Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Mon Apr 5th 2010 at 9:11am UTC

Getting Jane Jacobs Right

Many urban types like to portray Jane Jacobs as opposing just about any kind of new development or change in the structure and historic character of neighborhoods. But that’s not accurate according to Roberta Brandes Gratz’s new book, The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Reviewing the book in Metropolis, George Beane notes:

And yet, as Gratz sees it, Jacobs’s message is today widely misinterpreted as favoring an anti-growth and anti-change agenda; if they could, her critics say, preservationists would embalm the city.  But Gratz argues that Jacobs’s ideas were never meant as narrow prescriptions of architectural type, or to impede new development unconditionally.  She suggests that Jacobs’s teachings are less specific design formulas than general guidelines.  They encourage the development of preexisting communities and industries, mixed uses, complexity, mutually reliant businesses, and, above all, a respect for social and historical context.

This jibes with what I took away from my several conversations with Jacobs in the early 2000s. I asked her specifically about her views toward gentrification. She drew a distinction between what she called ”good gentrification” and “bad gentrification.” Bad gentrification was the kind of gentrification occurring, say, in SoHo where a once diverse robust local economy — with manufacturers, artists, craftspeople, shop-owners, and whatnot – was replaced by a homogeneous, mall-like, commercial corridor. Good gentrification was the sort going on in her own neighborhood, Toronto’s Annex, where some new shops, even a few chains, were moving in, but where local hardware stores, book shops, restaurants, pubs, and cafes continued to flourish; and where younger residents were investing in and fixing up old houses next door to hers.

And when I asked her what should one do about “bad gentrification” – I blurted out something like, “Well, how do we stop it” - she corrected my underlying assumption. She pointed to the difference between the heavy hand of government-sponsored urban renewal programs and the complex workings of urban real estate markets. She went on to describe how cities have an amazing capacity to reorganize and reenergize themselves. The dulling down of one neighborhood, as the diversity of social and economic life was sucked out of it, would lead invariably to the rise of new, energized neighborhoods elsewhere in the city. And then in what remains my single favorite comment of hers – and the best single comment I have ever heard on the issue – she simply said: “Well, Richard, you must understand: when a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.”

3 Responses to “Getting Jane Jacobs Right”

  1. Daniel Carins Says:

    Good gentrification = middle class

    Bad gentrification = working class

    You simply have to stop this snobbery, Richard – it really isn’t helpful for those of us on the ground trying to bring in investment into areas blighted with deprivation.

    While largely white, relatively wealthy graduates who sip coffee, read broadsheet newspapers and drink imported bottled beer of an evening may really dig hanging out in cafes and bookshops and local hardware stores, there are plenty of other social groups that do not. Does that mean they are “bad”? – it does according to Jane Jacobs.

    Some people own beat up old white vans. Some people smoke. Some people don’t read books or broadsheets. Some people don’t listen to jazz or world music. Some people don’t know what a caper is. Some people eat fast food. That might not marry with “creative places” or “good gentrification” but they still have a right to do that, and we need to plan for and accommodate those lifestyles regardless of how mundane or “boring” they are.

  2. Michael Wells Says:

    Daniel,

    I’m not sure I understand your beef.

    I don’t know how long it’s been since you read Jacobs, but she had no problem with working class folks next door and in fact celebrated economically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods. I think she even smoked and drove an old car. She WAS guilty of reading books.

    Richard’s comments about SoHo are in line with what you’re saying, the working class and small businesses were driven out and replaced by overpriced condos and generic chain stores catering to the folks you dislike. We’re not talking WalMart but Crate & Barrel.

  3. Global Urbanist Says:

    I found the street frontage tax such as that practiced in Amsterdam during their golden age, is an efffctive way to promote diversity in gentrification. Narrow tall and long buildings resulted from the tax. They make Amsterdam’s core very pleasent for pedestrians as the streetscape is continuously changing.

    New developments like condo’s, even with podiums, lack the subdivision of space at the street level to entice interest or give a chance to smaller practical uses. Just stroll around City Place and try to figure how can a vertical neighbourhood of thousands be so boring (offer few services and products) at street level.

    I find the same in gentrified neigbourhoods where banks blanket the prime corners with drawn blinds on workspaces. Parking lots of grocery stores, funeral homes, and dealerships often disrupt rows of commercial real estate.

    A street frontage tax doesn’t mean large commercial outlets are penalized. It just influences them to use less of the street front, by having a small entrance and the majority of the store upstairs or set back from the street.

    When the streetscape is encouraged to be subdivided then more opportunities are available for diversity in land-use. Pedestrians are then treated to the diversity of everything the city has to offer rather than the most successful businesses trying to monopolize the streetscape.