City Views

Urban studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy.

(Page 7 of 8)

Reason: There are suburbs in Pittsburgh where the people who run the township, the zoning officers, despise commerce. It's virtually 100 percent residential use -- big homes, mostly. And of course there are no granny flats, no corner stores, no duplexes. I don't know if people want to change that. People are happy to be living there. They are some of the wealthiest people in Pittsburgh.

Jacobs: Yes, but now consider what happens with the change of generations. Remember how people despised Victorian buildings earlier in this century? They were just ruthless with them. They were just thought to be automatically ugly and disgusting. Many wonderful, wonderful buildings were destroyed. Well, that was a big rejection of Victorianism. Not just the buildings. There was the feeling that it was stuffy, it was repressive.

There'll come a time when the standard suburbs that you're talking about -- even the wealthiest ones -- will change. Look at what has happened to very wealthy areas within cities where great mansions turned into funeral parlors, and so on. It'll happen. Just when, I don't know. I'm very suspicious of prophesizing, because life is full of surprises, but I think we are seeing the precursors of the very beginning of the change in the suburbs.

Reason: My parents are still in a 1950s suburban tract home. When we were growing up, we didn't want to live in an old house. Now you'd have to pay me to live in my parents' house, which is just a suburban box.

Jacobs: Exactly. And when this happens, people get absolutely ruthless with the old stuff. Too ruthless, I think, because I don't like waste, and I don't like thoughtlessness.

Reason: When the change comes, if it is an incremental, slowly evolving, uncontrolled sort of natural change, it's easy for society to accommodate that, isn't it?

Jacobs: Yes it is. But if all that zoning is kept, that can't happen.

Reason: This is why I'm one of the few people you've met who likes Houston, because it has no zoning.

Jacobs: It has no zoning. But all the same, it looks like all the places that do have zoning. Because the same developers and bankers who deal with places that do have zoning carry their same ideas when they finance or build something in Houston.

Reason: There are not enough Houstons to change the way things are built or developed?

Jacobs: Right. In fact, places where change does happen are where people face it and really start to overhaul and rethink these things. That's what holds back change -- when people don't overhaul and rethink. People are awfully scared of changes in zoning, because they think the neighborhood will go to the dogs and it will ruin their property values.

I mentioned before about this anatomy of the streets, and how if you have the streets that are good pedestrian thoroughfares as part of the anatomy of the heart, those are the logical places to convert from residences, say, to businesses. If the place is really an economic success, that's going to happen. That's not a bad thing to happen, the expansion of the commerce and the working places.

Reason: It's a good sign, right?

Jacobs: It's a very good sign. But you see, if it's in places where that hasn't been thought of, the commerce begins to intrude on the parts of the community that were just meant for residences. Sometimes these conversions are very charming, but usually not. They are ugly and they are like a smear that begins to spread. People look at it and say the neighborhood is going to the dogs. And they're scared of this. But actually, if you have these busy streets that have the kind of buildings on them that can easily be converted back and forth to different uses...the place doesn't go to the dogs.

Reason: The problem is when you lock yourself into one use and never allow it to change, or make it so impossible to change that it'll never happen.

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