fantasies of the urban are like, and what they say about cities, and what they say about us.

*You(‘ll) see what I did there?

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