Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Sat Dec 8th 2007 at 11:16am UTC

Jane Jacobs and the Wired World

Over at Planetizen, Anthony Townsend directs us to Andrew Blum’s thoughts:

Jacobs wrote that “word does not move around where public characters and sidewalk life are lacking.” Now it does. There are the people paused at the top of the subway stairs, occupying two spaces at once, one physical, one virtual. And in neighborhoods around the country—this one in particular—community online message boards and blogs are thriving, entirely in parallel with news passed stoop to stoop. The “in parallel” part is crucial. Outside.In, a website designed to gather and organize neighborhood news, published a list of “America’s Top 10 Bloggiest Neighborhoods.” What was striking (but perhaps not surprising) is that all were living examples of the kind of places Jacobs championed: Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, Portrero Hill in San Francisco, Shaw in Washington. If the physical form of a neighborhood is conducive to community, so is its virtual form. But the other striking thing about the list was that all the neighborhoods were in a state of change—gentrifying or recently gentrified. … These are incontrovertibly real-world neighborhoods, but their community is as virtual as it is physical. With each year, we get better at navigating between the two. …  It’s easy to think of social networking in terms of Hudson Street, and easy to think of Hudson Street in terms of social networking. Both are at their best when they can successfully balance the public and the private.

My two cents: I don’t think Jacobs would be a fan – at all.  On the one hand, she always brought us back to human beings. Technology would never, ever in her world be a substitute for human interaction. On the other, I don’t think she was a great fan of these neighborhoods or what they are becoming. She liked “messy urbanism” – the diverse mix of people, buildings, and uses – of the sort she found on Hudson Street and later in Toronto’s Annex and elsewhere around this city.  When I asked her about gentrification she said essentially, “There are two kinds”.  The homogeneous, everything is the same kind, that’s happening in many U.S. cities which, she thought, had gone way too far. Then there was “good gentrification.” She used Toronto as an example of this – with its diverse mix of people and incomes, where young people fix up old houses next to working class folks and new immigrants, where new shops co-mingle with older hardware stories, butchers, delis, flowers shops and pubs.  To drive this point home, she added one my all time favorite zingers: “You know, Richard,” she said, “when a place gets boring even the rich people leave.”  She saw many, many U.S. cities headed down that path. Sure, parts of Toronto are getting expensive but working people can still afford to live in huge swaths of the city. Can the same be said for Brooklyn, San Fran or DC?

If I’m writing this blog (something I love to do), I’m not mixing and mingling on the street, if I order my groceries from an on-line store, I’m less likely to go to the store.  All of these things lessen and limit human interaction.  Of course, they increase the efficient allocation of time. But they also limit real, human contact, and the chance of random happenstance interactions. Heck, my GPS makes it less likely I’ll ask for directions; my on-line catalogue and reviews give me little need to ask a shop-owner for advice. Technology makes me more house-bound (something I sort of like) and yes more efficient at work. I can go to the office less, the store less. I can “work” more, interacting with people and commerce on-line.  My main source of human energy are my walks in the ravine. As beautiful as it is, it’s certainly not Hudson Street. The internet and the social media, for all the great things they bring, damp down human interaction and certainly limit the chances of random connections. I’m a big fan of all this, don’t get me wrong, but I think the effects on places, cities and communities cut several ways.

What do you think?

5 Responses to “Jane Jacobs and the Wired World”

  1. Andrew Blum Says:

    Blum here. I think the context is important here: this idea comes in the middle of a larger one about the sustainability — and density — of cities. Where we need to get over Jacobs, I think, is as a champion of preservation. My sense is that she’s (posthumously) preserving the wrong thing: the neighborhood, rather than the planet. I think we’re all only beginning to get used to this scale shift, to the global intangible of carbon.

  2. Michael Wells Says:

    Call me a cockeyed optomist, but I think it’s mostly for the good. The predictions that the Internet would allow us all to retreat to Rocky Mountain cabins doing e-trading were wrong, in fact more people moved to inner cities — driving gentrification, good and bad. I think people are going to keep looking for human connection, McLuhen’s high tech/high touch.

    I look at the next generation. • We were at a party talking to a 15 year old and someone asked him what percent of his friends were on Facebook. He said “100″. But this articulate kid was conversing with adults, something I don’t think I would have done in my small town neighborhood. • Our neighbor was looking at her daughter’s cell phone records and there were 4,000 text messages (lucky they don’t pay by the call). This 14 year old is studying sign language and volunteering. • I don’t see technology cutting these kids off from human interaction.

    Our neighborhood has an e-mail “phone tree” which keeps us up to date on events we wouldn’t have otherwise known about. And then we talk to neighbors from several blocks away who we probably otherwise wouldn’t have “known”.

    But Richard’s right and once again Jacobs was ahead of us — there is good and bad gentrification, and the difference is homogenization. If technology and gentrification can bring differing groups together, its good. If it separates us, its bad.

    I was talking to a guy who’s a roofer. He said he gets 30-40% of his business from Angie’s List, 50-60% from referral. He said contractors today have to return calls and give good service, because bad scores on Angie’s List go far beyond word of mouth.

  3. Richard Florida Says:

    Andrew – Good point. Jane would argue that both are important. She did write a book on sustainability if I recall – one that Robert Solow of all people gave a very negative review.

    Michael – I am quite worried about homogenization. My sense is that both geography and technology combine to reinforce this. Oh and isolation too. I think Robert Putnam is onto something important here.

    Everyone else – I strongly recommend you read Andrew Blum’s book and blog. They’re both terrific.

  4. Sean Ammirati Says:

    Richard,

    Long time! Anyway, I’ve been reading your blog and really enjoy it. Just wanted to weight in …

    I am a huge fan of Outside.in — seriously check it out for UWS NYC http://outside.in/10025 (It’s only US right now.)

    To me the web service is a great example of digital “messy urbanism” as you put it. Blogs are peoples creative thoughts in an authentic voice. I’m not sure it is that different than someone authentically talking to a few others at a meetup at the Hungarian Bakery.

    Also, don’t under appreciate the extent that geotagging a post may be the equivalent of asking for directions 30 years ago. I have met literally hundreds of people through my blog and podcast. Many have become biz associates, partners, consultants, friends, etc. And yes we meet up off line in the real world as well :)

    Blogs, Twitter, SN, etc are connecting tools and Outside in is bringing that effect to the local community where it’s even easier to connect in the real world.

    Just my 2 cents …

    - Sean

  5. mary Says:

    Richard,

    I really appreciate Jane’s insights on gentrification provided to you in conversation.

    Sean writes that perhaps the web is a form of “messy urbanism”, I think we need to keep in perspective that not everybody maintains a blog, accesses myspace or can comfortably type for that matter.

    My project revolves around exclusion resulting from the emergence of social media, in gentrifying communities. So, again, very delighted to read what Jane thought about the topic contextualized by a discussion of social media