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."

Thumbnail photo credit: jericl cat/flickr

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Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here

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