City Views

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


Today, Jane Jacobs is revered as North America's great expert on cities and the way they work. But 40 years ago, when her masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities was first published, she was assaulting—and shattering—the fundamental tenets of urban planning.

That book was part literature, part journalism, and part sociology; it looked at cities from the sidewalks and street-corners up, not from the Ivory Tower down. Healthy cities, Jacobs argued, are organic, messy, spontaneous, and serendipitous. They thrive on economic, architectural, and human diversity, on dense populations and mixed land uses—not on orderly redevelopment plans that replaced whole neighborhoods with concrete office parks and plazas in the name of slum clearance or city beautification.

Jacobs has no professional training and only a high school diploma. But in the years since Death and Life was published, her "radical" ideas about what makes cities livable have become popular—in some quarters, near gospel. To some extent, this was driven by Jacobs' own civic activism, fighting to protect her New York neighborhood against the city planners' designs.

Jacobs' subsequent books have been just as revolutionary, if not always as widely read. The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) laid out new ideas about urban economics, stressing the importance of dynamic, open-ended growth. Systems of Survival (1992) delved into political philosophy, while last year's The Nature of Economies showed some of the ways economics follows the same principles that govern nature. She has also written a children's book and a book on Quebeçois separatism, and has edited the memoirs of her great-aunt, a schoolteacher in early 20th century Alaska.

Jacobs, who turns 85 this year, is as sharp as ever. She has lived in Toronto's bustling Annex neighborhood since 1968, when she and her late husband moved there from New York City so their sons wouldn't be drafted during the Vietnam War. She's a Canadian citizen, but she was born in the hard-coal town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Bill Steigerwald, an associate editor and columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, interviewed her in mid-March by phone.

Reason: What should a city be like?

Jane Jacobs: It should be like itself. Every city has differences, from its history, from its site, and so on. These are important. One of the most dismal things is when you go to a city and it's like 12 others you've seen. That's not interesting, and it's not really truthful.

Reason: Unlike American cities, Canadian cities have not been destroyed by the experts and the planners, have they?

Jacobs: Well, they've had some bad things happen to them. They had some terrible housing projects built in Toronto, although we learned later how to do it right.

That's mostly true about Canadian cities, but it's not all peaches and cream. It's really surprising how few creative, important cities Canada has for its size, its population, and its great human potential and attributes. There's a whole region of Canada, the Atlantic Provinces, that has a lot of pleasant little places but doesn't have one single really significant creative city. And the whole area is very poor as a consequence. It would be like a Third World country, that whole area, if it wasn't getting transfer payments and grants of various kinds from the rest of Canada.

Reason: But Canada didn't have the urban renewal problem that America did?

Jacobs: It had a little of it. It also had what Marshall McLuhan called "an early warning system." Urban renewal came to America earlier, so Canada had the advantage of seeing what the mistakes were and could be cautious. Canada had an urban renewal agency for a while, and it did just as badly as the one in the U.S. But it didn't last long, because as soon as the Canadian government saw what a mess it was making, how many fights it was causing, and how much opposition was arising, it just demolished the whole department.

That was the difference. All these troubles were becoming recognized in the U.S., but the government there didn't seem to be able to think, "This is a mistake. Out with it."

Reason: I know some businesspeople begged you to come to Pittsburgh and help fight a big City Hall redevelopment project that would have wiped out two city streets downtown. [See "Death by Wrecking Ball," June 2000.] The huge project has ended, so it's sort of a happy ending. But I'm wondering if, in a general sense, you think the people who control cities have learned the lessons of the '60s?

Jacobs: In that case, they certainly hadn't. That attitude—that you can sacrifice small things, young things, and a diversity of things for some great big success—is sad. That's the kind of attitude that killed Pittsburgh as an innovator.

Reason: And it comes from people who either have the power or the money or both to have their way?

Jacobs: Well, they have their way with the powers of eminent domain, government powers that were intended for things like schools and roads and public things, and are used instead for the benefit of private organizations and individuals.

That's one of the worst things about urban renewal. It introduced that idea that you could use those government powers to benefit private organizations. The courts never have given the kind of overview to this that they should. The time it went to the Supreme Court, back in the 1950s, the decision was that to make a place beautiful or more orderly or helpful, government could do what it pleased with eminent domain. That just left the door open. As one New York state official said at the time, "If Macy's wants to condemn Gimbel's, it can do it if Moses gives the word."

Reason: Robert Moses, the New York City planner and infamous power broker.

Jacobs: Yes. He's an extreme example, but in effect that's what the shift in eminent domain law did. But even before that, it was being done unofficially when what had grown big and successful was used to eat up, or wipe away, or starve what was not. You might as well have no birth rate and then wonder why there aren't people. If you don't have an entrepreneurial birth rate, you don't have new industries and new chances for other successes.

Reason: It seems virtually impossible for the biggest, clumsiest, most unenlightened government to squelch innovation and new growth. It might not come up in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh, but it will come up somewhere else, whether they like it or not.

Jacobs: Sure. Look at the big automobile companies in America and how they didn't make smaller cars, more economical ones that would run farther on gasoline. It took Japanese cars coming in, and German cars coming in. There was a market for them. But they were not being produced and designed by the big, rich, much more successful American companies. Then, when they saw what competition they had, the U.S. auto makers began to produce compact cars. But it sure was innovation from a long way off.

Reason: Do you think that the people who run American cities have learned what to do and what not to do?

Jacobs: I think some of them have learned a lot. There are quite a few cities that are more vigorous and more attractive than they were 10 or 20 years ago. A lot of good things are being done, but it's not universal.

Reason: Can you give me an example?

Jacobs: In Portland, a lot of good things are being done. Same with Seattle. San Francisco has done many attractive things.

Reason: What is it that you like about Portland?

Jacobs: People in Portland love Portland. That's the most important thing. They really like to see it improved. The waterfront is getting improved, and not with a lot of gimmicks, but with good, intelligent reuses of the old buildings. They're good at rehabilitation. As far as their parks are concerned, they've got some wonderful parks with water flows in them. It's fascinating. People enjoy it and paddle in it. They're unusual parks. The amount of space they take and what they deliver is just terrific.

They're pretty good on their transit too. It's not any one splashy thing. It's the ensemble that I think is so pleasant.

Reason: You are against regional planning and metropolitanism, yet isn't an important part of what's going on in Portland the pretty strong powers given to a regional planning authority?

Jacobs: I don't know. You're probably better informed than I am on that. I'm talking about the city of Portland itself.

Reason: The criticisms of Portland are these: By fixing boundaries and limiting growth by government fiat, they are guaranteeing that prices of housing will go up higher within the boundaries of Portland and that traffic will get worse. And this has happened.

Jacobs: Well, my goodness. Portland is not a dense city and never was. Whoever made that prediction, that densifying the city itself would have all those bad consequences, they don't know anything about it.

Reason: I lived in Los Angeles for 12 years. When I moved there in 1977, I just loved it immediately. It was so open and free and full of life and vitality. Not only the people, but there seemed to be a lot fewer rules and regulations about what you could do and couldn't do. Peter Hall says in Cities in Civilization that L.A. was built on freedom, and when I read that, I thought, "That makes sense to me."

Jacobs: Well, it does if you are able to drive a car and have enough money. But only in those cases.

Reason: Los Angeles wasn't too bad for money. My daughter is a lawyer and she had to leave San Francisco because she couldn't afford living there.

Jacobs: It's gotten so popular….

Reason: I remember interviewing the head of regional planning in Los Angeles. He shocked me, because I had grown up thinking Los Angeles was the best example of bad city planning. That it was sprawled all over the place, and it was just a mess, and nobody was in charge or anything. This was 1984, and this guy told me, "Now I have people coming from around the world to Los Angeles to see how we did it, how we established a city that had so many city centers—and not just two or three big centers, but 18." The answer was that no one planned it, obviously. It just happened that way and there is not any way to arrange it to happen in this way.

Jacobs: That's what I say: Every city is different. But don't think that because Los Angeles can do that, and it turned out that way, that every city can be a Los Angeles.

Reason: Some people say cities are destined to become workplaces by day and entertainment centers by night and weekend. Do you think that's true?

Jacobs: To a certain extent. Cities have always had a lot of leisure things that people use after work hours. But there are a lot of people who don't work during the day. Children have short working hours, you might say. There are seniors who don't have a lot of work during the day. I think it's important that there be recreational places during the day, too. Places where people can swim. Community centers. Places where they can bicycle.

Reason: In the city center area?

Jacobs: All over the city. The idea of this strict segregation of hours is fairly ridiculous. There are also more and more people who are working at night. Especially people who work at home.

Reason: A couple of years ago, Jesse Walker, an associate editor of REASON, wrote that your ideas are being seized by the sustainability crowd and are being abused. He wrote, "To the extent that they have digested Jacobs, they have romanticized her vision, bastardizing her empirical observations of how cities work into a formula they want to impose not just on cities but on suburbs and small towns as well."

Jacobs: I think there's a lot of truth to that. For example, the New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places that they develop, where people run into each other doing errands and that sort of thing. And yet, from what I've seen of their plans and the places they have built, they don't seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They've placed them as if they were shopping centers. They don't connect. In a real city or a real town, the lively heart always has two or more well-used pedestrian thoroughfares that meet. In traditional towns, often it's a triangular piece of land. Sometimes it's made into a park.

Reason: What kind of traditional towns?

Jacobs: You can see it in old Irish towns. You can also see it in towns in Illinois. The reason for it is that the action so often was where three well-traveled routes came together and made a Y. There are also T-intersections and also X-intersections. But they're always intersections that are well-traveled on foot. People speak about the local hangout, the corner bar. The important word there is corner.

Reason: Corner store, corner bar. They're illegal in most places today—certainly in the suburbs.

Jacobs: Yes. The corner is important. It's of all different scales. For instance, big cities have a lot of main squares where the action is, and which will be the most valuable for stores and that kind of thing. They're often good places for a public building—a landmark. But they're always where there's a crossing or a convergence. You can't stop a hub from developing in such a place. You can't make it develop if you don't have such a place. And I don't think the New Urbanists understand this kind of thing. They think you just put it where you want.

Reason: And that people will go there, as opposed to what's really happening—that people are already going there? You're just giving them a place to stop and congregate?

Jacobs: That's right. It occurs naturally. Now it also has the advantage that it can expand or contract without destroying the rest of the place. Because the natural place for such a heart to expand is along those well-used thoroughfares.

Reason: What do the people who run cities have to do now to make their cities into more livable, more interesting places? Is it to remove some of the things they've done in the last 50 years, or just keep their hands off completely?

Jacobs: It's much less a matter of removing things than adding things, I think. For instance, here in Toronto there were two areas of the downtown that were dying. They were in very good locations but they were old industrial buildings that were becoming vacant. Manufacturing was moving out to where they had more room and where it wasn't as expensive. There were a lot of small developers who saw that these nice old buildings were just ideal for converting into apartments. They were lofts, mostly, and you know how popular they've become. But they were blocked from doing anything about it because of use zoning that said it should be industrial. So you can change that use zoning and allow residential.

Reason: But aren't you then just removing an impediment? Some people say zoning is the big problem.

Jacobs: Wait a minute, I haven't finished. It didn't help to change that use because, again, there were so many impediments that went with it. There were rules and regulations about dwellings—especially parking places. And the ground coverage in these areas was high, and you couldn't make basements under these nice old buildings. You couldn't satisfy the parking requirements without fairly well destroying what was really nice about the areas and also making it just too expensive. So no matter what happened, they were blocked.

We had a very intelligent mayor at that time, and she listened to what they were saying. And she wanted to remove those impediments. She talked to everybody who had an interest in the area and they agreed that these buildings should be put to the additional use. But they were all so stymied in their thinking about, How do you make it practical?

Well, you're smart. You've already jumped to the conclusion of what makes it practical—you remove the impediments. The mayor's hardest job was re-educating the planning department, but she did it. They added one new rule, and you might not like this. But it was a very important rule to add: None of the sound old buildings could be destroyed. That was to prevent environmental and aesthetic waste. Otherwise, except for the safety and fire codes, which apply to all the buildings, just about all the old regulations were removed.

Reason: And what happened?

Jacobs: It's magical, it's wondrous, how fast those areas have been blossoming and coming to life again.

It wasn't just removing impediments. It was a use that was missing in the mixture. It didn't replace all the working places. A lot of the working places hadn't disappeared yet, and new ones have come in and been allowed to be added. Also, there are other things that the people who now live there, in combination with the people who work there, can support. The main thing missing in the mixture was added. The same principle you can apply to languishing bedroom communities. What's missing there is workplaces. Here's why I don't like segregation into night things and day things: You don't get the additional things that the workers and the people living there support jointly.

Reason: Such as?

Jacobs: Parking is one of them. No parking lot was built for the big baseball stadium here in Toronto, the one with the retractable roof, because it was figured that there were enough parking places for workers that weren't being used while the games were on. So why build more parking places?

Reason: You would agree that that is a smart way to do it?

Jacobs: Yes. The same thing applies to eating places. People who want to eat out in the evening can use the same places as working people who eat at lunchtime.

Reason: People complain that suburbanites are too dependent on cars. Yet the newest suburbs—the car suburbs, not the trolley suburbs—are so heavily zoned and so carefully laid out. The uses are segregated so much—you live here, you work there, you shop here, you play there, you go to school over here. If you didn't have a car, you couldn't possibly live in the suburbs—because of the way they're laid out.

Jacobs: That's right. Your children couldn't get to school. And they couldn't get to their dancing lessons or whatever else they do. You're absolutely dependent on a car. It's very expensive for people, especially if they need a couple of cars. It's a terrific burden. It costs about—somebody figured it out fairly recently—it costs about $7,000 a year for one car. That's a lot of money, you know.

Reason: I'm a five-minute drive from all the shopping I need, but I couldn't walk it.

Jacobs: Sure, you want to defend the car in those cases. It's a lifeline. It's as important as your water tap.

Reason: You aren't anti-car, are you?

Jacobs: No. I do think that we need to have a lot more public transit. But you can't have public transit in the situation you're talking about.

Reason: You don't literally mean publicly owned transit?

Jacobs: No. All forms of transit. It can be taxis, privately run jitneys, whatever. Things that people don't have to own themselves and can pay a fare for.

Reason: You're not an enemy of free-market transportation.

Jacobs: No. I wish we had more of it. I wish we didn't have the notion that you had to have monopoly franchise transit. I wish it were competitive—in the kinds of vehicles that it uses, in the fares that it charges, in the routes that it goes, in the times of day that it goes. I've seen this on poor little Caribbean islands. They have good jitney service, because it's dictated by the users.

I wish we could do more of that. But we have so much history against it, and so many institutional things already in place against it. The idea that you have to use great big behemoths of vehicles, when the service actually would be better in station-wagon size. It shows how unnatural and foolish monopolies are. The only thing that saves the situation is when illegal things begin to break the monopoly.

Reason: You've said it's a fallacy that jobs are coming out to the suburbs. What about the edge cities that Joel Garreau talks about? Hasn't it changed somewhat?

Jacobs: It has, but it's very uneven as to where the people live who go to that work. The old Garden City idea was that the jobs would be there in the suburbs, in the Garden City. That very seldom happened. For one thing, if you have two breadwinners or more in the same family, they aren't likely to work in the same place. People change their jobs in the course of their life. If they're confined geographically to just the selection there is in their little town, it's tough. It's one reason people move to cities or move to suburbs where they can commute into cities.

It's a fallacy to think that you can eliminate travel by putting people close to their work. In a few cases, they will be. But all the accounts I've ever seen, especially after a lapse of time, they aren't working and living in the same place.

Reason: I remember reading that the hub-and-spoke kind of movement of commuters is not as common in cities. People live in one suburb and work in another, not downtown.

Jacobs: That's right, they can work in another suburb. Exactly.

Reason: Is it a straw man to say that if you live in a suburb, you should work in that suburb? Is that what they really wanted people to do?

Jacobs: That's how they were justified, often, especially the ones that were considered model towns. You really can cut down the need to travel and the dependency on a car, or on public transit, in suburbs. But it's not by trying to hope, much less dictate, that people will work close to where they live. It's by their errands. There's an awful lot of unnecessary travel. If people want to get a quart of milk, they have to get in the car and get it. This is especially hard on children, too, who don't have freedom, even when they are old enough to go on foot to this place and that. It could easily be arranged that you could do almost all your errands on foot. But not so, if—again the question of monopoly comes up—you have to have these monopolies called shopping malls.

Reason: And they are monopolies that are protected by zoning in many cases, right?

Jacobs: Yes, and also at the behest of their developers.

Reason: The fix is in between the developers and the local government?

Jacobs: Yeah, and people have gotten afraid to have commerce get outside of these monopoly prisons.

Reason: Do you think suburbs will evolve into cities?

Jacobs: They'll evolve into something, but I don't know what you'll call them and I don't know exactly how they'll resolve. But they'll thicken up, get denser.

Reason: That solves a lot of problems, I guess.

Jacobs: Sure it does. And that's why those people are crazy when they said what would happen to Portland. It was an argument. They were trying to stop it and they said any kind of baloney.

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.

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.