City Views

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

(Page 8 of 8)

Jacobs: Yes, or that it'll just be an ugly smear if it does happen. I don't think the New Urbanists are thinking of those things.

Reason: Have you been to any of these new towns they're building, like Disney's Celebration in Florida?

Jacobs: I've been to one outside Toronto.

Reason: What did you think?

Jacobs: I was disappointed. The town center is very much a constricted thing unto itself, located as if it were a shopping center. It doesn't have this anatomy. Instead of having parking lots around it, it has a good-sized park, but all the residential streets that impinge upon it are very residential and not at all part of the anatomy of the center.

Reason: The perfect towns we think of, the kind of towns that New Urbanists are trying to reproduce from on high, were developed 100 years ago all across America with very little official kind of planning. How is it people seemed to be more sensible about how towns were not made, but allowed to grow, 100 or 150 years ago, then lost it? What is the secret they knew then that we have forgotten? Or am I romanticizing?

Jacobs: No, that's a very interesting question. They weren't being as ruthless, for one thing. A lot of these towns were ruined, you know. You can see these just awful strip developments.

Reason: I don't know if you think of yourself in these terms, but when they list the 100 most important American intellectuals of this century, your name is on that list.

Jacobs: (Laughs.) It's a little early to say. Usually those things don't mean much until a couple centuries have passed.

Reason: What do you think you'll be remembered for most? You were the one who stood up to the federal bulldozers and the urban renewal people and said they were destroying the lifeblood of these cities. Is that what it will be?

Jacobs: No. If I were to be remembered as a really important thinker of the century, the most important thing I've contributed is my discussion of what makes economic expansion happen. This is something that has puzzled people always. I think I've figured out what it is.

Expansion and development are two different things. Development is differentiation of what already existed. Practically every new thing that happens is a differentiation of a previous thing, from a new shoe sole to changes in legal codes. Expansion is an actual growth in size or volume of activity. That is a different thing.

I've gone at it two different ways. Way back when I wrote The Economy of Cities, I wrote about import replacing and how that expands, not just the economy of the place where it occurs, but economic life altogether. As a city replaces imports, it shifts its imports. It doesn't import less. And yet it has everything it had before.

Reason: It's not a zero-sum game. It's a bigger, growing pie.

Jacobs: That's the actual mechanism of it. The theory of it is what I explain in The Nature of Economies. I equate it to what happens with biomass, the sum total of all flora and fauna in an area. The energy, the material that's involved in this, doesn't just escape the community as an export. It continues being used in a community, just as in a rainforest the waste from certain organisms and various plants and animals gets used by other ones in the place.

Reason: It becomes denser and more diverse.

Jacobs: That's right, and it is linked with new development, because the new kinds of things that are being contrived are able to feed off of each other. The trouble is, people have always been trying to put development and expansion together as one thing. They're very closely related. They need each other. But they aren't the same thing and they aren't caused by the same thing. I think that's the most important thing I've worked out. And if I am thought of as a great thinker, that will be why.

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