Tom Shen
Notes on The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Disclaimer: this is feature complete, but needs revision.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities
The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jane Jacobs

The Peculiar Nature of Cities

What makes neighborhoods safe and unsafe? The answer is generally not the presence of police (a neighborhood where you frequently see police officers is certainly not a safe neighborhood). Instead, neighborhoods depend on having people watching the street. These people can be hired (e.g. doormen), or they can be people who run or work at businesses on the street (e.g. owners/workers at bodegas that are open all night long), or they can be people who live in the neighborhood and, critically, are interested in watching the street.

Generally, safe neighborhoods are due to a combination of the last two, and they’re connected. Why do people watch the street? When there’s a lot of other people in the street. People are in the street when there’s something drawing them to or through the neighborhood. This is where mixed use zoning and density come in: the more there is to draw people to the streets that people also live in, the safer they’ll be. Also, somewhat ironically, the more strangers frequent a street, the safer it is.

Today, New York (and cities in the US in general) are a lot safer than they used to be (e.g. when this book was written). Manhattan in particular is a lot safer. However, as far as I can tell very few neighborhoods in Manhattan have the sort of neighborhood feel that Jacobs describes. So, why have they become more safe?

A related tidbit that caught my eye: neighborhoods that are filled with high end residential buildings are kept safe primarily through a network of doormen and superintendents, of delivery boys and nursemaids, a form of hired neighborhood. Since residents of high-rent neighborhoods don’t actually spend much time in their neighborhoods, part of their rent goes towards a “fake” neighborhood infrastructure. In that sense, should we be more suspicious of doorman buildings? (I currently live in a doorman building.)

How do we deal with unsafe cities?

[One] mode is to take refuge in vehicles. This is a technique practiced in the big wild-animal reservations of Africa, where tourists are warned to leave their cars under no circumstances until they reach a lodge. It is also the technique practiced in Los Angeles. Surprised visitors to that city are forever recounting how the police of Beverly Hills stopped them, made them prove their reasons for being afoot, and warned them of the danger. This technique of public safety does not seem to work too effectively yet in Los Angeles, as the crime rate shows, but in time it may. And think what the crime figures might be if more people without metal shells were helpless upon the vast, blind-eyed reservation of Los Angeles.

The other modes, of course, are to simply let residents deal with it, or to establish turfs. Turfs are sometimes actually maintained by gangs, but walled off parts of the city and gated communities create their own turfs.

Parks and playgrounds and other artificially constructed spaces are bad for public/street life. They force “togetherness” instead of allowing it to occur naturally, and, if not properly supplemented with commercial, “public” areas, can do damage to their neighborhoods. If children play in parks instead of city sidewalks, they lose the presence and watchful eyes of adults who naturally frequent the street, or look out their windows at the street. Any hired supervision naturally cannot compare with the sheer amount of adult supervision a street provides for free, in the course of carrying on their other pursuits.

Planners do not seem to realize how high a ratio of adults is needed to rear children at incidental play. Nor do they seem to understand that spaces and equipment do not rear children. These can be useful adjuncts, but only people rear children and assimilate them into civilized society.

Jacobs theorizes that an important part of good neighborhoods is the separation between public and private life. Through the presence of public spaces where people interact, the neighborhood as a whole builds a sense of community and responsibility, even if direct private personal interactions are rare. Part of why housing projects fail (as opposed to the “slums” that they claim to replace) is that they blur the lines between these two spaces.

Despite the village ostensibly being safer today than it ever was (and certainly being a lot more high-end/expensive), I don’t think I would ever let my (hypothetical) kids play alone on the streets.

The Conditions for City Diversity

Before my current apartment, I lived for year in FiDi. The apartment was large (2000 ft2 for 4 people), reasonably priced, and in a luxury building with great amenities. I was also very excited to get out of the neighborhood. FiDi is filled with great apartments, but it’s also totally empty at night and on weekends. The same problems that were observed during the 50s were present today. Mixed-use midtown is the real downtown of New York.

Forces of Decline and Regeneration

Gentrification can be bad not just because it pushes out long-standing residents in favor of wealthier ones, who will contribute nothing to the local culture: it can be bad because it pushes out mixed use with pure residential (usually high end). A mixed use area becomes popular, and therefore lots of well-off single people want to move in, and the construction of new luxury buildings will therefore push out the lower-cost, older buildings and the shops and residents that occupied them. This is certainly something that has and is happening in Chelsea (where even the art galleries have become too expensive for normal artists to show their work).

The boundaries between neighborhoods can often be much worse than either surround neighborhood (e.g. adjacent to highways/railroad tracks, waterfronts, the streets adjacent to Central Park). This is the case when there is no good reason to cross the boundary, or at least approach it. When there are places established at those boundaries that people would want to go to (e.g. the museums along the eastern edge of Central Park), people will naturally cross the boundaries as well, and the whole strip of land will be healthy.

Different Tactics

Why must subsidized housing in cities be treated differently than other enterprises subsidized by the government? Nothing differentiates those that must live in subsidized housing from any other resident, except their ability to pay for housing.

Perfectly ordinary housing needs an be provided for almost anybody by private enterprise. What is peculiar about these people is merely that they cannot pay for it.

Quicker than the eye can see, however, people who cannot be housed by private enterprise have been turned into a statistical group with peculiar shelter requirements, like prisoners, on the basis of one statistic: their income.

Pedestrian-only streets are not beneficial because they enable more people to fit, but rather because it makes crossing the street safer and easier.

When opportunity affords, I have been watching how people use pedestrian streets. They do not sally out in the middle and glory in being kings of the road at last. They stay to the sides.

Cars in cities are bad because they lead to a compounding cycle: more cars means more space for parking, which spreads out places of interest even further, which makes more necessary to get around and makes most streets less interesting.

In the opposite direction, attrition of automobiles occurs when roads are closed to cars (like the recent experiment on 14th St), or when pedestrians are present in such numbers to make driving difficult. This is the only way to reduce the number of cars in a city, and it must work slowly and gradually.

What kind of problem is a city? A city is a problem of organized complexity. Previous schools of thought about cities have though of them as problems of simplicity (two-variable systems) or disorganized complexity (systems that may only be analyzed statistically).

Unaverage elements, large and small, are critical to vital cities. They are widely, unconsciously understood by city dwellers, but dismissed by city planners as inconsequential, because they are statistically so.