Jane Jacobs: Some Myths about Diversity

This section of the Jane Jacobs book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was about the opposition’s misconceptions about diversity in the city and how they are wrong.  For Jacobs, diversity is concerning a diversity of uses of a space, not necessarily culturally or racially.  She advocates that many types of business and residences are the hallmarks of a thriving city neighborhood.  There are three main myths she identifies in this chapter.  The myths are the opposition often cited by city planners against diversity.

The first myth Jacobs addresses that diversity is ugly.  She counters this by saying the opposite is true.  That homogeneity is actually the eyesore.  There are two ways that city planners try to deal with homogeneity:  Either they make the area obviously homogeneous in uses and in style of building, which Jacobs argues is boring and disorienting.  I think of Robert Adams and the new topographic for this model:

If everything is the same, then it is difficult to find your way based on landmarks.  This one of many examples, according to Jacobs, where the city planners are learning lessons from the uses needed in suburbs, instead of focusing on learning what is right for cities.  Jacobs points out again and again that the concerns that are necessary to consider for the suburbs are not the same of this city.

Homogeneity is sometimes masked by the city planners by creating forced diversity.  This involves the planners artificially creating different kinds shapes and styles of buildings to give the impression of true diversity.  Jacobs says that this is just as bad as the true homogeneity because it is just based on appearance, not use, and so it is dishonest.  The designers otfen use flashing architectural gimmicks to create this illusion.  She quotes Eugene Raskin saying, “through slabs, towers, circles and flying stairs bound and abound all over the lot, the result has the appalling sameness of the tortures of hell.  They may poke you with different instruments, but it’s all pain…”

Jacobs advocates a mix of architectural and functional diversity in the city.  Architectural differences can come from buildings built at different eras and different scales.  A variety of types of buildings that are created at different times is true, authentic diversity.

She also says that having a mix of commercial and residential buildings together that grows organically adds to the city’s variety and beauty.  It is a unique city beauty that is appreciated by those in the city.

One last point she makes about the diversity of the city being beautiful and economically sound is the fact that in New York, the landmarks are mixed in with the rest of the buildings.  I noticed this when I was in New York recently.  Carnegie hall is right in midtown, next to hotel bars and an Office Depot.  This richness of life and culture mixing is a feature that Jacobs advocates as the standard for urban planning.  Not only does it make the urban space special, but it also brings business and tourism into the neighborhood.

The second myth that Jacobs discusses is that diversity creates traffic congestion.  Robert Moses’ mission was to create a city that would be ideal for automobiles.  He was constantly building bridges, creating larger avenues, and trying to build highways that went through the city.  He saw this as a way to make the city more efficient.  He wanted to get rid of the small blocks and densely populated areas that he saw as creating traffic jams with too many intersections and pedestrians.

Jane Jacobs counters Moses’ idea with this logic:

The longer the blocks and the bigger the streets, the farther apart destinations are.  This is also true if diversity is combatted, because there will not all of the needs met in the area and so the city dweller will have to drive to get to service that isn’t found in his purely residential area.  This means that there are more cars on the road, which ultimately leads to more congestion!

Diversity means that there are more services and needs met in the area, which means that people have to travel shorter distances, which means they WALK!  This of course leads to less cars on the road, and less traffic congestion.

Myth 3 is a little more complex.  It involves the myth that diversity can create ruin in the neighborhood.  Jacobs uses 5 examples to counter this idea, either by demonstrating that the harmful establishments don’t belong in the thriving city neighborhood, or that establishments are not as harmful as they are made out to be.

Example A:  Junk Yards

This is nowhere near my house!

Jacobs agrees that Junk Yards add nothing in terms of beauty, concentration of people, or convenience, and they are detrimental aesthetically and functionally to a community.  However, she does not think that junk yards cause the disfunction.  On the contrary, she believes that junk yards are an affect of disfunction.  She points out that thriving communities do not have junk yards in their neighborhoods because there are usually more effective uses of the space in urban environments where diversity is encouraged.  Junk yards show up in the areas that are not thriving.

Example B.  Bars/restaurants amongst residential areas.

My boyfriend lived over this bar and it was fine!

This is a problem for many city planners traditionally because it is thought that if consumers are mixing with residents, it decreases the overall safety of the people that live in the area.  However, Jacobs argues that in fact the opposite is true. In thriving city areas, more people around actually adds to the safety because there is less marginalized space for bad deeds to occur.

Example  C:  Smokestacks

This is right by my house! I saw it from the plane!

This argument I think was Jacobs’ weakest.  She said that these shouldn’t be contested in urban areas because they affected the air and there should be no zoning laws on fumes.  However, this book was written in 1961, and I doubt she would make this statement now after all the environmental ramifications have been identifies.

Example D:  Mortuaries/Funeral Homes

This is very close to my house!

This is a strange example as well.  Apparently, people were supposed to be upset about proximity of funeral homes in residential areas.  But Jacobs says that a true urban city dweller does not have a problem with death and life mingling together.  That all aspects of life are accepted in a large city, and that they should all be present in a thriving urban community.

Example E:  Large, intrusive businesses in residential areas

I couldn’t find a good picture of this.

She says that structures like parking lots, heavy trucking depots, gas stations, and huge billboards can disrupt the flow of diversity of the city block, but not necessarily because of their uses.  It is more because of their scale that throws the balance out of whack.  Jacobs urges the planners to pay more attention to the effect of scale on appearance and functionality in a neighborhood when issuing zoning permits as opposed to use.

There were a couple of interesting observations I had about Jane Jacobs that I took into account when reading and interpreting her writing.  The first was that she had a decidedly New York way of looking at cities.  When I went to NYC recently, one of my first observations was the way that any type of business or residency could be shoved into any open space.  It was really surprising to me to see a dry cleaner right next to a gourmet grocery store.  I found this invigorating, that there was no separation or propriety of what should go where.  It felt like the American dream.  However, this seemed unique to New York.  In Chicago, I do not have the same feeling, although there are many areas that mix commercial and residential areas.  So it seems that the diversified neighborhood that Jacobs is ascribing to all cities is a particular New York City entity.

I also noticed something about the ways of interpreting the city in terms of identity.  When big cities were created, it was mostly for economic reasons.  People moved to the big city in order to find work because work in rural areas was rapidly decreasing.  Cities were also where people could achieve their dreams.  Now, the city is closely tied to identity.  It’s about whether you are a urban person or a rural person.  I feel that Jacobs is reacting to her identity as an urban person and what urban people are supposed to like.  Her prescription of what diversity means is closely tied to what an urban person wants from their urban lifestyle.

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