What Jane Jacobs Missed

Her intense focus on the minutia of the streets confuses cause and effect and virtually ignores infrastructure.
May 18, 2016 AT 3:00 AM
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing

This originally appeared on Common Edge, a nonprofit website about architecture.

Not far from Jane Jacob’s famed home on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, and the White Horse tavern, and her famous street ballet, lies the West Fourth subway stop at 6th Avenue and 4th Street. It’s a massive thing, one of the largest in the entire system, with eight tracks across four platforms on two levels. Seven subway lines -- the A, B, C, D, E, F and M -- connect there, and the station pumps thousands of people per hour onto the streets of the quaint village. This stop, and the trains and tunnels it leads to, are crucial to how Greenwich Village functions.

Yet Jacobs makes virtually no mention of this stop nor, amazingly enough, the New York City subway system in her masterpiece and most influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This omission points to something Jacobs didn’t get, which was infrastructure: the big systems that make a city work. Jacobs not only didn’t talk much about the New York subway system, she didn’t talk much about the water system, an engineering marvel whose pipes snake hundreds of miles into the Catskill mountains, bringing fresh, clean liquid to millions of people. She doesn’t talk about the power grid. It’s almost as if she assumes the dense urban neighborhoods she loved just materialized organically on the banks of the Hudson, not the product of massive infrastructure systems usually financed or directed by big government.

Jacobs was excellent at using her eyes and ears to record what was actually happening on the streets, for bypassing theory and cutting directly to the real thing. She shaped my thinking (and everyone else’s) for the better. But in part because of the times, and because her own limitations, she missed some big things, and that has hurt us. Her intense focus on the minutia of the streets confuses cause and effect. She and her devotees can focus too much on design, without recognizing the larger context that design lies within. She worshipped the local, the ballet of the streets, without seeing all the factors that made that dance possible. It’s important not to try to copy the design of a street or place, without recognizing the foundation for that design, which can include physical infrastructure as well as legal and financial regulation.

As an example, let’s look at something she loved, density. How do you get density in an urban neighborhood? You have to make it possible for a lot of people to live well within a small amount of space. This means few or no cars. If people need cars, then they need parking spaces for their cars, and the parking eats up the land and the possibilities for density. So you need subways, streetcar lines and buses. Jacobs didn’t talk much about that in Death and Life, nor did she talk about the other big systems cities rely on. Nor, as I recall, did she talk much about this in her other books on cities and economics that I have read.

She did not ignore transit entirely. In chapter 18 of Death and Life, about the battle between cars and cities for supremacy, she eviscerates modernist Corbusier-style city planning, and skillfully explains how car traffic cannot take priority if cities are to thrive. But she never comes out and says that great cities must have great mass transit.

The closest she comes is in one paragraph, where she says better public transit has to await a public and political community that is ready for it. “At present, public transportation languishes, but not from lack of potential technical improvement. A wealth of ingenious technique lies in limbo because there is no point in developing it during an era of city erosion, no funds for it, no faith in it.” This is from one paragraph in a book that largely ignores the subject; it comes across as an afterthought.

Jacobs was certainly one very smart lady. She was a radical really, with the intensity of her gaze and her willingness to discard almost completely any academic training and packaging. I understand she refused all honorary degrees because of her disdain for academia. I respect and like her immensely. I had the great good luck to fall into a correspondence with her when writing my first book, How Cities Work, and to meet her in Toronto at her home. Since I first cracked Death and Life of Great American Cities, and later many of her other books, she taught me the advantage of seeing things for myself, of talking to regular people, and distrusting the official judgement of experts.

But her context shaped her. I suspect her tendency to not focus on big systems stemmed from her dislike of government, which is necessary to create big systems. Although she is viewed as a woman of the left, she shared with today’s right a deep suspicion of government, particularly big government. It’s easy to see why. When she intellectually came to maturity, Robert Moses and Robert McNamara were the men in charge. These men and others in government were ploughing freeways through cities, and sending young men to die in the Vietnam War, wanting her son as its fodder. It’s why she immigrated to Canada. But her focus on ordinary life, on life on the streets, now risks becoming the current myopia. We need government, sometimes big government, to do the big things that need doing, from national health care, to a decent train system between cities.

And there’s no escaping that if you love the Great American City, as Jacobs did, you have to love, or at least respect, the big systems that make them possible.