60 years in the past Jane Jacobs modified the best way we see cities. She might do it once more

Writer and activist Jane Jacobs on the streets of New York © Bob Gomel/Getty Images

In 1958, urban activist Jane Jacobs wrote a piece for Fortune magazine entitled “Downtown is for People”. Like The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the now-classic book she published three years later, it was a call to action for those who care about cities. “This year is going to be a critical one for the future of the city,” she wrote, a year that would set their character for “generations to come”.

We are at one of those Jacobian pivot points now. In New York, where I live, the city is coming to life again. Parks are packed, restaurants are full and moods are up. But so are housing prices and crime, something true in a number of American metropolitan areas. Parts of the city that used to be known for luxury condos and spendy foreigners are deserted. Suddenly, unfashionable areas are booming. The highest price jump in the city over the course of the pandemic has been in humble Windsor Terrace, a small Irish-Italian neighbourhood just steps from my own, where nurses and firefighters are slowly but surely being pushed out by cable talk-show hosts and designers.

It’s as if the never-ceasing change that is New York’s quintessential characteristic has been suppressed for months and is now bursting forth, in ways both good and bad.

The shape of the urban landscape has changed, and it will change further. Pandemics do that. Roughly 40 per cent of the 900,000 jobs lost have come back, but many restaurants, shops and offices remain shuttered. Yet streets once clogged with traffic now overflow with patrons of overbooked eateries spilling on to the sidewalk in covered spaces that remind us all of Parisian cafés. Many of us hope this — along with musicians that practise outside in the park, less crowded commutes and working from home — will last.

Crime is a different story. For the first time since 1993, crime — not just policing — was a major issue in last month’s mayoral primaries, reflecting anxiety over spiking violence. May statistics from the New York Police Department tell a frightening tale: the overall crime index in the city is up 22 per cent year on year, driven by a 46.7 per cent increase in robberies and a 35.6 per cent increase in grand larceny. The number of people shot almost doubled. The previous month’s numbers were even worse: crime grew more than 30 per cent compared to the previous year, and shooting incidents tripled. This mirrors increases in violent crime rates in some other American cities.

Why is this happening? Some of it is surely related to the fact that the pandemic simply pushed many people to the breaking point — economically, physically, emotionally and culturally. The Black Lives Matter movement, which had a huge presence in my neighbourhood before Covid-19 via joyful rallies and marches complete with music and dancing, has completely tipped the tables on policing, putting every cop on notice that brutality is no longer tolerated. This is, needless to say, good.

Police are also wary. With media scrutiny following the death of George Floyd and police reform a moving target, many are obsessed with protocol: how to use force, how to touch a subject (or not), even exact word choice. The uncertainty and wariness this creates for cops on the beat is a reason many officers and citizens I’ve spoken with believe criminals feel emboldened.

All of it underscores a sense of division. We have taken off our masks. But we remain alienated from each other and unsure about the future. What will our city look like in a few years? What should it look like?

Jacobs would have had a lot to say about that. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961 as a protest against the vision of the “rationalist” planners of the 1950s and 1960s who wanted urban areas to be simplified, beautified and made more efficient. Like predecessors such as Ebenezer Howard, the 19th-century English urbanist who developed the first garden cities, they believed that cities could, in fact, be planned.

Howard’s suburbs had prescribed commercial centres, meticulously designed belts of green space, even a maximum number of residents. American planners working in big cities, meanwhile, took inspiration from Le Corbusier, building towering skyscrapers set above the hustle and bustle of ground-level shops. Students of Howard and Le Corbusier both believed that population density was a problem to be solved.

A woman stands on the pebbly bank of the East River and looks out over the water to Lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge
View of Lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge from the bank of the East River in Dumbo, Brooklyn © Sasha Arutyunova

Jacobs felt just the opposite: density was crucial to the magic of city life. To isolate urban dwellers from each other was to reduce friction, and friction is exactly what made cities places that you wanted to be. While people such as Howard were justified in looking around industrial-era London in 1898 and not liking what they “smelled or saw or heard”, his planned cities were, in her view, “really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.”

Jacobs wasn’t one to mince words. Before she died, I found myself on the sharp end of her tongue while fact-checking a story on urban planning at Forbes magazine, where I was a cub reporter. But she saved the really tough stuff for her bête noire, Robert Moses, the man who pretty much built modern New York City. He gave us bridges and highways such as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, on which I have spent roughly a third of my life in traffic between home and the airport. He also cut the city off from large swaths of its waterfront, creating dead zones that took years and untold billions to rehabilitate.

Rationalists such as Moses wanted to remake cities, in particular downtown areas, to counter falling retail sales, eroding tax bases, failing mass transit and rising crime. It didn’t work, at least in New York. By the 1970s, Son of Sam dominated headlines, white “flight” to the suburbs had begun and President Gerald Ford had refused to offer New York a bailout during its 1975 fiscal crisis, which sparked the famous Daily News headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead”.

Moses, as biographer Robert Caro has written, was all about power. Jacobs was about people. She believed that cities, like their residents, were biological systems which could only be understood in the context of “organised complexity, like the life sciences”. There were dozens of interrelated happenings going on in any one place at any given time. “The variables are many,” she wrote in her 1961 book, “but they are not helter-skelter; they are interrelated into an organic whole.” Like the parable of butterfly wings that create a tsunami on the other side of the world, pushing slightly on one factor could shift the entire system.

She believed that citizens kept each other safe as much, if not more, than police did. “The first thing to understand is that the public peace — the sidewalk and street peace — of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” It was, however, a system that required trust.

In the “garden city” suburbs that Jacobs despised, trust came in the form of homogeneity and tribalism. In large and diverse urban areas, it came from the casual contact with strangers that was the heart of the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of her own Greenwich Village.

On her stretch of Hudson Street, she would make her appearance a little after eight “when I put out the garbage can, surely a prosaic occupation, but I enjoy my part, my little clang, as the droves of junior high school students walk by the centre of the stage dropping candy wrappers . . . ” Later on there were the other “rituals of morning”, such as Mr Halpert unlocking the laundry handcart from its mooring to a cellar door, Joe Cornacchia’s son-in-law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber bringing out his sidewalk folding chair and Mr Goldstein arranging the coils of wire that proclaim the hardware store is open.

A view of Midtown Manhattan from the Empire State Building. Unlike Brooklyn and many outer boroughs, it’s hard to find a neighbourhood with ‘diversity of uses’ in Manhattan © Sasha Arutyunova

I recognise this ballet from my own neighbourhood. Like Cornacchia, my local bodega owner keeps keys for acquaintances who want to use our place when we’re away. He tells me when my 14-year-old son, who stops in for soda, has fallen in with the wrong group of friends. My hairdresser, two blocks away, lets me run home without paying if I’ve forgotten cash and I’m in a rush. I’ll get him next time. The old ladies in their curlers monitor the street from their folding lawn chairs. My next-door neighbour, a septuagenarian who has lived in the house since she was a child, can tell me in which decade and exactly how the previous owners repaired the gutters. It’s Pete Hamill’s Brooklyn. Literally. He spent some of his own childhood in a flat across the street.

Why does this trust still exist in places like my block? In part because this neighbourhood was, until recently, free from extremes. When I traded in a three-bedroom flat on Finchley Road in north London for my home in Park Slope Brooklyn in 2007, I did so in part because I knew I could send my children to state school, live near a green space, have easy access to libraries, hospitals and shops, and use public transportation.

This “diversity of uses” still exists in many outer boroughs, but it is harder to find in many neighbourhoods in Manhattan which, like prime central London or the most expensive parts of any number of other global cities, have become extremely bifurcated in recent years. There are too many “landmark” buildings owned mainly by absentee investors from Russia or the Gulf and too many incoherent new developments like Hudson Yards which are inconvenient for public transport and financially unattainable for the majority of New Yorkers.

Jacobs felt density was crucial to the magic of city life. To isolate urbanites from each other was to reduce friction, which is what made cities places that you wanted to be

Former mayor Michael Bloomberg once called New York City a luxury product. Jacobs would have seen that as a warning sign. To her, cities that were the biggest or best at anything were often sowing the seeds of their own demise. “Monopolistic shopping centres and monumental cultural centres cloak, under public relations hoohaw, the subtraction of commerce, and of culture too, from the intimate and casual life of cities,” she wrote. Iconic buildings needed to be used like key chess pieces — sparingly. They took up too much air and reduced complexity, which was, in her view, at the heart of successful neighbourhoods, where each part serves the whole.

Her own preference in architecture was for a mix of old and new, commercial and residential, with short blocks that allow for close contact and enough people both living and working locally to offer supply and demand. It’s the 15-minute city, to use a phrase popularised by Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo. More Brooklyn, less Manhattan.

The living neighbourhood, as opposed to the overly perfect static one, was emerging as a trend here before the pandemic. Now it’s getting a tailwind thanks to altered working and commuting patterns, which may become permanent. Work from home isn’t going away — a lot of people want it and it will save employers money on commercial leases. In New York, available commercial space is already at 17 per cent, a three-decade high. (The national average is 18 per cent.) Leases are long, which means the hit won’t be short and sharp, but slow and sustained, over years.

That will surely decrease tax revenue for the city, but it may also create more opportunities for the kind of mixed-use diversity Jacobs would have approved of. Demand for industrial space, warehouses and logistics centres is picking up. Aside from large multifamily apartment dwellings, for which demand plummeted during the pandemic, the residential market in many parts of New York is up. I expect that places like Brooklyn, Queens and even the Bronx and Staten Island will increasingly become their own economic ecosystems, rather than vassals to Manhattan.

This is a good thing, and pressure to try and stem it by luring big headline employers should be resisted. Jacobs would have been quite happy, for example, that Amazon eventually nixed New York City as a choice for its secondary headquarters. She was a huge critic of cities making linear deals in which tax benefits were traded for headline job gains. It was intuition on her part, but research has since shown her to be right.

While such business subsidies have tripled in the US since the 1990s, studies have proven that most of the deals cut by cities for brand name employers have turned out to be a net negative. The initial job gains can’t offset the tax hit which results in a degradation of the public services and human capital that employers were attracted to in the first place.

Jacobs believed that it was “the smallness of big cities” that made them so desirable. “A metropolitan centre comes across to people as a centre largely by virtue of its enormous collection of small elements, where people can see them, at street level,” she wrote. She would have loved the outdoor cafés that now fill New York’s streets and the creativity evidenced by all the small businesses that have found ways to survive the past 15 months.

She was, after all, an urban optimist and would have shaken her head at the post-pandemic predictions of big city demise. These lines, from her work in 1961, seem particularly resonant today: “Vital cities have marvellous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties. Perhaps the most striking example of this ability is the effect that big cities have had on disease.

“Cities were once the most helpless and devastated victims of disease, but they became great disease conquerors . . . The surplus wealth, the productivity, the close-grained juxtaposition of talents that permit society to support advances” such as the science that brought us a successful Covid vaccine in a year “are themselves products of our organisation into cities, and especially into big and dense cities.”

Cities, like people, are messy. They go through ups and downs in their lives. New York may have some tough years before it springs back. And yet, she asked rhetorically on the last page of her book, “does anyone suppose that answers to any of the great questions that worry us today are going to come out of homogenous settlements?”

The answer seems to me as clear as the sky over Prospect Park.

Rana Foroohar is the FT’s global business columnist

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