Economic Development

Is It Time to Retire Jane Jacobs' Vision of the City?

Triumph of the City author Edward Glaeser challenges long-accepted views on urban planning, promoting a more market-friendly set of policies.
by | July 2011

The gospel of Jane Jacobs, the iconic urban thinker of the 20th century, has become so ingrained in modern planning that it is essentially synonymous with what most people think of as a “good” city. Since the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, politicians, urban planners and academics -- virtually everyone who cares about cities, really -- have seen cities through Jacobs’ eyes. Her celebration of the “ballet” of street life, her admiration for diverse, high-density neighborhoods with a mixture of buildings and usages, her animosity toward standardization and “monotony” -- they have all become part of a shared vision of the way a city should look.

Therefore, when someone challenges that vision, it’s noteworthy. When that someone is Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, one of the nation’s most influential thinkers on urban affairs, it’s an argument worth listening to. In his academic papers, his frequent posts to The New York Times’ Economix blog, and in essays for such publications as The New Republic and City Journal, Glaeser addresses big questions in creative ways: “Do Mayors Matter?” “Did Cheap Credit Cause the Housing Bubble?” “When Are Ghettos Bad?” Now, in his first book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, Glaeser takes on the Jacobs vision and offers a different set of lenses, one based in urban economics.

Glaeser’s subject is larger than Jacobs’ was. While Jacobs focused on American cities, Glaeser’s book discusses, among other places, Baghdad, Detroit, Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, Houston, Tokyo, Dubai, Atlanta and Levittown, N.Y. It is also a sweeping work of history, one that offers an account of the rise of the city over the course of human history. Yet it is to Manhattan that he most frequently returns. This is no surprise. Glaeser is a child of New York City, literally and intellectually. He grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s. (His father, an architect who lived through Hitler’s Third Reich in Berlin, oversaw the Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe archives at the Museum of Modern Art.) Like Jacobs’ classic, Triumph of the City sings the virtues of a certain type of city -- and warns of certain perils. But the conclusions he draws are quite different from Jacobs’ prescription for cities.

After three generations, is it time for city planners, politicians and urban activists to move beyond what urban design critic Lewis Mumford once described as “Mother Jacobs’ home remedies” and toward a more market-friendly set of policies instead?

Jacobs wrote at a time when the city was under attack. Glaeser writes of the city triumphant. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider just how remarkable this claim is. Globally, cities clearly are ascendant. A majority of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and demographers expect the percentage to rise by another 10 percent over the next 30 years. In the context of the United States, though, the city’s triumph is hardly self-evident. Glaeser notes that Americans who live in cities with populations of more than a million people are, on average, 50 percent more productive than people who live in smaller cities. Yet the past half-century has been a terrible time for big, high-density cities. Freeways and suburbanization, rising crime and race riots, busing and white flight, deindustrialization and, yes, destructive urban planning -- all have combined to undermine the dense, mixed-use city and lively streets that Jacobs celebrated. The so-called urban renaissance evident in cities such as Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., is not only about their “triumph.” It’s also about their recovery from a near-death experience.

Glaeser acknowledges as much. He notes that eight of the 10 largest U.S. cities in 1950 have lost at least a fifth of their population over the past 50 years. Of course, new cities have risen in their place, but these are sprawling, car-centric urban areas, not the dense big cities that Glaeser celebrates as marvels of productivity. Their growth has been anemic. Recent census figures show that New York City grew by 2.1 percent between 2000 and 2010. The New York metropolitan area did slightly better, achieving a growth rate of 3.1 percent, due largely to rapid growth in its outer ring suburbs. In comparison, as urban development author Joel Kotkin has noted, over that same period Raleigh-Durham, N.C., an area with just 1,700 persons per square mile, grew by 42 percent.

The recession of 2007 has stopped the growth of most Sunbelt cities. Whether it will resume is cause for debate. But if the future of the Sunbelt is uncertain, the fate of Rust Belt cities such as Detroit seems clear. They will continue to shrink. Glaeser insists that the implosion of Rust Belt cities “doesn’t reflect any weakness of cities as a whole.” Rather, he writes, it reflects “the sterility of those cities that lost touch with the essential elements of urban reinvention” -- industrial diversity, entrepreneurship, and most important, an educated workforce. By this account, Detroit strangled on what initially made it successful: the production line. The rise of the Big Three created a monoculture that discouraged education and small-scale entrepreneurship. And for decades, that didn’t matter. In 1970, for instance, per capita incomes were higher in industrial Cleveland and Detroit than in better-educated Boston and Minneapolis. Then, for reasons that are still hotly debated among economists, the return on education began to increase. When it did, Northern cities that failed to produce educated workers were doomed.

The correlation between education and earnings is striking: According to Glaeser, a 10 percent increase in the share of the population with college degrees is associated with an increase in per capita gross metropolitan product of 22 percent. An educated workforce has become the defining condition of a successful city, or at least a successful Northern city. (The percentage of employees with college degrees is actually only the second best predictor of urban growth. The best predictor is temperate winters.) Yet instead of focusing on improving their education systems, many local officials remain in the thrall of what Glaeser describes as “the folly of building-centric urban renewal,” such as GM’s Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit. “[P]ublic policy should help poor people, not poor places,” he writes.

For Glaeser, the cardinal sin of struggling cities is their failure to educate their workforces. The cardinal sin of successful cities is using zoning and historical district regulations to artificially limit supply. And it is here, Glaeser believes, that Jane Jacobs went seriously wrong.

One of Jacobs’ four prescriptions for successful cities was “the need for aged buildings.” (The others were mixed primary use neighborhoods, short blocks and density.) Maintaining a mix of older housing and commercial stock, Jacobs believed, allowed neighborhoods to retain the diversity that she valued above all else. “New ideas,” as she put it so memorably, “must use old buildings.”

Jacobs also believed in community organizing. During the 1950s, she took part in the successful fight to block Robert Moses’ plans to run a four-lane extension of Park Avenue through Washington Square in Greenwich Village; in the early 1960s, she fought efforts to “renew” the neighborhood as the co-chair of the head of the Committee to Save the West Village.

Glaeser doesn’t much like planners or urban redevelopment schemes. (He’s a fan of Rio’s favelas and Mumbai’s shantytowns, which he sees as the evidence of cities’ vitality, the first rung on the ladder to a better life.) He rejects Jacobs’ belief that preserving old buildings will maintain neighborhood affordability. That, he says pointedly, “is not how supply and demand work.” New York City’s subsequent history certainly suggests that on this point Glaeser is correct.

Glaeser also stakes out a very different position on neighborhood organizations and historic preservation than Jacobs. He argues that New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, originally established after the destruction of old Penn Station in 1963, has become excessively powerful, with authority over 25,000 buildings and 100 historic districts, amounting to about 15 percent of Manhattan’s non-park land. By following Chicago’s lead instead and encouraging new residential construction, Glaeser estimates that New York City could cut the cost of an average 1,200-square-foot apartment in a high-rise building from about $1 million today to roughly half of that, making Manhattan much more appealing to (upper) middle-class families.

Jacobs’ beloved West Village, which was a working-class neighborhood when she lived there, has long since been transformed by gentrification. But even in 1961, what she alluringly described as the “ballet of Hudson Street” was atypical. So too is the kind of city that Glaeser extols, at least in the United States. Glaeser devotes a chapter of his book to the merits of skyscrapers. He argues that they should play a bigger role in cities. In a place such as San Francisco, which recently began work on a new master plan for housing, Glaeser’s prescription may be sound. But for most American cities, it is impractical. Only 0.3 percent of Americans live downtown, and only five cities have downtowns with more than 50,000 residents. Glaeser’s praise of skyscrapers is, in the context of this country at least, every bit as romantic as Jacobs’ paeans to Hudson Street.

In fact, despite Glaeser’s rather pointed criticism of Jacobs for her supposed failure to understand the laws of supply and demand, the similarities between the Princeton- and Harvard-educated economist and the Scranton Central High School graduate are more striking than their differences. Glaeser has described himself as a “progressive libertarian.” According to sociologist Nathan Glazer, Jacobs also had pronounced libertarian tendencies. Both are suspicious of central planning, and both celebrate the role small businesses play in thriving cities. Indeed, even the issues where Glaeser disagrees with Jacobs often rest on a misunderstanding. For instance, Glaeser faults Jacobs for criticizing density levels higher than 200 homes per acre. That criticism doesn’t accurately reflect Jacobs’ arguments. In fact, she pointedly defends Boston’s North End, with its 275-units-per-acre level of concentration. It’s true that Jacobs was wary of the monotony of tall buildings (which she associated largely with New York’s disastrous foray into building housing projects) while Glaeser is more willing to welcome big developments that expand supply. But even his defense of skyscrapers acknowledges Jacobs’ influence: Properly designed skyscrapers, he insists, can support vigorous, mixed-use street life.

Ultimately, Jacobs and Glaeser are complementary thinkers. “Cities are thoroughly physical things,” Jacobs wrote. Her ability to influence how cities are perceived remains unrivaled. But Glaeser adds a compelling new component to that perception. His forceful case for increased density and his critique of place-centric rather than people-centric redevelopment efforts should provoke serious discussions among state and local officials for years to come.

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