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Within the historical context of both New York in the 1960’s and modern city planning, the tagline “The city planners are ravaging our cities!” directly refutes ideas by city planner Robert Moses and Lewis Mumford, architectural critic at the New Yorker and former mentor to Jane Jacobs. At the beginning of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs states the book is an “attack” on modern city planning and later calls most efforts “intellectual mush”.
Jane Jacobs lived at 555 Hudson Street in Greenwich Village and famously compared New York street life to an urban ballet. She describes cities as spaces of organized chaos where “An intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.
The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations”. On the sidewalk, neighbors come into contact with each other, look out for each other’s well-being and watch over each other’s children who use the sidewalk as their primary zone of play.
Comparing biological diversity to urban diversity, Jacobs had an intuitive understanding of what made the ecology of a neighborhood thrive and what created dead space.
She wrote about four essential components of urban diversity:
First was mixed-use blocks - Primary uses are the reasons that people go to a district, like a thriving entertainment hub. Secondary uses account for all of the enterprises that move into an area to support the primary uses, like restaurants and coffee shops. The secret to a successful mix of uses is keeping the streets busy at all times of day with all kinds of people. In order to achieve this, an area needs to draw 9–5 office workers, daytime shoppers, students, restaurant patrons, and residents.
A single-use business district without secondary diversity is doomed, since the area will be deserted after 5pm. After the district becomes vacant, businesses move away to be nearer to clients and draw more desirable talent. However, a business district that is also host to residential units, restaurants, shops, and theaters can expect to thrive and evolve.
Second are short blocks, which ensure that pedestrians aren’t limited to an isolated route. Allowing frequent opportunities to turn the corner and explore a new path can enrich the social life of a district and help businesses in all locations flourish. This gives the independent grocer or new bookstore a fighting chance of attracting customers, strengthening the economy overall.
Third are aging buildings, which must be mixed in age and condition so that people of all socio-economic backgrounds are able to make the neighborhood home and participate in its economic life. Aging buildings are necessary in order to be able to host non-profits, artist studios, and affordable housing units. Older buildings and lower rents create opportunities for new businesses to gain their footing.
Too often, when a neighborhood is ‘up-and-coming’, developers seek to tear down what exists and install sleek new (expensive) architecture. This displaces lower-income tenants, is visually repetitive, and alters the character that caused the neighborhood to flourish in the first place. New development is important, but space must be left for economic diversity.
Fourth is population density. Above all else, Jacobs’ book is a love letter to density in a time during which people still believed that density meant dangerous tenement housing, crime, and disease.
In our modern reality, density supports a diverse economic life. While suburbia can only support the economic demands of the majority, cities have the luxury of supporting a variety of cultures, scenes, and industries. This provides opportunities for establishments ranging from Ethiopian restaurants to hip microbreweries to co-exist, share customers, and make the city an attractive place to live.
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