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What Jane Jacobs Got Wrong About Cities

September 19, 2015

by Joel Kotkin : thedailybeast – excerpt

The peerless urban theorist misunderstood the suburbs and failed to see how gentrification would make urban neighborhoods unaffordable to all but the rich.
Few people have had more influence on thinking about cities than the late Jane Jacobs.The onetime New Yorker turned Torontonian, Jacobs, who died in 2006, has become something of a patron saint for American urbanists, and the moral and economic case she made for urban revival has been cited by everyone frompundits and think tanks to developers.

However, though widely celebrated for her insights and unabashed embrace of dense urbanism, Jacobs may ultimately prove more influential than relevant. Her writing was often incisive and inspiring, particularly when she opposed planning and overdevelopment and embraced the role of middle-class families in cities. But the urban revival that has actually taken place is at variance with her own romantic version of cities and how they work.

Currently the American cities that are doing best are not those with a flourishing middle class but those have become the preferred playgrounds of the rich and famous—New York, San Francisco, even Washington, D.C. At the same time, vast portions of urban America remain cut off from society’s mainstream.

The Nature of the New Urban Revival

When Jacobs published her most important work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961, America’s cities were clearly in trouble. Racial tensions and a massive flight to suburbia were undermining the promise of cities, and the only response of planners at the time seemed to be to expand freeway access, tear down old neighborhoods, construct massive apartment blocks, and subsidize big employers.

Jacobs rightly opposed these approaches, and constructed a far more human and enduring vision of urbanism. Her appealing perspective was based on middle-class neighborhoods, families, and grassroots economic activity. Her maximabout the best role for places remains a guiding light to those who care about upward mobility: “A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens. … Cities don’t lure the middle class. They create it.”

Yet when cities did begin to come back—a handful in the ’80s and then again more around the time of the millennium—the revivals were in many ways the opposite of her grassroots vision. Instead of creating more family-oriented middle-class neighborhoods, the urban revival ended up being based on “luring” the affluent, the still forming young person, or the accomplished, childless professional than generating a new middle class.

Dense urbanity, of course, remains a huge contributor to the nation’s economy and culture. Urban centers are great places for the talented, the young, and childless affluent adults. But for most Americans, the central city offers at best a temporary lifestyle. It does not fit with what people can afford and where they want to live. There is a reason why 70 to 80 percent of Americans in our metropolitan areas live in suburbs, and those numbers are not likely to change appreciably in the coming decade.

Cities, as Jacobs hoped, have indeed experienced a renaissance, but not in the form she preferred. To be sure, this revival is a hell of lot better than the urban dystopia that developed in the years after Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities first appearedBut it’s time to recognize that we are not seeing a renaissance of the kind of middle-class urbanity that she loved and championed. That city has passed into myth, and, unless society changes in very radical ways, it is never going to come back… (more)

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